It was pretty unappealing when I first ate Chinese food in the UK in the 1970s. Everything came in a gloopy 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. However, one drawback 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.
Ken presented Chinese cuisine in an easily understandable way, demonstrating techniques and suggesting alternative ingredients should the originals not be available in your local supermarket. The book accompanying the series, Ken Hom's Chinese Cookery, became my bible, and I still have my copy, pages stained with oil drips and smears of sauce.
To help you on your way to cooking Chinese food at home, I'm going to briefly describe the essential equipment, ingredients, and techniques that 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 cooking!
Although there are many implements and pieces of equipment you can buy, to start on the road to cooking your Chinese food, you only need a good knife or two and a wok. Woks come in all shapes and sizes; they can be non-stick, flat-bottomed, and even electric these days, but I still prefer my old carbon steel wok with its rounded bottom and wooden handle. This is a Pau wok. These are readily available in Chinese supermarkets and are much less expensive than other varieties. There is a critical task 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 low heat. Rub the inside of the wok with two tablespoons of cooking oil using a kitchen towel. Let the wok heat slowly for 10 to 15 minutes, then wipe the inside with more kitchen towels. The paper will come away black. Carry on coating, heating, and cleaning until the kitchen towel comes clean. Your work is now ready to use. After use, wash only in water without detergent and dry thoroughly over 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, scrub and season again.
As well as the work, you will need a wok stand, particularly if you have an electric hob. This keeps the wok stable if you use it for braising or deep frying.
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 non-stick wok.
Before you rush out and buy up the whole Chinese section at the supermarket, remember that some ingredients don't keep well if left unused. Just select something simple from your chosen cookery book and buy the things you need. Then, you can expand your selection as you progress through different dishes.
Some common store-cupboard ingredients you will need are dark and light soy sauce, some 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 its shape and size (at least 14 inches in diameter with deep sides) are ideal for quick cooking. The secret to successful stir-frying is having all your ingredients ready.
Meat should be cut according to the recipe but commonly in thin strips. Vegetables likewise, but in any event, should be of similar shapes and sizes to ensure even cooking. Light 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 simultaneously, you can put them all in a tiny bowl. If cornflour is included, don't forget to give it a good stir before adding it to the other food.
Once you have everything prepared, heat your wok until it is very hot, add oil, and using your chosen stirring implement, ensure that the oil is evenly distributed over the wok's surface. Before you add your ingredients, the work should be so hot that it is almost smoking - this will prevent the food from being greasy. The exception 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 wok's surface, ensuring that nothing rests in one place for too long and moving the food from the center of the wok to the sides. I suggest 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 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, ensure the oil is hot enough before adding ingredients, or the food will become 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, 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 any excess oil before adding sauce ingredients. A standard frying pan is fine for this.
Steaming is widely used in Chinese cooking. 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 a regular 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 occasionally check to see if the water needs topping up (use water that is already hot).
Whichever method you use, ensure the food is above the water level and isn't getting wet.
As with Western cooking, braising is used for tougher cuts of meat and involves gentle cooking of meat and 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 reused.