Chinese Takeout and Home

“Home” means a few things in the title. It means the house I grew up in from first-grade onward. It means the house of my friend from high school, where my friends and I would descend every Friday. It means Chicagoland, which I designate as the area from (at the very least) Chicago proper, down and around Lake Michigan, and seeping into Northwest Indiana. Home, as I think of it now, is where I could get good Chinese takeout.

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Chicken Potstickers

Wrappers:

Flour, 3 C. +(for dusting)
Boiling Water, 1–1.5 C.

1.) Place flour in stand mixer with dough hook attachment. Gradually add hot water, knead in-bowl for 10 minutes until smooth. DO NOT ADD ALL WATER AT ONCE, will result in oversaturation.

2.) Remove from bowl, wrap in floured cling film. Rest 30 min.

3.) Once filling is completed, divide dough into four equal parts, set aside ¾ in cling wrap. Roll the last part into a cylinder, about ½ inch diameter. Cut into ½-inch lengths.

4.) Press the flat ends (where you cut the dough) into light flour to flatten, then roll with pin close to you up into the dough, up to the middle of the dough, then back towards you. Rotate the dough 90 degrees, repeat for all sides. Continue rolling up at various angles until dough resembles a circle, appx. 2 inches in diameter. Repeat as needed.

Filling:

Ground Chicken, 1 lb.
Canola Oil, 1 Tbsp.
Ginger (minced), 2 Tbsp.
Garlic (minced), 2 Tbsp.
Napa Cabbage (separate white and green parts, finely chopped), 1.5 C.
Scallions (chopped), 1/3 C.
Kosher Salt, 1/2 tsp.
Soy Sauce, 2 Tbsp.
Sesame Oil, 1 tsp.

1.) Throw chicken into stand mixer bowl, set aside. Hopefully you removed the dough.

2.) Heat Canola oil in pan over medium heat. Add ginger and garlic, cook for 15–30 seconds, stirring constantly. Add the white cabbage, cook for 1–2 minutes.

3.) Add green cabbage, scallions, and salt. Cook for another minute until greens start to wilt. Turn off heat, let everything cook in pan for 5–8 minutes.

4.) Transfer veg-spice mixture to the bowl with chicken. Add soy sauce and sesame oil, and use paddle attachment to combine. Stand mixers are helpful because they beat in uniform direction; very important when making dumpling mixtures!

5.) To fill, plop some filling in the center of a wrapper. Pinch the edges together between thumbs and forefingers (like a football goalpost closing in on itself).

6.) Set the completed potsticker on a sheet in a freezer. Once firm, transfer to a freezer bag with others and seal. Frozen potstickers will keep in the freezer for (what feels like) forever.

7.) To prepare: place in water, bring to boil. When potstickers float, cook one more minute, remove. OR pan-fry with oil over medium-heat, flat-side down for 4 minutes, followed by flailing around pan for 2 more minutes until you feel okay about it. OR steam for approximately 15 minutes (I’ve steamed them with bao before and been okay!).

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The East Coast, however varied its cuisine was, had other ideas when it came to my favorite takeout. I wish I had the time and opportunity to visit proper Chinese neighborhoods in the cities around Connecticut, let alone in New York City, but time was a commodity I couldn’t find more of. I’m sure there was decent Chinese food somewhere, but I never had the privilege. It probably made leaving the East Coast a lot easier.

What comforted me about takeout back East was that it was almost always had in the company of friends and/or workplace proximity associates. It was good to know that, even if the food wasn’t up to my discerning/critical/probably very annoying standards, I at least got to enjoy it in good company. But I always found something to be critical about, to the (I assume) moderate amusement of my circle.

My usual points of contention: 1.) sauce in the chicken dishes was too thick, cloudy, and off-color. 2.) the fried rice is yellow, and I couldn’t ID any spice they used to get that shade. 3.) the sauce packets, both soy and mustard? Trash. Not even worth being thrown into a drawer at home. 4.) seriously, what the hell is with the rice? It shouldn’t be that color. 5.) did they even fry the rice? 6.) I don’t think the vegetables in the fried rice are cooked all the way through.

My style of fried rice is browner, richer, a little greasy with oil, but never overwhelming, laden with green onions, beansprouts, and eggs, distinctly lacking in peas, and assuredly not yellow. Needless to say, I have feelings about fried rice.

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Mike’s Peapod Fried Rice

Day-old white rice, 1.5 C.
Sesame Oil, 2 Tbsp.+
Eggs (beaten), 3
Green onions (sliced down close to root), 3 or more
White onion, 1/4 whole
Soy Sauce, 3 Tbsp.+
MSG, pinch
Hot Mustard

1.) Make sure your rice is ready. Recommend breaking up the day-old chunks (it does that) into more manageable grains.

2.) Julienne cut the onion quarter. Slice the gr’onions up to the root, dispose the root. Set aside for the cookery.

3.) Pour initial sesame oil into wok, get it going over medium to medium-high heat. While waiting (won’t take long), make sure your eggs are prepped.

4.) Throw in onions and gr’onions, saute for a hot minute before throwing in eggs and cooking close to done. When eggs are close, dump in rice, incorporate with all mixings. Pour initial soy sauce on top, sprinkle MSG atop. Incorporate all.

5.) Gauge the mixture the next few minutes; too much sticking at wok’s bottom, more Sesame Oil. Not quite beautifully brown enough, more Soy Sauce.

6.) If making in conjunction with other foodstuffs, set into a 200 F preheated oven until others completed. If eating on its own, plate or bowl, garnish with hot mustard (dry mustard powder + water to make runny, but not totally liquid) and consume.

7.) Don’t @ me, I can never seem to find beansprouts.

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The whole time I’d settle for what the East Coast could provide, memories would always be brought back to our family go-to spot for Chinese takeout: J’s Peapod. No matter our myriad tastes, from my most adventurous brother to my pickiest palette, we could always agree on J’s Peapod. Everyone got their own combination plate: fried rice, main course, and eggroll. In later years, when money began to mean a lot more to me, my mother would reminisce about how affordable it was next to other “eating out” options. It was the best of all worlds, and was merciful to our budgets.

But none of that holds a candle to the way, the truth, and the light that was, and is, Governor’s Chicken. On the surface, a saucy chicken dish littered with vegetables, like so many others. But yet, it stood all its own: just the right mix of savory, sweet, and spicy, a unique one-of-a-kind sauce.

More than that, it remains a mythical-level dish. I’ve not been able to replicate, nor find a recipe for it since I’ve started cooking. Other recipes for Governor’s Chicken invariably end with something darker, less spicy, less Governor’s than I’m ever hoping for. But it gives me something to look forward to when I find myself in the home region. To fill the void of my home cooking and ordering from literally any other establishment, I’ve settled with General Tso.

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General Tso’s Chicken

Chicken Prep:

Egg (beaten), 1
Chicken Thighs (cubed), 1.5 lbs.
[White] Pepper, pinch
Salt, 1 tsp.
Sugar (granulated), 1 tsp.
Cornstarch, 1/2 C.

1.) Beat egg in mixing bowl. Add chicken cubes. Sprinkle with salt, sugar, and pepper. Mix well. Gradually mix in cornstarch until chicken cubes well-coated.

2.) Preheat air fryer to 400 F. In two batches, cook chicken for 12–16 minutes, shaking halfway to even out cooking.

Sauce Prep:

Vegetable Oil, 2 Tbsp.
Minced Garlic, 1 clove
Green Onion, 3 Tbsp.
Orange Zest, 1 strip
Red Chilies (dried, whole), 6
Ground Ginger, 1/4 C.
Sugar (granulated), 1/2 C.
Rice Vinegar, 1 Tbsp.
Chicken Broth, 3 Tbsp.
Sesame Oil, 2 tsp.
Soy Sauce, 1/4 C.
Cornstarch, 2 tsp.
Peanut Oil*, 2 Tbsp.

*If allergic, sub in another flavorful oil!

1.) Heat 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil in a wok or large skillet over high heat. Stir in green onion, garlic, whole chiles, and orange zest. Cook and stir for 1–2 minutes until garlic has turned golden and chiles brighten.

2.) Add sugar, ginger, chicken broth, vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, and peanut oil*. Bring to a boil and cook for 3 minutes.

3.) Dissolve 2 tsp. cornstarch into the water and stir into the boiling sauce. Return to a boil, cook until sauce thickens and is no longer cloudy from cornstarch, about 1 minute.

4.) Stir cooked chicken into sauce. Reduce heat to low, cook for a few minutes until chicken absorbs some of the sauce. Remove, plate and serve, or plate and transfer to warming oven.

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General Tso’s would always be a staple order during Fridays. For my high school friends and I, “Fridays” was less of a day of the week and more a rallying cry, an event, a celebration. Every month or so, at these weekly gatherings, our host family would get a spread of Chinese from their favorite takeout place (it wasn’t J’s Peapod, but it was alright): General Tso’s, Sweet & Sour Chicken (though we rarely used the sauce), fried rice, steamed rice, eggrolls, lo mein, all the standard fare up for the take. Friday dinners were community dinners; you could sit upstairs with the parents and watch whatever documentary they had on, you could go downstairs for whatever shenanigans the kids were getting up to, but there was never a quiet corner to retreat to. To be at the house during dinner meant enjoying dinner in company, even if it wasn’t around a dining room table.

In college, I have but two distinct memories of Chinese food: firstly, one of the downtown spots that delivered to campus and provided much-needed comfort. Secondly, the horror that is a fraternity rush event at the nearby Chinese buffet, scarring me from all Chinese buffets and most other buffets for the foreseeable remainder of my life. But no need to dwell on the negative. Sometime during my junior year, my fiancé and I went out to properly eat at our downtown spot, instead of just taking out. They taught me a lot during our junior year, especially when it came to cooking and food prep. They paved the way for simpler, survival-based cooking skills, all the way up to experimenting far out of my usual skill and comfort. Hence, bao.

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Bao

Dough Prep:

All-Purpose Flour, 4 C.
Dry Yeast, 3/4 tsp.
Water, 500 mL

1.) Mix flour with yeast in a mixing bowl.

2.) Gradually add water and knead by hand until a solid dough ball forms. If too sticky, add more flour. Too dry, add more water.

3.) Cover, let dough rest and rise for 2 hours.

4.) Once dough has risen, split dough in half, dust countertop with flour and roll out dough into a long rope using “windmill” technique (punching hole through center of dough, stretching it out while rotating in a circle, eventually widening hole and stretching dough.

5.) Cut dough rope into 1/2 inch pieces, roll each piece out (same as potstickers) into approximately 3-inch diameter wrappers.

6.) Repeat with other half of dough.

Pork Filling:

Ground Pork, 1 lb.
Napa/Chinese Cabbage (minced), 1 lb.
Carrot (minced), 2
Green Onion (chopped), 2–3
Egg (beaten), 1
Ginger (minced/ground), 1–2 tsp.
Olive Oil, 1 tsp.
Chicken Bouillon Powder, 1/2 tsp.
Oyster Sauce, 1 tsp.
Cooking Wine, 2–3 tsp.
Salt & Pepper

1.) Cook half of ground port in a pan, mix with raw port in stand mixer bowl.

2.) Mix all pork with all other ingredients in stand mixer, mix on low speed. Set in refrigerator until ready to use.

Assembly:

1.) Spoon 1/2 Tbsp. of filling into center of wrapper. Carefully pinch and fold wrapper closed (start by loosely folding in half like a potsticker, but without closing it; drape right-side dough over past the center, to the left, then repeat, right to left, right to left, making a spiral-esque pattern). Twist the top to finish.

2.) Bring a pot of water to a boil. Place bao in a steaming basket lined with cabbage leaves to prevent sticking (parchment paper greased with oil works in a pinch), and place basket over boiling water. Close lid. Steam for 15 minutes, then turn off heat and (still covered) let bao rest for 5 minutes. Consume.

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In the time since I’ve started properly cooking, I’ve loved to branch out and try new things, often letting inspiration guide my research. It’s led me to creating my best approximation of my ideal takeout fried rice, no matter where I go or where I’m at; to figuring out how to make chicken pieces in the air fryer instead of the deep fryer (cleaning is on my mind, not calories); to combining my preferred leaner meats with others’ tried-and-true methods of potstick prep.

Some of my favorite meals while I was living in Connecticut were Chinese takeout-inspired, comprising the four recipes listed here. It’s where I changed and adjusted and scribbled notes into a recipe book as I was making them, all in an attempt to find a piece of home so far from all I’d known. And though many wouldn’t see it as a point of pride, making Chinese food at home was the only time things got so intense in the kitchen that I started a fire (promptly put out with no lasting damage, save a ruined chicken dish).

But some things can’t be replicated or replaced. I find myself back in my home region after three years away. I was slated to start a new job west of Chicago, but had to leave it very quickly for personal reasons. For the six days I was in that position, three of them had me smashing some Chinese food for dinner. It was transcendent, unequivocally superior to anything the East Coast tried to churn out for me.

Now, I’m back in Indiana, about an hour and a half from where I grew up. After getting settled in my new place, jobless and uncertain of what the future would hold, I hopped in my car and drove out west, towards the home I grew up in. I walked through the streets and campus of my alma mater, took the scenic route to my hometown, and peeled out of my way to go to J’s Peapod the next town over. Walked in, ordered a Governor’s Chicken combination plate to-go, waited patiently, and left for my hometown. I parked at the main park in-town; plenty of days playing at the playgrounds, walking through from the high school on our way to Fridays, playing Little League baseball, the library a short walk away.

I sat down. I ate my food at a picnic table, listening and watching as a couple of kids played with their parental unit on one of the playgrounds. The playgrounds were different, the paths my friends and I took through the park were different, the baseball fields were different, everything was different. But it still felt familiar. It still felt like home. Even in a time where I was so uncertain about what the future would look like for me, it was comforting to be in a familiar place, no matter how it had changed.

And to their credit, J’s Peapod is still amazing. It is one of my greatest comforts in life that even as some things change, some things stay the same.

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Mike Shepard

Mike Shepard

Just an amateur reminding himself of what he loves. Looking to write about all the things and experiences that make the end of the world worth living in.