A reader recently posted a request on my Ten Steps to Better Wok Cookery essay, asking that I do a post on what I consider the most necessary pieces of Asian kitchen equipment are, what they are used for and where to find them.
Before I jump right into the list, I want to remind my readers that this is a pretty personal list. Keep in mind that I mostly cook Chinese, Indian and Thai food, so my list is going to be weighted in favor of those cuisines. I don’t do sushi at home, so that leaves out quite a bit of specialized equipment that I just don’t have.
Also, note that there are substitutions listed for many of the items. I personally, do not think that one can easily cook Asian foods without a wok or karahi, so I don’t suggest a substitute for that, but for other items, there are varied possible tools that can fill that niche. You don’t have to run out and buy every tool all at once and replicate my kitchen, but if you want to, I am giving brand names and sources for everything I suggest.
Finally–I am not including every obscure tool I have (that means, no, I am not going to tell you about my mooncake mold,interesting as it is), because I wanted to pare the list down to the basics. There are plenty of other fun things out there, and folks want to comment on them, please, feel free, but I am trying to do the short list of the utensils and tools that I think are necessary to easily cook very good Asian foods at home.
At the top of the list comes the Wok, which should come as absolutely no surprise. A good wok or karahi is simply one of the most versatile cooking utensils in the world; it is the best vessel for stir frying available–saute pans and skillets just really don’t cut it. It is also useful for braising, deep-frying, and steaming. For most American stoves, the new flat-bottomed woks are perfect, especially when you are talking about electric stoves. The hue and cry over how having a flat bottom “ruins” the wok’s best features that come from certain authors is bunk. Don’t believe them. Chinese-American families have cooked on American stoves with woks for years, and quite happily.
The material that you want your wok to be made from is either carbon steel or thin, Chinese cast iron. Heavy US or European cast iron woks are too heavy to work well. They take a great deal of time to heat up and then, do not cool down very quickly. For certain applications this is worthy, but not many. For ease of use and cleaning, go for the carbon steel or Chinese cast iron, which is enamelled on the outside to protect the very thin iron from shattering. Do not bother with nonstick woks, Calphalon anodized aluminum woks or stainless steel woks. They do not heat evenly, they do not keep a nonstick surface, and they are not easily cleaned.
The issue over which kind of handles to get–the double-handled Cantonese style, or the long, single-handled Northern “pao” style is up to the individual cook. I have one of each; my cast iron wok is Cantonese and my carbon steel wok has a single, long handle so I can toss the ingredients with one hand.
Where does one obtain woks like this? I suggest you mail order from The Wok Shop in San Francisco. You can call and place an order or use their website. The owner, Tane Chan is always available to answer questions and she is terribly helpful. Her prices are great and her shipping prices are fair.
To go with the wok, you need three tools. One, is the Bamboo Brush for cleaning it. This sounds kind of silly–but I very much advocate the use of the traditional bamboo scrubbing brush to properly clean a wok without destroying the seasoning as it builds up over time. There are other practical reasons to use it besides that. To properly clean a cast iron or carbon steel wok, you need to stick it in the sink and start scrubbing as soon as it is off the fire. That means the wok is blisteringly hot. Which would you rather have between you and that hot metal–a little, squishy, inch-thick scrubby-sponge that will likely melt, or a nice sturdy, eight-inch long bundle of bamboo? See what I mean?
You also need a Wok Shovel, which is shaped perfectly to scoop food around the sloping sides of the wok and toss it around. You can see it up in the main illustration for this post; it is the implement that looks like a shovel, strangely enough. Get as long a handle as you can work with, especially if you have a very hot stove–it keeps your hands out of the hot zone when you are working.
The other tool in that photograph above is the Wire Skimmer. This bamboo-handled piece is great for dunking and lifting items into and out of deep frying oil in the wok. It is also good for retrieving wontons and dumplings from boiling water, or portioning out noodles from a pot. All three of these tools are quite inexpensive from The Wok Shop.
Asian cookery requires a lot of cutting; in fact, the proper cutting of ingredients is probably the most time-consuming part of prep for many Asian cuisines. A lot of Chinese chefs and cookbook authors emphasize the use of the cleaver, but in truth, you can do nearly every kind of cutting you would need to do with either a santoku-style knife or a Western style chef’s knife. One exception to this assertion is the technique of double-cleaver mincing, where the cook uses a matching pair of cleavers, one in each hand, to mince a chicken breast, piece of pork or beef, into fine pieces by rhythymically chopping in rapidly alternating beats.
But the point is, if you already have a really sharp knife that you can cut paper-thin slivers of meat, scallion or ginger with, then you can do without a cleaver. It just isn’t necessary.
That said, I like using cleavers, and used to use them all the time, until I started using Japanese style chef’s knives, known as santoku. They combine the best parts of a Western chef’s knife and a Chinese cleaver. They have the maneuverability of a chef’s knife, and the very, very sharp edge of a cleaver. I think that they are a great all purpose knife, and they have become the ones that I tend to use on an every day basis. Global makes a good santoku, but my very favorite knives of all time are Shun by Kershaw. I have two of them, the Shun Classic santoku and the Elite chef’s knife, and they are not only gorgeous to look at, but a dream to use; they are the sharpest knives I have ever owned and they make it simple to cut grassblade-fine slivers of ginger or paper-thin slices of meat.
In choosing a knife it is important to get a feel for it before you buy it. That is why I suggest that you go to Sur la Table or Williams Sonoma, or any good independant kitchenware, hardware or cutlery shop that carries a large selection of kitchen knives. You want to be able to feel what these knives are like in your hand. You want to pay attention to the balance of the knife, the weight of it and the feel of the handle in your palm. Knives come in all shapes and sizes, and you need to find the ones that feel right in your hand. On your first shopping trip, you don’t even have to buy the knives you pick out–if you can get better prices online, then thank the salespers and tell him that you are thinking about it and then order the knife you chose from someplace cheaper, especially if you are on a tight budget.
Whatever knife or cleaver you choose, make certain to get a very sharp one and take pains to keep it that way. Learn how to sharpen them so that you can maintain the edge properly and you will get decades of use out of your fine cutlery. Get a sharpening stone and a steel, and have someone show you how to use them, and at the first sign of dullness, sharpen your blades back up. A dull knife is a dangerous one.
Once you have a knife, you need a good Cutting Board. Use bamboo, wood, or soft, heavy plastic for your cutting boards, never glass, masonite or thin, hard plastic. This is to protect the edge of your now very sharp knives. Hard surfaces will dull a knife quite quickly, so to protect your knives, invest in a good, easy to clean, board with a knife-friendly surface. Chinese chefs like these heavy, thick, round chopping blocks that traditionally are made from the cross-section of a tree trunk. I generally use my bamboo cutting board or one of the heavy plastic ones–my favorite plastic ones have gripper feet on one side, which helps keep them still and steady on the countertop, but it also means that you can only use one side of the board.
A Rice Cooker is not a necessity, but it sure is nice, and if you eat a lot of rice, like my family does, it will pay for itself in convenience and ease of use within a couple of weeks. I used to make rice on the stovetop all the time, but when we moved into the last house we owned, the cast iron electric burners on the stove confounded me. I burned the rice every time, no matter what technique I used. It got so irritating, I gave up on my ability to cook rice on the stove, and bought a rice cooker, and I have not looked back.
This from the woman who made fun of her Singaporan friend in culinary school because a chef told him to make steamed rice and he came to me and whispered to me, “How do I make rice on the stove?” I laughed at him and was incredulous until he said, “Everyone in Singapore has a rice cooker. I know how to use those–I have no clue how to cook rice on a stove.”
I ended up teaching himhow to steam rice on the stove, but I also learned something valuable from him . A rice cooker is a piece of equipment that you plug in, pour the rice and cooking liquid in, close it, turn it on and then walk away. It does all the work. And if you get one of the “fuzzy logic” cookers that has a sensor in it that can tell the machine how much water and rice you put in–if you screw up the amounts–the cooker will adjust the cooking time and temperature and still give you perfect rice. Mine is a Zojirushi, and has worked faithful, almost daily (At least four times a week) for four years, and shows no sign of quitting.
Using a rice cooker frees up a burner on the stove, and frees the cook up to concentrate on the timing of other foods, without having to worry about the rice. I would never have thought I would have loved one as much as I do, but now, I would never be without on. I highly recommend them. You can usually find a respectable collection of rice cookers of all sizes and styles at your local Asian market, or you can order one online from eKitron.
If you are going to cook a lot of Indian or Thai foods, you will need a Grinder of some sort. Whether you go in for a mortar and pestle made of stone, or the Sumeet Multi-Grind, or an electric coffee mill and a food processor or blender, you will want something to help you grind dry and wet spices into curry pastes. I have used all of the above methods, and while I still have my mortar and pestle, and will probably get a really large one at some point, I am very fond of and use my Sumeet Multi-Grind all the time. It is a really fine piece of equipment that will grind up any wet or dry ingredient that you would have into a very smooth paste (or powder if all the ingredients are dry), including rock hard galangal and chunks of cinnamon stick, without fail. The parts of the machine that come into contact with the food are all dishwasher safe, so they are simple to clean.
I have had it for nearly eight years and have used it at least four times a week, and it has never choked, failed me or even considered not running. You can order it directly from the manufacturer, or pay more and order it from Williams-Sonoma. I recommend ordering from the maker–that is how Zak got me mine, after all.
If you decide to go the route of the mortar and pestle: stone ones are available in most sizeable Asian markets that cater to Thai and Indian people. They are very tough, very durable and beautiful, and are large enough to make a lot of curry paste at a time, without having to resort to the batch method of curry paste making.
Remember, that if you use a coffee grinder for a spice grinder, that it can only handle dry ingredients. To puree wet ingredients into a paste, you need to use a coffee grinder in conjunction with a blender or food processor, which necessitates using two tools instead of one.
The final necessity of the Asian kitchen is a set or two of Bamboo Steamers. These beautiful baskets are perfect for making steamed buns or dumplings, but you can also steam anything in them, including fish. Just put the fish or whatever meat item you want to steam on a heat-proof plate that fits inside the steamer basket, cover the basket and put it over boiling water. It is as simple as that. These baskets are made to stack on top of each other in a tower, so that you could steam an entire meal in them if you wanted. I have even used mine to make tamales.
Bamboo is superior to metal for making steamers because the water that condenses from the steam is absorbed by the bamboo lid; it doesn’t drip back down on the food, diluting the flavor of the seasoning. They are also inexpensive, durable, and look beautiful as serving pieces on the table as well. You can purchase them cheaply at any Asian market that carries kitchenwares, at places like World Market and at The Wok Shop.
These are the “essentials” of the Asian kitchen, in my opinion. It is possible I left something out, but I tried to pare the list down to those things that I thought would make a beginning cook’s life easier as they took up the challenge of learning Asian cooking at home.
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