It’s true, to some extent, that no special tools or materials are required for cooking Chinese food. A Chinese cook abroad can always produce a Chinese meal, even if only locally produced ingredients are used – the ‘Chineseness’ of the food depends entirely on how it is prepared and cooked, not what ingredients are used. But the cook’s task will be much easier if he or she has a wok and and a Chinese Cleaver, the two basic implements in the Chinese battérie de cuisine that are considered essential if you wish to achieve the best results.
In a Western kitchen, equivalent equipment is always available: cutting knives, pots, frying pans and so on. But the Chinese cooking utensils are of an ancient design, they are made of basic and inexpensive materials, and they have been in continuous use for several thousand years and do serve a special function.
Their more sophisticated and much more expensive Western counterparts prove rather inadequate in contrast.
As for the rest of the cooking utensils, such as chopping block, stirrer, spatula, strainer, sieves, casserole and steamer, again you will find the Western versions to be less effective. Obviously there is no need for you to rush out and buy every single item I have just mentioned, but try using your existing equipment first; if you are not happy with the result, then you can go for the real thing.
The Chinese cleaver
You will have noticed that in Chinese cooking most ingredients are cut into small pieces before they are cooked or served. The Chinese attach great importance to the various methods of cutting. Every cookery book from China has a long chapter devoted entirely to the art of cooking – one book lists no less that forty-nine different ways of doing it using one simple implement, the Chinese cleaver. A Chinese cleaver may appear to the uninitiated to be hefty and ominously sharp. But in reality it is quite light, steady, and not at all dangerous to use provided you handle it correctly and with care. Once you have learnt to regard it as a kitchen tool mainly used for cutting and not just a chopper, then you will be surprised how easy and simple it is to use compared with an ordinary knife. Chinese cleavers – which are not the same as those used in Western cooking – are available in a variety of materials and weights, view this knife sharpener round-up to see just how sharp they can get. Choose one made of tempered carbon steel with a wood handle. Ideally it should be neither too heavy nor too light, but a mediumweight, dual-purpose cleaver known as the ‘civil and military knife’ (wen-wu dao in Chinese). You use the the lighter, front half of the blade for slicing, shredding, scoring etc; the heavier, rear half of the blade is for chopping and so on. You can also use the back of the blade as a pounder and tenderizer, and the flat side of the blade for crushing and transporting; while the end of the handle can even used as a pestle for grinding spices etc.
Always keep your cleaver razor-sharp and clean. To prevent it rusting and getting stained, wipe it dry with a cloth or kitchen paper after use. Sharpen it frequently on a fine-grained whetstone, honing the cleaver evenly on both sides to keep the blade straight and sharp. After cleaning the blade and wiping it dry, hang the cleaver by the handle to keep the blade from becoming dulled on other metal objects in a drawer.
It is important to remember that cutting before cooking introduces harmony as well as bringing out the true flavour of the ingredients. The food should be cut into units of roughly the same shape, same size and same thickness. Thinly-cut food requires only a short cooking time, and the natural flavours are thus preserved.
The four basic cutting methods are as follows:
- Slicing: the ingredients are cut into thin slices, about the size of a postage stamp, but as thin as cardboard.
- Shredding: the ingredients are first cut into thin slices, stacked like a pack of playing cards, and then cut into thin strips.
- Dicing: the ingredients are first cut into strips as wide as they are thick, then the strips are cut at right angles in the same width so they become small cubes.
- Diagonal cutting: this method is normally used for cutting vegetables such as carrots, celery or courgettes. Roll the vegetables half a turn each time you make a diagonal cut straight down.
Preparation and cooking methods
After cutting, the next step in preparation before actual cooking is mixing – not mixing ingredients, which comes later, but what in Chinese is called ‘coating’: making a paste with white of egg and cornflour then mixing in the ingredients, or mixing salt, egg white and cornflour (in that order) with meat, chicken and fish.
The various methods of cooking can be divided into four main categories: water-cooking, including boiling and stewing, oil-cooking (frying and braising), steam-cooking, and fire-cooking (roasting and barbecuing). In China the fire-cooking method is less popular for family meals, partly because most Chinese kitchens are equipped with simple stoves but no ovens. A Chinese family expects to eat fire-cooked dishes only in restaurants.
Whichever method you choose to use, the degree of heat at which you cook is most important. In China it is divided into ‘military’ (high or fierce) heat and ‘civil’ (low or gentle) heat. You must be able to control the heat with perfect ease, as it is vital that you should be able to turn it down or bring it up at the crucial moments. If the heat is too high for too long the food will be either overcooked or burnt outside and raw inside.
By far the most frequently used home-cooking method in China is quick stir-frying. To do this you heat up a small amount of oil in a pre-heated wok over a high heat, throw in the ingredients and constantly stir and toss them for a short time. Timing here is of the utmost importance: overcooking will turn the food into a soggy mess. When correctly done, the food should be crispy and wholesome. Very little water is added, or none at all, since the high heat will bring out the natural juices from the meat and vegetables, particularly if they are fresh. This method of cooking is very economical, since the total amount of meat and vegetables required for two people is about ½lb (225g) of each, and it will stretch to serve four if combined with another dish. This, in the days of high food prices, is a welcome economy.
The next most popular cooking method, probably, is braising. You first parcook the ingredients by deep-frying, then braise them quickly in their own juice or in a little stock. Then comes stewing, or what we call in China red-cooking; the ingredients are first fried or boiled then stewed slowly in soy sauce which gives colour – hence the name.
The other frequently used methods are deep-frying and steaming. Now it is interesting to note that the whole spectrum of Chinese cooking methods can be executed in one single utensil, namely the wok.
The wok was designed with a rounded bottom to fit snugly over a traditional Chinese brazier or oven which burns wood, charcoal or coke. It conducts and retains heat evenly, and because of the wok’s shape the food always returns to the centre where the heat is most intense. For this reason it is ideally suited for quick stir-frying. When it comes to deep-frying, the conical-shaped wok requires far less oil than a flat-bottomed deep-fryer, and it has more depth (which means more heat) and more frying surface (which means more food can be cooked more quickly at one go). Furthermore, since the wok has a larger capacity at the top than at the base, when the oil level rises as the the raw ingredients are added there is little chance of the oil overflowing and causing the pan to catch fire as often happens with a conventional deep-fryer.
Besides being a frying pan (deep or shallow), a wok is also used for braising, steaming, boiling and even smoking.
Just for the record, I think you should know that ‘wok’ is the Cantonese pronounciation of the Chinese term huo, which is a kind of cauldron used in ancient China. The correct transliteration is guo, which simply means ‘pan’. The iron cooking pots and pans made during the Han dynasty (206BC – AD220) all show a remarkable similarity to cooking utensils of the present day, and until the twentieth century the wok changed very little for well over two thousand years!
Despite the ever-increasing interest in Chinese cookery shown by people all over the world, the average non-Chinese still cannot quite come to terms with the use of the wok except for the occasional stir-frying, and most people just seem not to be able to grasp the few fundamentals that make this utensil stand apart from all other kitchen equipment in the West. I think the explanation for this is quite simple: since the wok was originally designed to be used over a primitive brazier, its rounded bottom is not really suitable for a modern Western cooker, particularly if you cook only be electricity.
Ah, I can hear you cry, but the salesperson at the department store or wherever you bought the wok set reassured you that with the adaptor ring you should have no problem with the wok either on gas or electric cookers. Let’s re-examine the whole situation.
Basically, there are only two different types of wok on the market. First there is the most commonly seen type with two handles at opposite sides. This type is usually sold as a set together with the adaptor ring, lid, ladle, spatula, steamer rack and other accessories. Then, for less than a third of the price of a set, you can buy a wok with single handle like that of a frying pan.
First, let us take a look at the double-handed wok. It is certainly the most popular model around both in China and abroad. It is usually made of lightweight iron or steel, and the diameter ranges from 12in (32cm) to 18in (46cm). Now, unless you have a gas cooker with burners that will cradle the rounded bottom of the wok, you will have to use an adaptor ring or hob stand which will help to steady the wok when it is being used for deep-frying, braising or steaming. Personally I find the ring or stand quite a nuisance when I am using the wok for stir-frying – it never keeps still as I shake the wok about. A disadvantage of the double-handed wok is that you need strong wrists and oven gloves to lift it, as the metal handles get very hot even when they are reinforced with heat-resistant plastic or wood.
Next we will consider the single-handed wok. It may appear to be unsteady and slightly tipped to one side, but in fact it is quite safe and much easier to handle, particularly for quick stir-frying, since it offers you plenty of leverage for tilting and tossing. There is never any real danger of the whole wok tipping over as the sheer weight of the wok and of the ingredients inside help to balance it.
Those of you who have electric cookers with flat hobs should get a wok with a flat bottom. There are models made with either single or double handles, made with iron. As for woks made from stainless steel, aluminium, copper, Teflon, porcelainized enamel, with coloured exteriors and so on, all these are specifically designed and manufactured for the Western market. Not only do they always cost a great deal more than the traditional iron wok, but they are also far less efficient for the task they are supposed to perform.
Don’t despair if you cannot get a good wok. For years my mother never used one. But if you decide to get one, choose and iron wok with a single handle for stir-frying and quick braising, and the double-handled version for deep-frying and steaming etc. The ideal diameter would be 14in (36cm) and the wok should not be too heavy to allow plenty of manoeuvrability. The depth of the wok is quite important: the extra inch or so on its vertical wall will make your stir-frying that much easier and more successful. Woks made of stainless steel or aluminium do not retain heat well, nor do they conduct the heat evenly.
There are also electric woks which all have flat bottoms inside although the exteriors are round; their main shortcomings seem to be their rather shallow sides and the fact that their maximum temperature is not quite high enough for quick stir-frying for a number of dishes. On the plus side, an electric wok frees your cooker for other use, and can even be used at the table in your dining-room. I must confess that I have been using one at home for some years now, but mainly as a second wok for braising and steaming.
To get the best out of a wok you must season and clean it properly. A new iron or steel wok is coated either with machine oil or a film of wax to keep it from rusting. This coating has to be removed and then a new coat of seasoning must be applied to the surface. The seasoning must be maintained throughout the life of the wok to keep it from rusting and to prevent food sticking to the bottom.
The best way to remove the oil or wax coating of a new wok is by burning: heat the wok over a hot stove until almost the entire surface is black, then clean it in warm, soapy water with a stiff brush and rinse well. Place the wok over a moderate heat to dry, then wipe the surface clean with a pad of kitchen paper soaked in cooking oil. The wok is now seasoned and ready for use.
After each use, wash the wok under the hot or cold water tap. Never use detergents as they will remove the seasoning and food will stick to the surface the next time you cook. Should any food be left sticking to the wok, scrape it off with a stiff brush or nylon scourer – don’t use soap. Rinse and dry the wok thoroughly over a low heat. If the wok is not to be used again soon, rub some oil over the surface to prevent it going rusty.
When you have cooked in a new wok some eight to ten times, and if you never clean it with detergents or metal abrasives, then it will acquire a beautiful, glossy finish like a well-seasoned omelette pan. This is the patina much treasured by Chinese cooks as ‘wok flavour’.