The true tastes and flavours of China can be achieved through the appropriate cooking techniques, and proper technique requires proper equipment. While not absolutely essential for cooking Chinese food, there are a few items which will make it very much easier. Most are inexpensive, and all are serviceable over quite a long period of time. Look for authentic implements from a Chinese or Asian market; you can now find good versions of all these implements in specialty gourmet stores and in many department stores that feature good cooking equipment.
The most useful piece of equipment is the wok. It allows you to stir-fry, quickly moving the food without it spilling all over the place. You will find the wok useful for all types of other cooking too, such as blanching bulky vegetables like spinach, or to cook a large quantity of food. Another advantage is that the shape of the wok allows heat to spread evenly over its surface, thus making for the rapid cooking which is fundamental to stir-frying. When used for deep-frying, the wok saves cooking oil because the base is smaller, requiring less oil, but still -providing important depth.
Chinese kitchens are completely different from Western kitchens. For instance, most homes have woks which are set on top of braisers in which wood or charcoal is burned to produce the high heat so important for Chinese cooking. However, this does not mean that those living outside of China are unable to cook Chinese food authentically. During many years of teaching and demonstrations, I have found the most appropriate wok for a Western type stove is the wok which has one long wooden handle, about 30-35.5 cm/12-14 in in length, and a slightly flattened bottom which allows it to rest securely on a Western stove top Although these design changes seem to go against the purpose of the traditional rounded shape, which is to concentrate intense heat at the center, living outside a Chinese kitchen requires adjustment.
Choosing a wok
Choose a medium-sized wok, preferably about 30-35.5 em/12-14 in in diameter, with deep sides and a slightly flattened bottom. Some woks on the market are too shallow or too Rat on the bottom, making them no better than a large frying pan. Select one which has weight to it, and, if possible, choose one made of carbon steel rather than of the lighter stainless steel or aluminum. The latter types tend to scorch and do not withstand the high temperatures required for this type of cooking. I do not like nonstick woks; not only are they more expensive, but they cannot be seasoned like an ordinary wok which then adds Ravor to the food, Electric woks are also unsatisfactory because they do not heat up to a sufficiently high temperature and tend to be too shallow. Remember, it is better to cook a small quantity of food in a medium-sized wok than to try to accommodate a large quantity in a small one.
Seasoning a wok
All woks (except nonstick ones) need to be seasoned. Many need to be scrubbed first as well to remove the machine oil which is applied to the surface by the manufacturer to protect it in transit. This is the only time you will ever scrub your wok – unless you let it rust. Before its first use, scrub your wok with kitchen cleanser and water to remove as much of the machine oil as possible. Dry the wok and place it over a low heat. Add 2 tablespoons of cooking oil and rub this over the inside of the wok using paper towel until the entire surface is lightly coated with oil. Heat the wok slowly for 10 to 15 minutes and then wipe it thoroughly with more clean paper towel. The paper should become blackened from the machine oil. Repeat this process until the kitchen paper wipes clean. Once seasoned, your wok will darken with use. This is a good sign.
Cleaning a wok
Do not scrub a seasoned wok. Just wash it in plain water without detergent. Dry it thoroughly, preferably by putting it over a low heat for a few minutes before putting it away. This should prevent the wok from rusting, but if it does rust, scrub it off with kitchen cleanser and repeat the seasoning process. If you wish to store it for a long while or if you live in a humid climate, rub the inside of the wok with 1 tablespoon of cooking oil for added protection before storing.
This is a metal ring or frame used to keep a traditionally shaped, round-bottomed wok steady on the burner, and is useful only if you are using this kind of wok. It is also necessary when using such a wok for steaming, deep-frying, or braising.
A wok lid is a dome-like cover which is used for steaming. Usually made from aluminum and inexpensive, it normally comes with the wok but it may be purchased separately from a Chinese or Asian market. Any large, domed pot lid which fits snugly over the top of the wok can be used instead.
A long-handled metal spatula shaped rather like a small shovel is ideal for scooping and tossing food in a wok. Any good long-handled spoon may be used instead.
If you use your wok or a large pot as a steamer, you will need a wooden or metal rack or trivet to stand above the water level and support the plate of food to be steamed. Some woks are sold with a round metal stand, but most Asian specialty markets, department sto res. and hardware shops stock triangular wooden stands or round metal stands which can be used for this purpose. You can improvise a stand by using an empty, inverted can of suitable size.
This bundle of stiff, split bamboo is used for cleaning a wok without scrubbing off the seasoned surface. It is an attractive, inexpensive implement but not essential: a soft sponge will do just as well.
No self-respecting Chinese cook would be seen with a knife instead of a cleaver. These heavy choppers serve many purposes; used for all kinds of cutting ranging from fine shredding to chopping up bones. A Chinese cook will usually have three types: a lightweight one with a narrow blade for cutting delicate foods including vegetables ‘ a medium-weight one for general cutting, chopping, and crushing purposes; and a heavy one for heavy-duty chopping. Of course, you can prepare Chinese food using good sharp knives, but if you decide to buy a cleaver you will be surprized at how easy it is to use. Choose a good quality stainless steel one and keep it sharp. A medium-sized, all purpose, stainless steel cleaver, now widely available, is the best kind to have.
The Chinese traditionally use a soft wood block for chopping. Such a block is not only difficult to maintain, however, but also accumulates bacteria, so I prefer a hardwood block or a white acrylic board. These are strong, easy to clean, and last indefinitely. There is so much chopping and slicing to be done when preparing food for Asian-style cooking that it is essential to have a large, steady cutting board. (For health reasons never cut cooked meat on a board which you have also used for chopping raw meat or poultry. Keep a separate board for this purpose. And always properly clean your cutting boards after use. Vinegar or lemon works well but you may prefer to use a stronger solution.)
Bamboo steamers are among the most ancient of Chinese cooking utensils. These attractive, basket-like bamboo steamers come in several sizes; the 25-cm/10-in size is the most suitable for home use. Bamboo steamers are filled with food and placed on top of a pot or over a wok of boiling water. One of the advantages of the design is that several steamers can be stacked on top of one another. Bamboo steamers can be bought at Asian specialty markets and at cookware and department stores. (Alternatively, any kind of wide, metal steamer can be used.) Before using a bamboo steamer for the first time, wash it and steam it empty for about 5 minutes.
Sandy or Clay Pots
These attractive lightweight clay pots are also known as sandy pots or sand pots because their unglazed exteriors have a sandy texture. Indeed, they are made from a mixture of clay and sand, and their interiors are glazed to help conduct heat and to hold in moisture. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, equipped with tight-fitting matching lids which have a small steam vent. Sometimes they are encased in a wire frame. The pots are designed to be used on the stove top (since most people in China do not have ovens) and are used for cooking rice and for braised dishes and soups. The resulting dishes are aromatic and infused with intense flavors and tastes.
Never put an empty sand pot onto the heat, or put a hot sand pot onto a cold surface; in other words, avoid drastic temperature changes, or the pot is likely to crack. However, the pots can be used over high gas beat. If you are using a sand pot on a electric stove, be sure to use an asbestos pad to insulate the clay pot from direct contact with the intense heat of the electric coils. The pot should always have some liquid in it when cooking. Because of the hot steam released as soon as you raise the lid from the pot, always open it away from you.
Although any good enamelware casserole or cast-iron pot can be used as a substitute, clay pots are attractive and inexpensive; and you can serve direct from stove to table.
Chopsticks are not just used for eating but also for stirring, beating, and whipping in Chinese cooking. Special long chopsticks are available for these purposes, but it is not necessary to purchase them. Any long spoons, spatulas, or forks will suffice. Chopsticks can be bought at many department stores, Asian specialty markets, the ethnic food section of supermarkets, and from many Chinese restaurants. I prefer wooden chopsticks, but in China plastic is often used for hygienic purposes.
A substantial, fairly large-sized strainer is helpful for removing deep-fried food from oil in the wok. Many of the recipes in this book call for oil to be drained from the wok, so a good colander or sieve, set inside a stainless steel bowl, is useful. Several stainless steel bowls are indispensable for cooking in general.
© Ken Hom and reproduced with his kind permission.