Welcome back to the kitchen. Sometimes local food traditions come from very far away. And sometimes they leave as quickly as they came. This week we return to part two of our investigation of local Chinese cuisine of the Wenatchee Valley’s pioneer days. If you recall, last week we took a new look a local foods by discovering what some Chinese laborers in the valley ate in the 1870s.
Resident historian Rod Molzahn pored over ledgers from Sam Miller’s trading post and discovered that at least 40% of the shoppers were Chinese. We know they had to eat, and thanks to Miller’s meticulous note taking, we know some of WHAT they ate.
One Chinese man came to the general store in August of 1872 and bought things like
-canned of oysters, canned lobsters
-sugar (raw, brown sugar)
-“china oil” cooking oil?
-“fresh shrimps”, probably crayfish
-“china cabbage” or bok choy
We also know the Chinese were raising poultry, because some of them traded it at the store. That means we can cook with chicken and eggs. Molzahn, our historian, also said the Chinese had large irrigated gardens with many vegetables, so we’ll at least have onions, carrots, beans, and other fresh veggies to work with. There is no indication that the Chinese had access to garlic here in Wenatchee in the 1800s. It is also unclear if they would have any access to imported soy sauce, a staple of Chinese food.
It is hard to imagine great Asian dishes without these key ingredients, but these laborers may well have made due without many of the foods they had grown up on. As you cook today’s recipe for yourself, you can decide how strict to be on local 19th century ingredients.
In any case I think we have some sense of the ingredients available to us for a Wenatchee Valley local Chinese food dinner. Now it’s time to get creative. My first thought was of noodles, which the Chinese invented. Making pasa from scratch only really requires flour, water, time, and patience. But when it comes to cooking I often find myself sadly lacking the latter two.
So instead I’m thinking of a recipe we could cook over an outdoor cooking fire using only one pot or wok. Of course I can only really guess at how Chinese food was actually cooked in the Wenatchee Valley’s history. But historically accurate or not, I think the adventure is worth the risk.
One of my favorite staples of modern Chinese American cuisine is the ubiquitous chicken and vegetables in brown sauce. The sauce typically calls for broth, oyster sauce, soy sauce, corn starch, and sugar. Variation usually include garlic, ginger, and a little peppery heat.
We’ll substitute flour for the cornstarch, it will work almost as well as a thickening agent. We’ll substitute the canning juices from the oysters we know the Chinese were buying from Olympia for the Oyster sauce proper. We’ll have to just hope the Chinese could get their hands on garlic and soy sauce, or else substitute the inferior flavors of onions and salt.
So for this recreation Chinese Chicken in brown sauce recipe we’ll need:
-about 1 pound of boneless chicken, sliced
-3 cups of chopped bok choy cabbage leaves
-2 carrots, sliced on an angle into thin ovals
-1 large onion, sliced
-cooking oil (sesame oil preferred)
And then for the brown sauce itself let’s use:
- 1 cup beef or chicken broth (boullion cubes are ok in a pinch)
- 1 tbsp soy sauce or ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons oyster liquor (cooking or canning juice) or just I tablespoon good old oyster sauce
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 clove garlic pressed or crushed
- 1 tsp minced ginger
- 1/8 tsp red pepper and or ground black pepper
- 1 tbsp flour or corn starch
Dissolve the flour or cornstarch in the broth and soy sauce, stirring over a medium heat. Add in the brown sugar, garlic, ginger, oyster juice, and pepper. Bring the sauce up to a brief boil, then bring it way down to simmer until it thickens. Adjust the sweetness and saltiness to taste, and adjust the thickness by adding more flour or cornstarch if it is too thin, or a bit of water if it gets too thick.
This simple, versatile Chinese brown sauce goes great over essentially anything you can think to stir fry. We could do the crawdads or fresh fish the Chinese were eating. But today I’m craving chicken.
So to put the dish together let’s cook up a pot of rice and heat up 2 tablespoons of cooking oil in a wok or large nonstick pan over a medium high heat. Start with the onions and carrots, then after a few minutes of sautéing and stirring, add the sliced chicken. Finally, when the meat is cooked all the way through, add in the bok choy and turn off the heat. It takes so little to wilt this tender green that we down want to over cook it. There is plenty of heat lef tin the pan to cook the bok choy perfectly.
Finish by tossing the chicken and veggies with the brown sauce, which is sweet, salty, and coats the dish nicely. By the way, you should feel free to substitute whatever veggies you have on hand in this dish. In truth we are just sort of making it up as best we can anyway. And isn’t that the true pioneer spirit, Chinese or otherwise?
Well, I think that might give you some sense of a possible Chinese recipe that could have been cooked right here in the Wenatchee Valley some 130 years ago. Other dishes might include some version of fried rice using that bacon bought at the store along with some fresh eggs and vegetables.
I also think we could use those prunes bought at the general store to make some approximation of roast fish with Chinese plum sauce. While we will likely never know for sure exactly what these early valley residents cooked for dinner any given night, it is certainly fun to use what nuggets of knowledge we can pull from history to inspire OUR next meal.
I hope you have fun playing around with Chinese recipes in your own kitchen this week, and imagine a day when 40% of the people at the grocery store were from China. I’d love to hear what you have been cooking, write me an email at email@example.com
. Cooking Local in the KOHO Kitchen, I’m Isaac Kaplan-Woolner.