Chinese food has become as American as pizza, bagels, and tacos. It’s a comfort food that we enjoy and love, whether we live in big cities or small towns. Although foodies might scoff at Chinese take-out for its lack of authenticity, Chinese food in America is an incredible story of immigration, invention, and adaptation. According to Andrew Coe’s Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, there are more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States, more than all the McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s fast-food restaurants put together. But unlike with other beloved regional eats, such as Italian or Mexican fare, many people still don’t regularly make Chinese food at home.
Preparing your favorite Chinese restaurant dishes in your own kitchen is simple, healthy, and cost-efficient. You don’t even need to go to a special Asian grocery for the bulk of the ingredients, as most supermarket chains now carry the essentials needed to make Chinese food at home. And now that online sites such as Amazon carry hard-to-find spices and seasonings, everything you need is within reach.
There are undeniable conveniences to Chinese delivery: It is fast (usually ready in 30 to 45 minutes), easy (a quick phone call or online order), and satisfying. But, like most fast food, it’s not always the healthiest option.
Chinese home cooking is a lot less salty, oily, and heavy than its restaurant take-out counterparts. It’s also packed with fresh ingredients. Although those ubiquitous white boxes have their charm, you will be surprised to learn how simple it is to make healthy Chinese dishes at home. And you’ll save money while you’re at it.
The secret to cooking delicious Chinese food at home is the wok: a large pan with a bowl-like shape that has either two handles or one long wooden handle. With just this one pan, you can make thousands of tasty dishes quickly and cheaply. Yes, thousands. Many American homes have a wok or a woklike pan in their collection of kitchen equipment; it’s a favorite for preparing stir-fries of all kinds. And although it is the perfect pan to use for great-tasting stir-fries, the wok has so much more potential. There’s a reason that the Chinese have used the wok for more than two thousand years with very few changes to the pan itself. In addition to stir-frying, you can also steam, boil, stew, braise, deep-fry, poach, smoke, sear, and sauté in a wok.
Today, Chinese noodles, egg rolls, and sweet and sour pork are as beloved by Americans as pizza and hot dogs. Ordering Chinese food for delivery or take-out and enjoying a meal that arrives in overstuffed white containers is a familiar part of American culture.
Wontons and other dumplings have been part of Chinese cuisine for a very long time. Roughly translated from Cantonese, wonton means “swallowing clouds” because of the way the white dumplings float in soup. But the wonton soup served at most American-style Chinese restaurants is very different from the dumpling soups served in China. Chinese wontons are plump with a very thin wrapper. One of the most famous types has a juicy shrimp and pork filling. American-style wontons have a very small amount of meat—usually pork—and are covered in a thick, doughy wrapper.
The broth of Americanized wonton soup is a premade watery stock, a stark contrast to the traditional long-simmered pork-based broth found in China. Chinese restaurants in America serve wonton soup in small bowls as an accompaniment to or appetizer before the main part of the meal. Soup is a main course in most regional Chinese cuisines, and it can even be a meal by itself. The American-style wonton soup evolved, over time, based on the need of restaurants to make a quick, tasty dish that wasn’t expensive (hence less meat and more filler).
Better Than Delivery
American-style Chinese food is convenient and often budget-friendly, but it’s still part of American fast-food culture. Cheap and fast generally means unhealthy, and American-style Chinese food is no exception. Like most well-loved convenience foods, take-out Chinese food is full of extra salt and (thanks to the sugar and oil used) extra calories. Many of the most popular dishes are deep-fried, heavily breaded, or covered in a sweet and syrupy sauce. The use of the flavor enhancer MSG (monosodium glutamate) is declining, fortunately, but many places do still use it. MSG occurs naturally in some foods, such as tomatoes, potatoes, and other fruits and vegetables, and it is often added to Chinese food, canned vegetables, and processed meats. Some people have adverse reactions to MSG. According to the Mayo Clinic, some consumers of the flavor enhancer have reported that it caused headaches, sweating, heart palpitations, nausea, or weakness. All the more reason to make your favorite Chinese dishes at home and skip the MSG.
A Healthy Alternative
Authentic Chinese food is a healthy cuisine. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reports that the obesity rate is only 2.9 percent in China. Compare this with the US obesity rate of 35 percent.
So what’s the difference between American Chinese take-out and authentic Chinese cuisines?
Vegetables take center stage in traditional Chinese cooking, most ingredients are stir-fried (not deep-fried), and sauces aren’t filled with sugar. At your local Chinese establishment, your stir-fried noodles (chow mein or lo mein) or dishes such as beef with broccoli are made with a liberal amount of oil. But that’s not actually the correct way to cook in a wok. Because of its unique shape and high heat retention, you need very little oil to cook in a seasoned wok. When cooking in a seasoned wok, the finished meat and vegetables are pushed up the sides of the wok, thus draining the food of a lot of oil while cooking with very little effort.
The total cost of a homemade meal is much less than that of a restaurant meal, and that includes fast-food places and Chinese take-out. Two people might spend $20 at either a fast-food restaurant or a chain restaurant. And if you’re making a stir-fry, you can cook and be eating in the time that it would take you to order and then pick up your food.
Money-Saving Tips For Chinese Wok Cooking
Stock up on staples in bulk. You know that you’ll always use spices, rice, beans, noodles, soup broth, and frozen vegetables, so get those at your warehouse store or your local grocery when they’re on sale. You can freeze meat in resealable bags for later use.
Cook with leftovers in mind. Stir-fries, noodles, and fried rice dishes are flexible leftovers, so you can save time and money by always making a little extra.
Throw out less food. Because of the adaptable nature of casual Chinese home cooking, you can transform yesterday’s leftovers into new, delicious meals, reducing food waste.
Eat more vegetables. You will automatically eat less meat per person if you’re cooking a lot of these recipes, so keep that in mind while shopping.
Check out a Chinese or Asian grocery store. They have great sales and often great prices on the freshest meat and fish (still swimming!) and produce. And they’ll have those harder-to-find ingredients.
Don’t worry if you’re far from an Asian market. And what your store does not have are widely available online.
Invest in a rice cooker. Make this small investment as you start learning to cook your Chinese favorites at home—it’s so convenient to always have rice on hand.
A Super-Short History of Fortune Cookies
Opening a crunchy yellow cookie and reading the “fortune” inside is the ritual ending to a meal at an American Chinese restaurant. But these vanilla-flavored cookies are a purely American tradition. They aren’t made, served, or eaten in China. In fact, unlike some of our favorite Chinese take-out foods, they might not even have been invented by a Chinese American. It seems that the original fortune cookies were based on confections made at a Shinto shrine near Kyoto, Japan; there is no consensus on who first started making and serving them in America.
Regardless, they became popular in Chinese restaurants in California after World War II, and these early fortune cookies were usually filled with Bible verses and quotes from Confucius, Benjamin Franklin, and other philosophers. From the West Coast, they spread to every other Chinese take-out joint in the States. Now they are an integral part of every American-style Chinese restaurant meal.
Sweet and Sour Dishes
These are loosely based on dishes that exist in China, as sweet, vinegary sauces are part of certain regional Chinese cuisines. But there are many differences between the American versions and their Asian counterparts. Sweet and sour dishes in America, whether they are made with chicken, pork, or shrimp, consist of small pieces of protein stir-fried—sometimes after first being deep-fried—with green peppers, onions, carrots, and canned pineapple. The sweet and sour sauce is a blend of soy sauce, sugar, ketchup, and vinegar.
Yellow (round) onions, carrots, and pineapple are not native to China, but they were widely available to the first Chinese restaurant owners in America. It’d be hard to recognize our take-out now without them. And because of the need for cost-saving and convenience, Chinese cooks started using canned pineapple and maraschino cherries in their sauces and dishes. They, along with sugar and ketchup, are responsible for a lot of the sweetness in many popular American-style Chinese foods, especially the sweet and sour offerings.
Egg Drop Soup
Just like most Chinese American dishes, the egg drop soup we enjoy stateside is based on a Chinese dish. This one is called egg flower soup in China. The “flower” refers to the strands of egg, which create wispy flowers in the broth.
To achieve the perfect thin strands, cooks must gently pour beaten egg into a simmering chicken broth.
American egg drop soup is similar to the original in that it is swirled egg cooked in chicken broth, but it is different in both consistency and color. The version we are used to is extremely thick and usually a neon-yellow color. The thickness comes from cornstarch, which is added to the broth, and the bright hue commonly comes from food coloring.
Although thickeners for sauce and soup are used in traditional Chinese cuisines, they are used much more liberally in American-style Chinese cooking. Hot and sour soup, another popular Chinese take-out soup, also has a much thicker consistency than its traditional Chinese counterpart.
Glossary of Chinese Wok Cooking
Black bean sauce: This prepared sauce can be found in many grocery stores, not just Asian markets. It’s a highly flavored sauce made of fermented black beans, soy sauce, sugar, and other ingredients.
Black vinegar: If a recipe calls for black vinegar, then it means Chinkiang black vinegar, which is deep and rich. Use balsamic vinegar as a substitute.
Bok choy: This delicately flavored vegetable is actually a member of the cabbage family. It can be found in Asian grocery stores and most large supermarkets. It’s usually sold in bunches. Purchase only those with unblemished leaves.
Chili oil: A fiery red oil that has been infused with chile pepper, this inexpensive oil is used in dipping sauces and as an ingredient in cooked dishes.
Chili sauce: A staple in the Chinese kitchen, this red paste has bits of real chile pepper and is flavored with garlic. If unavailable, use sambal oelek or another prepared chili-garlic sauce.
Fish sauce: A staple in South Asian cooking, fish sauce is also used throughout East Asia to add a deep umami flavor to dishes. It may be called nam pla on the bottle.
Peanut oil: Peanut oil is included in most recipes because it has a high smoke point and is good for wok cooking. Use soybean oil, mild vegetable oil, or canola oil as an alternative.
Rice vinegar: Popular in Asian cooking, it is milder than other white vinegars. Use cider vinegar as an alternative.
Rice wine: If a recipe calls for rice wine, then Shaoxing (Shao-hsing) wine is best, as it’s good enough to drink. If it’s not available, another Asian rice wine or a dry sherry is a good substitute.
Sea salt: The varieties of sea salts tend to be coarser than table salt. If sea salt is unavailable, substitute kosher salt.
To use regular table salt, use half the amount of sea salt indicated in the recipe.
Sesame oil: A richly fragrant oil made from roasted sesame seeds, Asian sesame oil adds a nutty aroma to dishes and is darker and very different from refined sesame oils. A little goes a long way, so use sparingly.
Tea leaves: For tea-smoking food, use black tea. Chinese black tea is best, especially Lapsang Souchong, but you can also use another black tea, such as oolong.
The wok is an integral part of Chinese cooking because its unique shape and surface area make it good not just for stir-frying, but also for braising, stewing, poaching, steaming, deep-frying, and even smoking. The traditional wok, used for almost 2,000 years, has a rounded bottom, which easily allows a spatula or other utensil to move the food around the pan.
Wok hay, or wok hei, is a Cantonese phrase used to describe a well-made stir-fry dish. It translates as “breath of a wok,” and it refers to the concentrated, rich flavor that can come only from making a stir-fry in a well-seasoned wok over very high heat.
Choosing A Wok
There are so many different types of woks on the market that it can be dizzying to choose the right one for your needs. When buying a wok, don’t be fooled into thinking that the most expensive one is the best choice. A $10 carbon steel wok purchased in Chinatown can be perfect for home cooking needs.
12- or 14-inch Flat-Bottomed Carbon Steel Wok
This pan is really your best choice. Light and easy to handle, a carbon steel wok develops a nonstick surface after you season it, so you don’t have to use much oil when cooking. It also heats up quickly, conducts heat well, and cools down quickly, which is essential for good stir-fry technique.
Most home stoves cannot get as hot as professional stoves or traditional Chinese stoves (on which the wok sits in the flames). The flat-bottomed wok makes up for this lack because it covers more of the heat than its round- bottomed cousin. If you don’t cook large meals and are cooking for one or two, then a 12-inch wok will be good for you. For families, a 14-inch wok will be perfect.
Round-Bottomed Carbon Steel Wok
This traditional Cantonese wok has a round bottom and two handles. Because the rounded-bottom wok isn’t stable on the stove, you need to use a wok ring underneath it so it doesn’t tip over. For this safety reason, cooks new to a wok may not want to start off with a round-bottomed wok.
Cast Iron Wok
An American cast iron wok is quite heavy and takes longer to heat up, which makes stir-frying a challenge. If that’s all you have, don’t fret. You can still follow the recipes to make a tasty stir-fry and excellent poached, steamed, braised, and fried dishes. When you get the chance, invest in a lighter, easier-to-use carbon steel wok.
Nonstick Wok or Skillet
Most stir-fry experts don’t recommend using this type of wok or skillet because the food won’t taste the same. A nonstick wok or skillet cannot reach the high heat level conducted by a carbon steel or cast iron wok, which is necessary to create the best-tasting stir-fries. But if that’s what you have at home, you absolutely can go ahead and make these recipes with your nonstick pan. They will still taste great! Once you’re ready, get a carbon steel wok and be impressed with the flavor difference.
This isn’t ideal for stir-frying because it doesn’t retain heat well, making it difficult to achieve wok hay. However, you can use an electric wok happily for poaching, steaming, braising, and stewing.
Seasoning Your Wok
When you buy a new carbon steel or cast iron wok, you need to season it before you start cooking with it. Do not season a nonstick wok or an electric wok. Seasoning will take at least 30 minutes, but once done, you’ll have created a naturally nonstick surface without the chemicals found in a Teflon coating.
As always when dealing with high heat and oil, be careful and focused during the seasoning process so that you don’t burn yourself.
How to Season Your Wok: A Step-by-Step Guide
1. Your carbon steel or cast iron wok will come home from the store smelling like oil. This oil is a preservative applied by the manufacturer. It will need to be cleaned off the wok. Wash the wok in soapy water, and scrub it clean on the inside and the outside.
2. Now you need to “burn” the wok. Place it on the stove, and dry it over very high heat.
3. Remove the wok from the heat, and put a few tablespoons of peanut oil in the bottom of the wok. Using a dry cloth, spread a thin layer of the oil completely over the inside surface of the wok. Be careful not to burn yourself.
4. This next part will get smoky, so turn on your oven fan and open your windows. Over very high heat, heat the oil in the wok for a few minutes. Turn off the heat, take the wok off the heat, and let it cool to room temperature.
5. Once the wok is at room temperature, put it on high heat again, making sure the first layer of oil gets “burned” into the wok. Once it is, turn off the heat, take the pan off the stove, and return the pan to room temperature again.
6. Once at room temperature, add another thin layer of oil, and spread it over the inside surface of the wok, as you did in step
3. Heat the wok again for a few minutes, and then turn off the heat, take the pan off the heat, and return it to room temperature once more.
7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 a few more times. Wipe off any excess oil that collects in the bottom center of the wok. Once the wok starts to darken and look shiny, it’s ready to use.
8. If you can, do a first stir-fry of sliced onions to remove any unwanted smells from the wok.
The more you cook with your wok, the better its seasoning will be and the less oil you’ll have to use when cooking with it. Reseason your wok if it becomes necessary.
Caring For Your Wok
Employ some simple and basic tips to keep your wok in good condition and ready for use. New woks need oil to continue developing their seasoning layer. So don’t do a lot of poaching with a newly seasoned wok—do a lot of stir- frying!
Make a few batches of popcorn in your wok with peanut oil to speed up the seasoning process. And when cooking, always heat the wok until it’s hot before adding oil. TV chef Martin Yan often instructed his viewers to add cold oil to a hot wok so that food wouldn’t stick.
Never wash your seasoned wok with soap. Rinse it with warm water, and wipe it with a gentle sponge or brush. Don’t abrasively scrub your wok, as that will affect the seasoning layer. Don’t use steel pads or scouring sponges on the inside, though you can use them on the outside of your wok if it gets very dirty. For a new wok, you might want to dry it over high heat after you rinse it. For a well-seasoned wok, just wipe until dry. Don’t let it sit around wet. It could develop rust if that happens. Over time, your wok will become deeper in color and the seasoning layer will develop. Once this happens, you can just wipe out your wok with a paper towel, like you would a nonstick pan.
The more you cook with your wok, the better seasoned it will be. If you don’t use your wok often, rub a small amount of peanut oil onto the inside surface of the wok before storing it. If you forget about your wok for a while and it gets rusty or if it gets very burned once you use it again, then do a full reseasoning of it. In Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, Grace Young recommends giving it “wok facials” from time to time.
To do a wok facial, fold three layers of paper towels into a wad, and set the wad aside. Heat the wok over high heat. Once hot, remove it from the heat, and add a couple of teaspoons of peanut or vegetable oil and some kosher salt (use a 2 to 1 ratio of oil and salt). Using the paper towels, gently rub and scrub the oil and salt all over the inside of your wok until it’s clean and shiny. Rinse out the wok with warm water, using a textured sponge to remove any lingering salt crystals. Voilà! Your wok is rejuvenated.
Tips for Healthy Chinese Cooking at Home
Use a lot of vegetables. Fresh and in season is best, but you can use flash- frozen vegetables or bagged ones with great results, too. Chinese stir-fries and soups are easy to improvise, so feel free to be creative with the ingredient lists in recipes.
Think beyond stir-fry. You can steam, braise, or poach in a wok with no added oil.
A little protein goes a long way. You need a lot less meat (or seafood) when making Chinese food. A pound of chicken, a lot of vegetables, and steamed rice is a bountiful meal for a family of four.
Spice it up. Traditional Chinese food uses fragrant spices for flavor. Add ginger, garlic, and chiles to your dishes for great flavor without unnecessary sugar or salt.
Keep it light. Don’t think of Chinese food as needing to be covered in heavy, sweet sauces. Be light with soy sauce, sugar, or oil.
From soup to . . . soup. Get to know Chinese soups, which can be made in a wok and are healthy, filling, and comforting. If you’re watching your weight, include vegetable-filled, fragrant soups in your meal to enjoy satisfying meals with minimal effort.
Size does matter. Most American restaurants serve huge portions, which leads to overeating. You can stuff yourself without noticing if there are piles of food in front of you. Preparing meals at home lets you practice effortless portion control.
Satisfaction for everyone. For families with young kids, Chinese soups, braises, and stir-fries are a good way to introduce children to different vegetables cooked with flavors they already like.
The Chinese Kitchen
When you walk into a Chinese market for the first time, you’ll see amazing things, from hundreds of types of pickles to shoppers selecting their seafood dinner while it’s still swimming. Although it’ll be fascinating—and maybe a little intimidating at first—you won’t need to buy a lot of exotic ingredients to pull off delicious Chinese meals at home.
These days, large chain grocery stores carry Chinese cooking essentials, including soy sauce, garlic, ginger, cornstarch, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, jas-mine rice, sesame oil, and chili sauce. Although these might not be the most traditional versions, they are a good place to start. In big cities around the country, you’ll also be able to buy rice noodles and rice vinegar at your local supermarket, and may never even need to make the trek to Chinatown or your closest Asian market.
Ingredients For A Chinese Cuisine Kitchen
Once you’ve stocked up, you can make dozens of delicious, better-than-take-out meals at home.
To make it even easier, a list of the top 15 essential ingredients follows. These ingredients can all be purchased online if you can’t find them at your grocery store or Asian market. And these staple ingredients will last you a long time.
Chinese Cuisine Basics
These are the basic ingredients that you will find popping up in Chinese recipes again and again. When stocking your pantry for Chinese home cooking, start with these essentials, most of which will be available at your local supermarket.
Garlic: Spicy, fragrant, and versatile, garlic is one of the most common spices that you’ll be using. Although you can employ garlic powder in a pinch, try to stock your fridge and freezer with fresh garlic. You can mince it or slice it and then freeze it in resealable plastic bags. You can even buy solo garlic, or single-clove garlic, which simplifies cooking.
Ginger: A little goes a long way, so you don’t need to buy large pieces of ginger root. It does, however, add essential flavor and a nice, peppery spice to Chinese dishes. Make things even easier by freezing peeled ginger in small chunks and then grating it when you need it.
Chinese chili sauce: This is a must-have. It costs very little, whether you’re buying it at a large grocery chain or at a Chinese grocery. Most Chinese chili sauces are also seasoned with garlic, so having some of this on hand makes seasoning that much easier. You can also use it as a dipping sauce or create new dips out of it.
Cornstarch: In Chinese cooking, cornstarch is mixed with a little water and added to sauces and soups in the later stages of cooking to thicken them. It’s also used as part of the marinade in the “velveting” process, which is what makes your take-out chicken, pork, and beef pieces super soft and silky.
Fish sauce: Fish sauce is a thin, slightly stinky liquid made from salted anchovies. It’s most often associated with Southeast Asian cooking, but other Asian cuisines use it as well. It’s an amber-colored seasoning that adds a lot of flavor in just a little splash. It is also known as nuoc mam and nam pla.
Noodles: There is amazing variety in Chinese noodles, and they vary according to region of origin, shape, width, texture, and ingredients. Walk into any Chinese grocery, and you’ll be amazed at the variety of different types of fresh and dried noodles available, from crispy rice noodles to bean threads to egg noodles. Use noodles in stir-fries, soups, and much more. Start with egg noodles—they’re the most common and versatile.
Chinese five-spice powder: This fragrant seasoning mixture is usually a blend of anise, cinnamon, cloves, fennel, and Sichuan (Szechuan) peppercorns. But not all Chinese five-spice powders are the same, so it could also include ginger and black pepper. It’s a great seasoning for stir-fries, marinades, and fatty meat dishes.
Hoisin sauce: A thick, rich sauce made from soybean paste, garlic, sugar, and spices, hoisin adds a sweet and savory flavor to stir-fries, marinades, and dipping sauces.
Rice (jasmine, long- or medium-grain): Almost all Chinese dishes are enjoyed with rice, unless you are eating a bowl of noodles or some dumplings. Chinese restaurants in America seem to serve mostly jasmine rice, which is a fragrant rice from Thailand. But you can also use another long-grain or medium-grain rice. Just be sure to have some rice on hand. It’s cheap and goes a long way.
Oyster sauce: Full of umami flavor, traditional oyster sauce is made by long-simmering oysters in water and seasonings. These days, many store-bought oyster sauces are made with oyster extract and seasonings, including soy sauce, sugar, and salt. Oyster sauce is versatile in stir-fries and marinades and as a sauce ingredient.
Peanut oil: This oil is practically essential because it has a high smoke point, which means it can withstand the high heat of wok cooking. It also gives a nice, nutty flavor to food. You can use vegetable oil if you don’t have peanut oil. It might be labeled groundnut oil at the grocery store.
Rice vinegar: There are many different types of rice vinegars in China, but get at least one for your dressings and pickles. Made from fermented rice, it’s milder and sweeter than Western vinegar.
Shaoxing rice wine: This beverage is both for drinking and for cooking Chinese dishes. Shaoxing rice wine is made from sticky rice, and it adds an unmistakable and pleasant flavor to meat dishes. If you can’t find it, use a good dry sherry instead.
Soy sauce (light and dark): There’s a good chance you already have soy sauce in your pantry. Chinese cooks use two different types of soy sauce. Light Chinese soy sauce is thinner, clearer, and saltier than dark soy sauce. It’s the one most commonly used in cooking, and is similar to the soy sauce you will get in a mainstream grocery store. Light soy sauce might also be labeled as “thin.” Dark soy sauce is a little thicker, sweeter, and not as salty as light soy sauce.
Toasted sesame oil: This is a Chinese pantry pick because you can use it to impart a nutty, fragrant flavor to your dishes. A tiny bit goes a long way, so remember to use just a small amount for flavor.
Ingredients That Will Take Your Chinese Cooking To The Next Level
Black bean sauce: A rich sauce made from fermented black beans and other seasonings, such as garlic and soy sauce. If you buy the sauce, then you have a ready-made stir-fry sauce that will transform everyday ingredients. You can also find fermented black beans in Chinese markets and try making your own sauce.
Bok choy: You can make your stir-fries with peppers, Western onions, and American cabbage with delicious results. But add a traditional Chinese vegetable into the mix, and you won’t have leftovers. Bok choy is a type of petite
cabbage, and it’s simple to cook and good in stir-fries, salads, and soups. Buy baby bok choy if possible, or at least the smallest one you can find.
Chinkiang black rice vinegar: A specialty vinegar, this black rice vinegar has an unmistakable earthy, smoky flavor. Like balsamic vinegar, the taste is distinctive when it’s used in cooking and in sauces. If you’re unable to find it, use a good quality balsamic vinegar instead.
Dried mushrooms: You can and should buy fresh mushrooms, but having a couple of different types of dried mushrooms (such as shiitakes) in your pantry will make cooking easier, especially if it’s spur-of-the-moment. Rehydrate dried mushrooms in water, and add them to stir-fries, soups, and meat dishes.
Sichuan peppercorns: These small pods are also known as Chinese coriander, Szechuan pepper, Chinese prickly ash, flower pepper, and lemon pepper. They are used all over Asia and are not spicy. They have a lemon flavor that adds essential seasoning and aroma to meats, fish, and vegetables. They also create a tingle in the mouth.
Spicy bean sauce: Also called spicy bean paste or toban jiang or toban dian, spicy bean sauce adds an unmistakable umami flavor to your dishes. It’s important in Sichuan (Szechuan) cuisine and is made of fermented beans, oil, and chiles.
Tofu: You can add tofu to soups, stews, salads, stir-fries, and main dishes. You can now buy boxed tofu that lasts for quite a while in your pantry. It’s inexpensive and a great meat substitute for vegetarians. The type of tofu used depends on what you’re making. Firm and extra-firm tofu holds its form in stir-fries, whereas soft and medium tofu is used in dishes such as Mapo Tofu (here), where it breaks apart and becomes part of a bubbling stew.
All About Soy Sauce
One of the oldest condiments in the world, soy sauce was invented by the Chinese more than 2,500 years ago. It’s made from fermented soybeans, wheat, and brine, and now almost all Asian countries use it in their cuisine. There are too many varieties to name, but in Chinese cooking, the two most important types of soy sauce are light and dark.
Light soy sauce is made from the first press of soybeans, and is the one that is most commonly used in Chinese cooking. It might also be labeled fresh or thin soy sauce at a Chinese grocery, and it is lighter in color but saltier in taste than dark soy sauce. Chinese light soy sauce is the most similar to what you’d get in a big chain super market and from a major brand, such as Kikkoman. Dark soy sauce is fermented longer, is thicker in texture, and is sweeter in flavor. It’s used to add flavor, texture, and color to dishes.
Tamari is a good choice for those who are on a gluten-free diet or are sensitive to wheat. It’s very similar to traditional soy sauce in that it is made from almost all soybeans, with just a trace of wheat or no added wheat.
Store soy sauce in a cool, dark place (not near the stove). Store it in the refrigerator if you don’t use it often. You may find you use it in non-Asian cooking as well, such as in chili or barbecue sauce.
All About MSG?
MSG (monosodium glutamate) is a flavor enhancer used in Chinese and other Asian cuisines, canned soups and vegetables, and processed foods. It’s controversial, so you’ll often see Asian sauces, foods, and take-out menus stamped with the label No MSG or MSG-Free. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as safe to eat, but the FDA also requires MSG to be listed on food labels.
MSG’s ability to enhance flavors was discovered by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. He was researching seaweed and why it makes food taste better. His research found that an amino acid called L-glutamate is responsible. This amino acid occurs naturally in many places, including meat, vegetables, and dairy products.
When sodium is added to glutamate, it becomes a salt, which is what Ikeda did to make it easy to use glutamate in the kitchen.
Many scientists, food companies, and the FDA believe that MSG is totally safe to eat. But there are countless anecdotal complaints about what consumers call MSG complex or Chinese restaurant syndrome. The symptoms include headache, sweating, numbness or tingling, chest pain, lethargy, and nausea.
Despite all the research, it is still unknown why some people don’t feel well after eating Chinese take-out. Some scientists don’t believe MSG is the culprit, because the same symptoms aren’t reported when people eat non-Chinese foods that contain more MSG than the average Chinese take-out meal. Some researchers believe the combination of overeating, drinking alcohol, excessive amounts of sodium and fat, and various other factors paired with eating Chinese take-out is the culprit. But if you feel one or some of these symptoms after enjoying Chinese take-out, test the theory by cooking some of the recipe—using MSG-free sauces, of course.
Essential Wok Cooking Tools
Besides your wok, there are some cooking tools that will make everyday and Chinese cooking easier. If you already cook, then you might already have what you need, including a wooden spoon, tongs, and a bamboo steamer.
Bamboo steamer: With a bamboo steamer, you can make dumplings, steamed fish, and other delicate dishes in your wok. If you get a multilayer steamer, you can steam by layers, according to how much time the different foods need to be steamed. If you’re planning to steam often, then get a steamer that’s large, ideally 8 to 10 inches in diameter.
Rice cooker: If you cook any type of Asian food or grain, then a rice cooker is a real time-saver. It keeps rice and grains warm and ready for as long as a couple of days. A wok and a rice cooker make delicious 15-minute dinners possible.
Tongs or cooking chopsticks: Using tongs or cooking chopsticks makes moving things around easy. Cooking chopsticks are long and heat-resistant, so get these if you’re already good at using chopsticks. If not, tongs will do the trick. You’ll be surprised at how useful cooking chopsticks are in the kitchen.
Wide spatula: The wide metal wok spatula is the thing to use for fried rice to make sure you can scrape up anything sticky while cooking. But for most stir-fries and other dishes, you can use a regular wide-angled wooden or metal spatula.
Wide strainer or slotted spoon: Bamboo strainers are traditional in Chinese restaurants, but you can use any good-quality hand-held strainer or slotted spoon for frying or draining food such as dumplings.
Wok lid: Inexpensive and light, this is necessary for braising and steaming. If you intend to do a lot of braising, buy a domed or flat lid that fits your wok.
Wooden spoons: Use wooden spoons to stir-fry, stir, and move food around your wok. They are heat resistant and won’t scrape the surface of your seasoned wok.