You don't need to splurge on a bunch of fancy gadgets to cook Chinese food. All it takes is a wok and a few basic utensils.
The versatile wok is a steamer, frying pan, deep-fryer, and roasting pan all rolled into one. A good chef's knife can be used instead of a Chinese cleaver, and you don't need a rice cooker to boil rice, but a wok is the one piece of equipment that you should definitely consider purchasing before you begin cooking Chinese food.
It would be stretching the truth to say that you absolutely must have a wok to cook Chinese food. Many satisfactory meals of chop suey and chow mein have been born in a frying pan. The main thing is to use a heavy skillet that can take the high heats required for stir-frying. Cast iron and Calphalon hard anodized pans are both good choices. Still, if it's possible, a wok is preferable. Here are a few tips on choosing a good wok.
Originally, woks were large round vessels made of cast iron, with handles on either side for easy lifting in and out of the conventional Chinese oven. Over the centuries, woks have evolved to meet changing needs. Today, most Asian cooks favor woks made of carbon steel. Inexpensive and easy to handle, carbon steel woks can take the high heat needed for stir-frying and deep-frying. Properly seasoned and cleaned, they will last for years.
Still, modern technology has provided other options. It's now possible to purchase woks made with a nonstick coating. There are several advantages to cooking with a nonstick wok. For one thing, it's healthier since you don't need to use as much oil. For another, there is less cleanup. It can be frustrating to interrupt cooking dinner to wash the remains of a meat marinade from the wok before starting to stir-fry the vegetables. A nonstick coating means less fuss and muss.
The one potential drawback with nonstick woks is that the coating may warp under higher temperatures. Be prepared to pay extra for hard-anodized aluminum or carbon steel woks with a nonstick coating that can take the high heats needed for stir-frying.
Purchase a wok that is too small, and you'll be spending extra time in the kitchen, stir-frying and deep-frying in batches. While fascinating to look at, the mammoth woks favored by Chinese restaurant chefs are designed to feed a crowd, and aren't necessary for home cooking. For most families, a 14-inch wok is a good choice.
As a general rule, the type of stove you have will influence your choice of wok design. Traditional round-bottomed woks don't sit properly on an electric stove element. Originally, wok manufacturers tried to solve the problem by devising a round “collar” to sit on the burner and hold the wok in place. However, a better solution for an electric stove is a wok with a flat bottom. In addition to being safer, flat-bottomed woks ensure that the food cooks quickly and evenly. Both round and flat-bottomed woks work on gas stoves.
Pay Attention to the Cover
Be sure that the wok you purchase comes with a lid. Unlike the conventional frying pan cover, wok lids are bowl-shaped, with a handle on top. Use them to cover foods during braising and steaming, and as a large bowl for tossing food prior to cooking.
Other Kitchen Accessories
Just because you're learning an ancient cuisine doesn't mean you can't take advantage of modern technology. Here are a number of handy tools and gadgets that will make your cooking go more smoothly.
Peeling garlic is easy with a Chinese cleaver. Use the edge of the cleaver to separate one clove from the rest, then smash the clove using the side of the cleaver. Peel the garlic and chop or mince according to the directions in the recipe.
Cleaver or chef's knife: It doesn't need to be a Chinese cleaver, but it must be sharp and able to cut everything from meat to mushrooms.
Mandoline: Great for cutting potatoes and other root vegetables julienne style. There are also miniature mandolines that do a nifty job of shredding garlic and ginger.
Food processor: Invaluable for mixing sauces and crushing ingredients.
Wire mesh skimmer: A large wire mesh spoon that makes transferring deep-fried food from wok to plate much easier.
Cooking chopsticks: Longer than regular chopsticks, these are great for lightly beating eggs, mixing marinade ingredients, and maneuvering individual pieces of food in the wok.
Cutting board: Chinese chefs favor thick, round wooden cutting boards, but acrylic is also acceptable. Avoid plastic, as it can damage your knife.
Chinese spatula: With a wide handle shaped like a child's toy shovel, this utensil is the perfect size and shape for moving large quantities of food through the wok while stir-frying, ensuring that the food lands back in the pan and not on the stove or floor.