Weeknight Cooking

Cheaper than Takeout: Make Chinese Food at Home

August 14, 2013

Cooking on the cheap shouldn't mean minute rice and buttered pasta every night. With a little creativity and a little planning, you can make the most of a tight budget -- without sacrificing flavor or variety. 

Today: Gabriella tells you how to make your regular takeout order at home. 

American Chinese food is incredibly good at inspiring nostalgia. 

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Every time I see a white takeout box and a menu with poorly photographed photos of food, I start to reminisce. I think of how date night with my high school boyfriend usually involved going to our local mid-level restaurant for General Tso's chicken. I get a little misty-eyed about the place in Boston (with metal bars protecting the ordering window) that'd serve my college friends and me steaming hot scallion pancakes at 3 AM.

But it's easy to forget how the food can make you feel -- an MSG hangover is no joke. So avoid it -- and save some money -- by making your favorite takeout dishes at home. Chinese grocery stores are also one of the best places to shop on a budget: you can stock up on all sorts of sauces, pickled things, and fun snacks with minimal damage to your wallet. Just make sure you pick up chopsticks and fortune cookies to complete the meal. 


Asking me to pick my favorite food is like asking me to pick my favorite person. That said, dumplings are definitely in my inner circle. And they're easy to make when you start with pre-made dumpling wrappers. Make a savory filling from fridge vegetable scraps, or throw in some ground pork or chicken if that's your thing. Steam them if you want to, fry them if you're like me. Serve them with Deb's Simplest Dumpling Dipping Sauce: 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1 tablespoon rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon dark sesame oil, and a small clove of garlic. If you have some sticky rice around and want a more substantial meal, try your hand at Shu Mai.

Fried Rice

Fried rice is how you clean out a fridge correctly: Cook up some finely chopped leftover vegetables. Add leftover rice and some diluted soy sauce, let cook together for a few minutes, and then push it all to the side. Crack an egg in the pan, and once it begins to set, mix it into your rice. Top with sliced green onions and extra soy sauce, and eat it when it's just out of the pan. If you're feeling fancy or need to whip up an impressive last-minute meal, try Jean-Georges' Ginger Fried Rice

Lo Mein

Thirschfeld makes stir-fried noodles seem easy -- because they are. Follow his lead and you'll have a steaming plate of noodles with endless variations of vegetables and protein in no time. 

Green Things

Bok Choy, or Chinese Cabbage, is an affordable alternative to other leafy greens like kale or chard. Cook it up with a ton of ginger and garlic and use it to top rice for a light and flavorful dinner. Meanwhile, green beans can get treated two ways: heavy on the garlic or dry-fried and spicy. And scallion pancakes count as a green, right? 

Scallion Pancakes from Food52

Tell us: what are your favorite American Chinese dishes to make at home? 

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • 5lita5
  • JazzDragon
  • Diana
  • Marian Bull
    Marian Bull
  • Deby
Yes, my name rhymes.


5lita5 February 23, 2014
My favorite easy copycat recipe/food is lo mein. It works on the same principle as fried rice in that you can toss everything that's leftover in the fridge(or freezer) and wind up with a fairly decent (and impressive to others) meal. I like adding leftover small amounts of whatever frozen veggies I have in the freezer that aren't enough for a side dish amount, leftover meats (pork, chicken, beef) sliced up and tossed into the skillet and of course there's usually Ramen in my cabinet, so it's really fast. Seasonings include Chinese Five Spice, garlic, onions, soy sauce, sesame oil (I like to stir fry in this) and siracha depending on whether I think it should have heat... Thanks for the great recipes!!
JazzDragon August 20, 2013
I love chicken cream corn soup (i'm weird), hot n sour soup, dumplings, almond or lemon chicken and anything smothered in black bean sauce.
As for dumplings, they are best when you get a buddy to help and get a team approach - one makes while one cooks. The dip above looks so good I'm going to try, since it's an emballishment of the one I usually use - a shallow saucer with soy sauce and a few drops of sesame oil dancing on top. Wham. Bam. In my mouth. Nom.
Diana August 15, 2013
Thanks for the shout out about my book, aobenour!

And Michael, I have to point out the kung pao chicken is actually a very traditional Sichuan dish. Too many restaurants in the US make bad versions of it, but versions with smoky chili, Sichuan pepper, and Chinese black vinegar and pretty dynamite. ;) Which would appeal to the "it's gotta be authentic or bust" crowd too.
aobenour August 15, 2013
Diana I love your book. My homemade stuff is now better than most of the local places. My East Asian boyfriend (Filipino) loves it too.
Marian B. August 15, 2013
I hereby resolve to make scallion pancakes at home. Also -- I think there was a month last fall when I made that fried rice at least ten times. The crunchy bits are so good!!
Deby August 14, 2013
Mine is fried rice! utilizing anything and everything I have in the fridge. Ha! Nothing beats the feeling of successfully pulling off a decent meal with whatever you have when you're broke..
oh, I also love making spicy greenbeans with mince beef. Cheap, simple and can be stored for a few days ahead!
Ann B. August 14, 2013
bittermelon and tofu with black bean sauce. a family fav
fsamis August 15, 2013
ahhhhh. my favorite as well!
aobenour August 14, 2013
My favorite thing to make at home at the moment is Kung Pao Chicken - please don't judge me Michael :) I also do wonton soup at home all the time, and sometimes dandan noodles. I highly recommend Diana Kuan's Chinese Take-Out Cookbook for making this sort of thing at home.
Michael D. August 14, 2013
Ha, no judging here. I just don't cook it myself is all. As for books, Ken Hom's http://www.amazon.com/Ken-Homs-Chinese-Cookery-Hom/dp/0060960590 is one of the most accessible "authentic" Chinese cookbooks around.
Michael D. August 14, 2013
My favorites are the authentic versions of many of these dishes, if they exist. My father and his family is Chinese so while I enjoy my local takeout just fine, I've been spoiled (and taught) by home cooking. Why have kung pao chicken when I can have la zi ji? Or lo mein when I can make something like this: http://everydaynoodle.blogspot.com/2013/04/daily-noodles-authentic-chinese-sesame.html?

*Sigh* I guess I'm just one of those "it's gotta be authentic or bust" food snobs. Which means I fit right in with this site!
Sam J. August 14, 2013
We do egg rolls with store bought wrappers, a bag of cole slaw mix and ground pork. It's easy enough to fry them in a half an inch or so of oil in a cast iron skillet and we always make enough to freeze!