Believe it or not, I don’t have a big kitchen at home. Living in a small town-home, I have limited counter, working, and storage spaces in my kitchen (no kitchen island for sure!). So when it comes to basic tools and utensils for Chinese cooking, I use only the essentials—electronic rice cooker, wok, spatula, Chinese cleaver, bamboo steamers, etc. Living in a typical American home, with a smoke detector planted right above my kitchen, I also have a stir-fry pan that I use alongside my two woks because the intense heat from the wok sets of the smoke alarm every two days! Nonetheless, there is one thing I can’t complain about in my kitchen: I have a gas range, which is superb for Chinese stir-frying and cooking.
Here is the list of basic tools and utensils for making delicious Chinese food at home.
I love making dim sum and dumplings at home so I have stocked up on traditional Chinese bamboo steamers of various sizes: large, medium, and small. My favorite would be the 6-inch bamboo steamers that nestle comfortably in my wok, plus the smaller steamer that always reminds me of my enjoyable dim sum experiences at a Chinese restaurant. The size of the bamboo steamer is a personal preference, but do make sure that you get the ones that would fit perfectly in your wok or stir-fry pan (your cooking pan should be approximately 2–3 inches wider than the bamboo steamers). If you buy smaller bamboo steamers, buy at least two baskets so you can stack them up and steam more food. If you get a bigger size, say a 12-inch bamboo steamer, one basket should be sufficient. Please take note that the bamboo steamer should sit at least 1–2 inches above the boiling water inside the wok and the domed lid should be closed tightly to allow the food to steam efficiently. For cleaning, simply scrub and rinse the bamboo steamers with water.
Chinese Strainer or Slotted Spoon
A traditional Chinese strainer with a bamboo handle and wire/steel mesh always reminds me of street vendors who use it to quickly drain and shake off the excess water from boiled noodles. In my kitchen, I use the strainer for a couple of purposes: scooping and draining food after deep-frying and removing blanched foods from boiling water. Chinese-style strainers—both traditional and modern—can be found at Asian supermarkets or kitchen supply stores. If you can’t find them, western-style slotted spoon with extra generous scoop size will also work.
Clay pot Also called a “sand pot,” most clay pots have a sandy and coarse exterior, with a glazed and smooth dark brown interior for cooking. The clay pot is a great utensil for stewing and braising because of its ability to retain heat. It commonly comes in three different sizes: big, medium, and small. A medium sized clay pot is big enough for most Chinese clay pot cooking recipes. Foods cooked in a clay pot are usually served as is, meaning, you can just eat directly from the pot. After use, the clay pot can be washed with just warm water (using soap is not recommended).
When my late parents came to visit us in 2000, the first thing that my mother bought me was a Chinese cleaver. She didn’t like my “western-style” knives. The Chinese cleaver is just as versatile as a wok, it’s used for an array of kitchen tasks: slicing, cutting, dicing, shredding, chopping, peeling, pounding, and mincing. My mother had such great cleaver skills that she even used it as a can opener! The Chinese cleaver might appear intimidating because of the large blade but it’s such a nifty tool once you get over the initial apprehension because of its size and appearance. I use a Chinese cleaver on a daily basis—the very same one that my mother bought me, which now holds great sentimental value.
A cleaver would have no place in the kitchen without a proper cutting board. A cutting board is one of the most vital tools in the kitchen. Without a cutting board, prepping would be almost impossible. While I grew up watching my late mother working on her old wooden cutting board made from a tree stump, my preferred cutting boards are those made of bamboo. I have one that I have been using for many years—it’s hygienic, easy to clean, sturdy, heavy, and doesn’t slip off a wet counter top like those white plastic cutting boards. Also, it doesn’t get scratched easily so the likelihood of un-cooked food sticking on the surface almost never happens.
The rice cooker is an indispensable tool for Chinese cooking. Of course, you can make perfect boiled rice with your gas or electric range, but a rice cooker is so efficient and a great time- saver. A rice cooker is compact and fits just about anywhere on your kitchen counter-top, as long as it’s close to the electric outlet. The biggest virtue is that a rice cooker makes perfect, fluffy, and soft rice every single time and the “Keep Warm” function guarantees moist and heated rice anytime of the day! My favorite brand of rice cooker is Zojirushi. They are not cheap, but it’s worth investing in a high-quality rice cooker because, trust me, you will only ever need one! Zojirushi rice cookers come with a thicker nonstick inner cooking pan that is durable, easy to clean, and does not get easily scratched. The menu is also quite simple to use and very intuitive.
Wok, Stir-fry pan, or Skillet
The Chinese wok is a distinguished utensil in the kitchen because of its versatility. It’s used for stir-frying, deep-frying, steaming, boiling, blanching, braising, stewing, and smoking—it’s an all-purpose tool for a wide spectrum of Chinese cooking styles. A Chinese wok is also a kitchen tool that you want to use and keep for a long time as the glorious patina builds over time, which essentially “coats” the wok with a nonstick layer. There are two kinds of woks: cast iron and carbon steel. In my kitchen, I use both a pre-seasoned 14-inch lightweight cast iron wok by Wok Star as well as a carbon steel wok. I also have a high quality stir-fry pan, which I use for braising and stewing and other dishes that don’t require intense heat. It’s undeniable that the best and most refined Chinese dishes are cooked with a wok, but you can use a stir-fry pan for all the recipes in this cookbook. The biggest difference between a wok and a stir-fry pan is the nonstick coating on the stir-fry pan, which is user-friendly, especially for beginners to wok cooking. The nonstick surface also means that there is no need for the seasoning. The main downside for using a stir-fry pan versus a traditional wok is that a regular nonstick stir-fry pan is not recommended for intense high heat and hence it’s very hard to produce wok hei or “the breath of wok,” which is highly prized in Chinese cooking. To learn more about wok cooking, I recommend Grace Young’s books: The Breath of Wok and Stir-frying to the Sky’s Edge.
Most American homes are well equipped with skillets, which is a good substitute for a wok or stir-fry pan. However, do take note that skillets have a flat surface and are pretty shallow, so food tends to spill out because of that. The flat surface also makes tossing and stirring more cumbersome than a wok or stir-fry pan. Ultimately though, I highly recommend using a wok for Chinese cooking, but choose the utensil that you feel most comfortable using. You can always start with a nonstick stir- fry pan or skillet and then upgrade to a Chinese wok once you are comfortable with stir-frying and cooking Chinese food.
Wok Cover or Stir-fry pan Lid
I love my wok cover as much as my wok. Wok covers work hand- in-hand with the wok and the lightweight aluminum body is so easy to handle. It’s particularly helpful to fend off the splattering oil, especially when you add wet ingredients into the wok—such as rinsed vegetables or tofu still dotted with water. For stewing and braising, wok covers work wonders in keeping the ingredients moist and tender during the cooking process. Most stir-fry pans come with a glass lid, which serves the same function, but these are heavier. If you buy the wok cover and stir-fry pan lid separately, remember to measure the diameter of your wok or stir-fry pan so the cover fits correctly.
I feel obliged to add the wok mitt to this chapter because it’s such a handy and practical tool when it comes to wok cooking. A mitt is especially useful if you don’t have a wok ring because you can secure and stabilize the wok by holding onto one of the handles. I have had too many incidents where I’ve burned my hand while cooking. Now that I use a mitt at least my left hand is protected from splattering.
If you have a regular residential gas or electric range in your kitchen, your round-bottom wok or stir-fry pan will probably wobble every time you use it. To stabilize the wok or stir-fry pan, you can get a wok ring that sits on the gas or electric range that cradles your wok or stir-fry pan snuggly.
There are a few types of spatula: steel, wood, plastic, rubber or silicone. Personally, I am a big fan of the Chinese steel spatula, which is perfect for a wok. The thin and slightly curved steel surface is great for stirring, tossing, and flipping during cooking. It also works marvelously for shoveling and scooping out the food when it’s cooked. If you have a nonstick stir-fry pan, I recommend using a wood or plastic spatula to avoid scratching the nonstick surface. A wood or plastic spatula is thicker, so it’s a little clumsier to use, especially when you are trying to get beneath the food. My hubby refuses to use a wood or plastic spatula because he can’t flip his breakfast omelet with it! I don’t recommend rubber or silicon spatula because it’s just about impossible to use it in the wok or stir-fry pan. They are too pliable for the continuous stirring and tossing motions of Chinese stir-frying.
The Different Uses of a Chinese Wok
If there is only one Chinese utensil that you wanted to invest in your kitchen, it’s probably a Chinese wok. Wok is a magical utensil because of its many uses and versatility. In my kitchen, I use it for almost everything: stir-frying, deep-frying, steaming, boiling, blanching, and braising. Here are my quick tips of using wok other than basic stir-frying and deep-frying.
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