Chinese takeout is often a go-to dinner when we need something quick, have to satisfy the entire family, and when we simply need to feed a craving. But although restaurant-made Chinese food may appear healthy as many dishes are stir-fries chock full of vegetables, there are often hidden fats, calories, and plenty of sodium. Good thing is, making homemade Chinese food can be simple; once you learn a technique or two and stock your pantry with the staples, whipping up a favorite from the takeout menu will be a no brainer.
A hot bowl of soup is a wonderful way to begin a Chinese meal. The recipes can range from very basic to somewhat complex, but even the simplest are satisfying and impressive. Egg drop soup, for example, has just 3 ingredients: broth, egg, and scallions, and is finished in only a few steps. Wonton soup, on the other hand, does take a bit more time and ingredients; however, once you've made the wontons, all you need to do is simmer them in the broth with some green onion. If you are a fan of spice, try a hot and sour soup, featuring interesting ingredients like black fungus or lily buds.
Appetizers and Dim Sum
No Chinese meal would be complete without a few delicious starters (referred to as a pu-pu platter), including a variety of dim sum. Surprisingly easy to make are Chinese spare ribs with hoisin sauce; once the sauce is mixed, all you need to do is pour over the ribs and bake. For something a bit lighter, serve lettuce wraps, which are quick to make, are a good use of leftover cooked chicken, and are flexible enough to suit various tastes. Spring rolls are always a favorite, filled with pork and vegetables and rolled up and fried until crispy. If you want to try your hand at dumplings, vegetable potstickers are a good choice as they don't require you to cook the meat first.
Chinese restaurant menus always have a wide array of dishes featuring beef, often combined with vegetables and a rich sauce. Found on almost every Chinese restaurant menu is beef with broccoli, where sliced steak is marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, rice wine, oyster sauce, and sugar and then stir-fried along with the cooked broccoli. A mixture of potato starch and water is added to thicken the sauce. Beef and peppers in black bean sauce features a quintessential ingredient in Chinese cooking, fermented black beans, which have a strong flavor and pair nicely with garlic and chilis. A typical item on Chinese menus is stir-fried beef with oyster sauce, where the oyster sauce enhances the flavor of the meat.
Pork is the most popular meat in China. Chinese people can use every inch of a pig to make all kinds of really delicious dishes, including the popular moo shu pork; marinated strips of pork are stir-fried along with vegetables and seasonings and served with thin pancakes and hoisin sauce. If a sweet dish is more your thing, try sweet and sour pork with pineapple, done in a style of cooking popular in Cantonese cuisine. For a special dish, put lion's head meatballs on the menu, a popular dish for Chinese celebrations.
Chinese people believe in using all parts of a chicken, including the feet, but these recipes call for just the white meat of the bird. A favorite but often a guilt-inducing order is General Tso's chicken, but when made at home the chicken doesn't have to be deep-fried; instead, it can be lightly pan-fried before tossing with a flavorful sauce. Moo goo gai pan basically means chicken with mushrooms, and that is exactly what this dish is, stir-fried together in a delicious sauce. For a bit of crunch, try a cashew chicken, where chicken cubes are stir-fried with vegetables, nuts, and finished with a sauce.
Shrimp and lobster, as well as other shellfish and fish, have a prominent place on the Chinese food menu. A well-known Szechuan dish is kung pao shrimp, featuring that tongue-numbing chili pepper, along with cashews and ginger in a light sauce. Honey walnut prawns are slightly creamy with a touch of sweetness, offering a dish that is somewhat different from a typical stir-fry. If you are feeling a bit adventurous, you may want to try Cantonese lobster, where lobster tails are quickly fried and served with a savory sauce of fermented black beans and ground pork.
From kids to adults, Chinese noodle dishes are a given when ordering takeout. But as long as you can find the specific type of Chinese noodle needed for the recipe, it is not difficult to make your own. When it comes to Chinese cuisine, chow mein is easily a go-to dish, and since you can make this stir-fried noodle dish with beef, chicken, or shrimp, it is adaptable to anyone's tastes. Beef lo mein is a simple dish of lo mein (egg) noodles, flank steak, and vegetables, all cooked in a distinctive sauce. For fiery food fans, Szechuan Dan Dan noodles are sure to please; dried Chinese noodles are tossed with a spicy sauce made of Szechuan peppercorns and hot chili oil and often ground meat. Pan-fried noodles should be crispy on the outside, but still tender on the inside.
If noodles aren't a must at your table then rice probably is (or you and your family may prefer both!). Of course, you can always serve a bowl of steamed white or brown rice, but fried rice is more fun. You can start with a basic fried rice and then add vegetables, chicken, or shrimp. Or try a chicken fried rice with onions and peas, a simple recipe that is colorful and flavorful. Char sui pork fried rice includes bits of barbecued pork along with peas and onions for what can be a main dish.
Whether you prefer as a side dish or want to serve as a vegetarian option, Chinese vegetable dishes are complex in flavor, way more so than a basic side of steamed vegetables. Highlighting the flavors of Szechuan cuisine, Chinese green beans include bean sauce and chili paste, while garlic broccoli turns this familiar vegetable into a delicious stir-fry. Another popular Szechuan dish is Szechuan eggplant; Chinese eggplant is cooked along with flavorful ground pork to create a hearty side dish.
Many Chinese recipes can easily be made vegetarian by eliminating the meat as so many dishes consist mostly of vegetables. But if you are looking for a strictly vegetarian recipe, there are a few to choose from. Buddha's delight is a vegetable stir-fry including shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and water chestnuts in a sauce of Chinese rice wine, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Cashews bring a nice crunch to a vegetable fried rice with corn and peppers (but you can add any vegetable you like), while tofu "beefs up" a stir-fry of mushroom and bamboo shoots.
Sauces and Seasonings
Appetizers and dim sum are almost always accompanied by a dipping sauce, and a stir-fry isn't complete without a sauce to finish the dish. You can easily make your own Chinese seasonings and sauces to serve alongside or use in recipes. A dumpling dipping sauce made of garlic, soy sauce, and hot chili oil is perfect to serve with potstickers or steamed dumplings. And for a quick meal, making a brown sauce (an American-Chinese sauce) or a garlic sauce ahead of time will make putting a stir-fry together a breeze. For those in the family that like spice, prepare Szechuan peppercorn oil to use as a dipping or sauce, requiring only 2 ingredients, peppercorns and oil; you cook the peppercorns first in oil and then crush them and cook again.