When I first ate Chinese
food in the UK in the 1970s, it was really quite unappealing.
Everything came in a goopy sauce and seemed to taste the same,
due to the overuse of monosodium glutamate, supposedly a flavor
enhancer but in reality, nothing of the kind. Then in the 1980s
a new breed of Chinese restaurant arrived (at least it took that
long to reach the provinces) which provided lighter, tastier
Chinese cooking demonstrating regional differences. There was
one drawback, however, which was that this new type of
restaurant was much more expensive than the original cheap ‘n
tasteless ones. Consequently, I thought how nice it would be to
cook Chinese food at home but I had no idea where to start until
BBC TV came to my rescue in the shape of Ken Hom, the USA-born
chef of Cantonese parents.
To help you on your way to
cooking Chinese food at home, I’m going to briefly describe the
basic equipment, ingredients and techniques which you need to
know so that you can produce some simple and tasty dishes. I
hope you enjoy the article and that it inspires you to get
Although there are many
implements and pieces of equipment you can buy, to start on the
road to cooking your own Chinese food, you really only need a
good knife or two and a wok. Woks come in all shapes and sizes,
they can be non-stick, flat-bottomed, they can even be electric
these days but I still prefer my old carbon steel wok with it’s
rounded bottom and one wooden handle. This is a Pau wok. These
are readily available in Chinese supermarkets and are much less
expensive than other varieties. There is one important task
though, before you will be ready to cook with such a wok and
that is to season it. You will need to scrub it with a cream
cleaner to remove any residues of machine oil and dry it
carefully. Put the wok on the hob over a low heat. Rub the
inside of the wok with two tablespoons of cooking oil using
kitchen towel. Let the wok heat slowly for 10 to 15 minutes then
wipe the inside with more kitchen towel. The paper will come
away black. Carry on coating, heating and cleaning off until the
kitchen towel comes away clean. Your wok is now ready to use.
After use, wash only in water without detergent and dry
thoroughly over a low heat. You may also apply a little oil if
you wish. This should prevent the wok from rusting but if it
does develop rust, just scrub and season again.
As well as the wok, you
will need a wok stand, particularly if you have an electric hob.
This keeps the wok stable if you are using it for braising or
You will also need
something to stir with – any spatula, slice or slotted spoon
will do – metal for a metal wok and plastic or wooden for a
Before you rush out and
buy up the whole Chinese section at the supermarket, bear in
mind that some ingredients don’t keep well if left unused. Just
select something simple from your chosen cookery book and buy
the things that you need for that then you can expand your
selection as you progress through different dishes.
Some common store-cupboard
ingredients that you will almost certainly need are dark and
light soy sauce, some sort of cooking oil and sesame oil,
cornflour and rice wine or sherry. For more information, see my
article Chinese Cooking - Ingredients and Equipment.
The most well known
Chinese cooking technique is stir-frying. This is where your wok
comes into its own as it’s shape and size (at least 14 inches
diameter with deep sides) is ideal for quick cooking. The secret
to successful stir-frying is to have all your ingredients ready
Meat should be cut
according to the recipe but normally in thin strips. Vegetables
likewise but in any event should be of similar shapes and sizes
to ensure even cooking. Long thin vegetables such as spring
onions, carrots or asparagus are often cut on the diagonal so
that more surface area is exposed for quicker cooking. Measure
out sauce ingredients - check the recipe - if they are all added
to the dish at the same time, you can put them all in one small
bowl. If corn flour is included, don’t forget to give it a good
stir before adding to the other food.
Once you have everything
prepared, heat your wok until it is very hot then add oil and
using your chosen stirring implement ensure that the oil is
evenly distributed over the surface of the wok. Before you add
your ingredients. the wok should be so hot that it is almost
smoking - this will prevent the food from being greasy. The
exception to this is if you are flavoring your oil with garlic,
chili, spring onions, ginger or salt - these will burn if the
oil is too hot.
Now add your other
ingredients in the order stated in the recipe and toss them over
the surface of the wok ensuring that nothing rests in one place
for too long and moving the food from the centre of the wok to
the sides. I suggest that you wear an apron or other protective
clothing for this operation as the food often spits due to the
high temperature it is cooked at.
You can use your wok for
deep frying but be very careful that it is safely balanced on
its stand. Under no circumstances leave it unattended. Deep
frying in a wok uses less oil than a deep fryer or saucepan but
you may find these safer and easier to use.
When deep frying, make
sure that the oil is hot enough before adding ingredients or the
food will end up very greasy. Test it by dropping in a small
piece of prepared food or a cube of bread. If the oil bubbles up
around what you dropped in then it’s hot enough.
Make sure that food to be
deep fried is dried thoroughly on kitchen paper or drained of
its marinade before cooking otherwise it will spit.
This is the same as the
Western technique. Fry food on one side, then the other and
drain off any excess oil before adding sauce ingredients. A
normal frying pan is fine for this.
Steaming is widely used in
Chinese cookery. You can use a bamboo steamer in a wok, a
heat-proof plate placed on a rack in a wok or other large pan or
you can use a normal European steamer.
If using a bamboo steamer
or plate in a wok, bring about 2 inches of water to a simmer.
Put your rack into the wok (if the bamboo steamer is big enough
and will sit on the sides of the wok without being in the water,
you don’t need a rack) and balance your plate or steamer of food
on it. Put the lid on your steamer or wok and check occasionally
to see if the water needs topping up (use water which is already
Whichever method you use,
make sure that the food is above the water level and isn’t
As with Western cooking,
braising is used for tougher cuts of meat and involves gentle
cooking of meat and/or vegetables in flavored stock.
Red-braising is the technique where food is braised in a dark
liquid such as soy sauce which gives the food a red/brown color.
This type of braising sauce can be frozen and re-used.