If you’re around my age, you’ll remember Chef Martin Yan from the hit series, Yan Can Cook. One thing I’ll never forget is the way he chopped. It was this sequence in my mind that continually inspired me to improve my knife skills. Chef Yan has since been around the block and is now the Brand Ambassador of Malaysian Palm Oil Council. He spoke with Sid Khullar and shared his thoughts as well as one exciting salad recipe!
Sid Khullar: Apart from some cliched dishes, some of which aren’t Chinese at all, the world at large doesn’t really understand Chinese food much. Can you shed some light on the different, distinct regions of China and their cuisine?
Chef Martin Yan: The best way to grasp the diversity of Chinese cuisine is to divide the country into four major
culinary regions, each having its own cultural identify. Its four regional cuisines are shaped by China’s geography, climate and resources. Cantonese (southern style): known for fresh, delicately prepared foods and attention to presentation of the finished dish. Sichuan – Hunan style: popular for its spicy specialties and intriguing combinations of hot, sour, sweet and salty tastes – hot chilis and Sichuan peppercorns are commonly used. Mandarin (northern or Beijing-style): refined style of regional cooking, lavish banquets, influenced by the Imperial Court. Characterized by the famous technique of preparing Peking duck and tangy sweet and sour sauces. Shanghai (eastern region): With its proximity to the Yangtze River, it boasts numerous seafood specialties along with red-cooked dishes, and wine-marinated dishes, such as the popular “Drunken Chicken”.
SK: It becomes so much easier to cook a different culture’s food if one takes the time and make the effort to understand the culture to begin with. Would you bring some clarity on the basics of Chinese cuisine and its philosophy?
MY: Just like every cuisine, Chinese cuisine pays a lot of attention to fresh, seasonal ingredients. Chinese chefs use simple cooking techniques to retain the ingredients’ original characteristics and benefits. Nothing should be over-cooked or under-cooked. Chinese cuisine focuses on simplicity and eating with the seasons.
SK: How did your journey into food and cooking begin? Were you encouraged or discouraged? How were the early years?
MY: When I was growing up, my father had a small restaurant in Guangzhou, China, so I was exposed to food and the taste and the smell of good food at a young age. I left home when I was very young. Although it was pretty harsh, I never expected much and the discomfort never got the better of me. I went through all of the challenges both in school and in the restaurant. I never felt discouraged because when you’re young, you don’t feel it emotionally.
SK: When and how did Chef Yan turn into Celebrity Chef Yan?
MY: First of all, I have never felt like a celebrity. I just love what I do, and I’m passionate about what I do. When working at a restaurant or filming a show, I don’t consider it work. This has been my profession for the past 35 years, on and off television. I just simply love to cook and to share my knowledge of cooking. I have never considered myself a celebrity – just a culinary professional.
SK: The home kitchen, no longer a woman’s preserve, now sees men in it at all times of the day and night. What have your observations been on the general differences between men and women in the kitchen?
MY: Throughout human history, the kitchen has been the woman’s domain in most cultures. Typically, cooking for the woman has been their duty or job at home. In modern days, when the man cooks, it is more of a hobby, something they enjoy doing on weekends for friends or family. For them, cooking often has a relaxing or therapeutic effect. Today, more and more, cooking has become something that men and women enjoy doing.
SK: Is there any culture or technique you have always wanted to be exposed to but have never been, to this day? What fascinated you about this culture or technique?
MY: I have always been curious about the culture and food of Africa. During my many travels, I have been briefly exposed to African cuisine. Although I have never been, I know that Africa is a vast land with not much vegetation. It has been a dream of mine to visit Africa and learn more about its people, cuisine and culture.
SK: Food is today available in a variety of formats and retailed in different ways. Given this easy and
customised availability, do you think cooking is a vital skill that people today should develop?
MY: I believe everyone should have some basic skills and techniques of a cuisine. It doesn’t matter which cuisine it is. Nowadays, there are a lot of ingredients and ready-to-use prepared products in the markets. However, basic skills are still essential to prepare a good meal and become a good home cook. Different ingredients and products will only make cooking more fun, but honing your skills will make your food taste better.
SK: Do you still cook for your family? What do those meals look like?
MY: I love to cook and share with everyone. When I am at home, it is no different. I always enjoy cooking for my family. I am not home very often due to my extensive travel schedule, so I try to cook for them whenever I have an opportunity. After work, I try to stop by the local supermarket and buy the freshest seasonal ingredients to cook. I prepare simple and healthy dishes, and use any leftovers from the refrigerator so that nothing is wasted.
SK: Apart from Chinese, which is your favourite cuisine and why ? Is there any cuisine you haven’t tried yet and want to?
MY: Aside from Chinese cuisine, I enjoy Italian because it is simple and healthy. It is also fun and often served family style, just like Chinese food. It’s about the joy of sharing. I am also a huge fan of Malaysian and Indian cuisines. They use a variety of spices, and all these spices literally create a flavor explosion in your palate. Both Malaysia and India have amazing cuisines because of their complexity of spices and flavours.
SK: Could you please share a few words that’ll help our readers understand and adapt to Chinese cooking better?
MY: I believe Chinese cuisine is one of the most healthy and exciting cuisines on the planet. It incorporates the ingredients, flavors and traditions from various regions, giving Chinese cuisine the variety that few other cuisines can match. Chinese cooking is also simple and uses everyday ingredients and can easily adapt to a vegetable-based diet. I encourage people to learn more about Chinese cuisine.
Garden Salad with Walnut Dressing
Makes 2 main-dish servings; 4 side-dish servings
- 1/2 cup toasted walnut halves, divided
- 1/2 cup Malaysian Palm Oil
- 1/4 cup rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon Chinese prepared mustard
- 1 teaspoon honey
- 1/2 cup matchstick pieces pressed tofu
- 1/2 English cucumber, cut into matchstick pieces
- 1/4 cup mung bean sprouts
- 1/2 cup matchstick pieces jicama
- 1/2 yellow bell pepper, cut into thin strips
- 1 small carrot, cut in matchstick pieces
- 3 cups mixed salad greens [/tab]
- Place 1/4 cup of the toasted walnuts in a food processor with the remaining dressing ingredients. Reserve remaining 1/4 cup walnuts for salad. Process until well blended.
- Place tofu, cucumber, bean sprouts, jicama, bell pepper, carrot and salad greens in a large bowl, add half the salad dressing, toss to mix well. Transfer to a serving platter. Arrange reserved walnuts on top. Drizzle remaining dressing on the salad or serve on the side.
Copyright by Yan Can Cook, Inc. 2015[/tab] [/tabcontent] [/tabs]