A combination of simple utensils and techniques preferred over the centuries. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of a Chinese kitchen is its utter simplicity. It’s hard to believe that such creative and often sophisticated food is prepared with so few utensils. Even today, most cooks manage with a coal fired stove, basically a bench top with several holes of differing sizes where woks, clay pots and saucepans are placed.
A wok is the most essential item in a Chinese kitchen.
The most essential ingredient is a wok, a parabolic pan traditionally made of cast iron and used for just about everything except cooking rice: stir frying, deep frying, braising, making sauces, holding a steaming basket and so on.
The shape of the wok distributes the heat evenly, while its sloping sides ensure that during stir frying, food falls back into the pan and not out over the edge. It’s also practical for deep frying, requiring less oil than a conventional sauce pan or frying pan.
A wok should be “seasoned” before its first use so that food will not stick to it. Wash the inside of the wok with warm soapy water but do not use a scouring pad. Rinse with fresh water and dry thoroughly. Put some oil on a piece of paper towel and wipe the inside of the wok. Repeat two or three times until the paper towel stays clean after wiping.
Store the wok until ready to use it. Chinese cooks always heat the wok before adding oil to be sure that it is dry and the oil will not slapper. After cooking, never clean your wok with detergent or harsh abrasives; just rinse it with warm water and wipe dry.
Clay pots of various shapes and sizes, with a sandy outside and a glazed interior, are used for slow cooking and for making soups and stocks. These are attractive and inexpensive, but any type of saucepan could be used instead.
Chinese clay pots, used for slow cooking, are attractive and inexpensive
Rice is usually cooked in an aluminium or stainless steel saucepan, although more and more affluent homes in the cities boast an electric rice cooker.
Just as indispensable as the wok is a cleaver, which comes with either a heavy rectangular blade about 8-10 cm deep, ideal for cutting through bones, or a lighter weight blade for chopping, slicing, bruising garlic cloves or scooping up food on the flat edge to carry it to the pan? One single Chinese cleaver does the wok of a whole battery of knives in a Western kitchen.
Partner to the cleaver is a strong chopping board, in China, a thick cross-section of a tree trunk. Meat is always minced on a board, using a couple of cleavers; a food processor achieves a similar result with much less effort and skill required.
Steaming is a healthy method of cooking favoured by the Chinese, who traditionally use a multi-tiered bamboo steamer with a plaited cover which absorbs any moisture, unlike a metal cover where moisture condenses and falls down on the food.
The steaming basket is placed inside a wok, sitting a few centimetres above the boiling water. Chinese stores also sell perforated metal disks that sit inside a wok above the water level; these are useful for steaming a single plate of food. For steaming in this fashion, you will need to buy a large, dome-shaped lid that will cover your wok.
Other useful utensils include a wire mesh basket on a long handle, good for scooping out deep-fried food or boiled noodles. A round-edged frying spatula is perfect for tossing stir-fried ingredients in the wok.
Chinese cooks also like a pair of long wooden chopsticks for turning over food during deep frying, though this does require certain dexterity and you may be happier with tongs.
A bamboo steamer and long-handled scoops are some of the basic utensils found in any Chinese kitchen; the oil pot for drizzling oil into the wok is an attractive option.
Cooking methods include steaming, stir frying, braising, deep frying and slow cooking. Roasted food is always bought from a specialty shop as home kitchens lack an oven.
The roasting of chicken, duck and pork is done in wood-fired ovens in specialty shops and restaurants, as home kitchens lack an oven.
Stir frying is by far the most commonly used method. Oil is heated in the wok and evenly sliced ingredients tossed about constantly; contact with the heat from the sides as well as the bottom of the wok means that food cooks very rapidly, sealing in the juices and flavour.
Timing is absolutely crucial to the success of Chinese dishes. Most food is cooked very briefly (a result of centuries of having to conserve precious fuel), so it is essential to chop all ingredients, measure all the seasonings, and have the garnishes and serving dishes at hand before starting to cook.
Control of heat is also important, and for this reason, a gas flame is far superior to any other form of heat. The degree of heat required for some dishes, especially for stir frying, is far greater than that normally used in a Western kitchen.
One single wok can be used to cook the entire meal, except for the rice. The first dish is cooked, the wok quickly rinsed with water, dried and the next lot of ingredients put in. Naturally, the Chinese cook doesn’t have to break off in the middle of cooling to check the recipe.
Make sure you prepare and place ingredients near your cooker in order of use so you can work as quickly as possible, and have your serving plates ready. And remember, as any Chinese cook would agree, practice makes perfect!