If you’ve got a taste for Chinese food, then you might want to start cooking it at home. This is a reasonable ambition. To realise your culinary dreams, however, and replicate the flavours you might find at your local Chinese restaurant, you’ll need to get a taste for certain pantry staples, and to master some key techniques.
What do I need to buy?
If you start looking through recipes for Chinese food, then you’re likely to encounter many of the same ingredients over and over again. It’s a good idea to buy these ingredients in large quantities, so that you can dispense them as required.
Soy sauce is probably the one you’re most likely to be familiar with. It’s dark and versatile, and can be used for dipping, marinating, drizzling and cooking. There are several versions available, with the darker sort providing a very different flavour to the lighter one. Get a big bottle of both.
Sesame oil is another staple, made using toasted sesame seeds. You’ll be drizzling this a lot, but rarely cooking with it, since it has a very low smoke point (the temperature at which oils start to burn). It’s also worth keeping a stock of sesame seeds, which you can dry-fry in your work for garnishing. This is a game-changer!
Chiu Chow chilli oil is a not-so-secret ingredient that originated near Guangdong. It’ll keep forever, providing complex spice to a range of dishes. It’s one of those ingredients whose purpose might not be evident at first, but once you have it in your cupboard, you’ll end up using it for everything.
Finally, oyster sauce is a slightly salty, thick sauce that can be used in the same way as ketchup. In most instances, however, you’ll be mixing it up with soy or tamarind sauce to create an incredibly flavourful sauce that you’ll throw in at the last minute.
What tools do you need?
If you’re going to be cooking Chinese food, then you’ll need a wok. These tend to be either carbon-steel or non-stick. A non-stick wok tends to make for the best option for beginners. Opt for a carbon steel wok, and you’ll need to season and care for it – but the rewards can justify the effort.
When it comes to knives, you can go a long way with a cleaver-style vegetable chopper and a decent board. Practice your technique, and make sure that you don’t cut yourself.
Finally, it’s worth equipping yourself with a range of ladles and spatulas. When you get comfortable moving food around the wok, you’ll be able to harness the famous ‘wok hei’ – which involves tossing the food up into the air to get those smoky compounds into them.