Beginners Guide to Chinese Cooking at Home

Do you like Chinese Food and have always wanted to learn to cook it? 

Chinese food is one of the most popular cuisines in the UK.  What you may not know is that cooking our favourite Chinese dishes at home is fairly quick and easy even if you have minimal cooking skills.

As you can see from the various Chinese recipes on the blog, most of the recipes are not really a recipe. You can easily swap the ingredients and just use what you have in the fridge and the store cupboard. Once you have a few of the basic techniques down, you can cook a multitude of dishes and create a meal in minutes. 

In order to cook Chinese at home, you need some staple ingredients and some basic equipment.

Chinese Kitchen Tools

Wok

stri fry in a wok

A nice curved wok is essential for almost all Chinese cooking. One that is made from hammered carbon steel is the best choice as it will heat quickly and evenly. You need to season these woks by wiping it with some oil and heating it up. This will evenly create a non stick coating on your wok.  Also hammered woks have dimples. The dimples allow you to keep cooked food on the side of the wok so that you can add raw ingredients in the hot centre. Always pick a wok with a lid as this helps with cooking and steaming. You can also get a non stick wok that is easy to cook with and easy to clean too. 

If you don’t have a wok, you can use a large frying pan too.

I really like this wok by Ninja Foodi, their new Zerostick wok made a new non stick material which is very tough and you can use metal utensils with. It has a heat proof glass lid and works on all types of hobs including induction hobs. At 28cm, it is big enough to cook most meals for a small family. Besides using it for stir frying and steaming, I also use it cook all sorts of dishes. Even for making ragu and stews. It’s super versatile. 

Ninja Foodi Zerostock Wok 28cm

Bamboo Steamer

Lots of Chinese dishes, like bao, fish, vegetables, dumplings, and rice are steamed. A bamboo steamer makes the task easy with the additional advantage of making you look like a pro when you have guests over to sample your creations.

Spatula and Cooking Chopsticks

A specially designed wok spatula is essential for working with the rounded edges of a wok or if you want to cook like the pros, they like to use a round ladel. Cooking chopsticks are far longer than the regular variety and make stirring and adding/removing items really easy.

Chinese Cleaver

You will find a Chinese cleaver a great addition to your kitchen for more than just Chinese dishes. Use your cleaver to chop ingredients, peel vegetables, smash garlic, scale fish and tenderise meat. It really is the one essential piece of kitchen equipment that every Chinese kitchen has. 

Wire Skimmer

You’ll be using lots of hot oil to deep fry food, using a wire skimmer (or sometimes called a spider)  makes drainign the fried food very easy. Not only do you leave the oil behind, you reduce the likelihood of oil burns on your hands.

Cooking Pantry Staples

Chinese cooking sauces
Chinese sauces – oyster sauce, soy sauces and chilli oil

Most Chinese foods use a lot of common ingredients. Here are some staples you should have in your pantry:

SoySauce

Soy sauce comes in several varieties.  Light soy is most commonly used for cooking. Some recipes call for dark soy and this mainly for the colour. Dark soy has more taste, is thicker, and has less salt than typical soy sauce. The richer taste comes from the extra molasses or sugar that is added during the fermenting process. You can use either the Chinese, Korean or Japanese soy interchangeably.

Rice Wine and Rice Vinegar

You need both for Chinese cooking.  Rice vinegar is used quite often in vegetable dishes, some fish, and for salads.

Rice wine is used when frying vegetables or braising meat. Pale dry sherry can be substituted for rice wine.

Shitake Mushrooms

shitake mushrooms

Shitake mushrooms seem to make their way into a huge percentage of Chinese dishes. Buying dried shitake mushrooms is the easiest way to have them on hand when the urge to cook Chinese hits. They just take a few minutes to rehydrate when you want to use them in a dish. 

Five Spice Powder

Five spice powder is the most distinctive Chinese spice flavour and is used in a majority of dishes from roasted pork ribs to soups. Five spice powder consists of Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, cinnamon, cloves and fennel. (Sometimes black pepper and ground ginger added as well.) You can make your own or you can buy this mix ready to use. 

Fermented Black Beans (Douchi)

These are fermented dried soybeans which have a very concentrated flavour. This is the main flavour component in a Chicken in Black Bean sauce. 

Cooking oil

For stir frying, use a neutral cooking oil with a very high smoke point. Chinese cooks prefer peanut oil or cold pressed rapeseed oil. These works best as both are flavourless and have a very high burning point. Olive oil is not a good choice for cooking Chinese food as it has a distinct flavour and also has a very low smoking point. 

Getting Started

One of the more fun ways to learn to cook a Chinese is through a bit of trial and error.  Do a search of menus at your favourite Chinese restaurant or cook book. Decide on a dish that you would like to make based on what you have on hand.  One bonus is that most of the menus you’ll find will have all of the ingredients listed.

Try starting off by cooking your favorite takeaway meal. Some stir fries are very easy to cook. Sweet and Sour pork is a bit more involved as there are a few stages. You have to batter and fry the pork before you make the sauce that coats it. Once you’ve made yoru own, you won’t be ordering takeaway too often.

Some Chinese cooking tips

  1. Almost all meat that is fried is marinated first. Soy, ginger, and garlic is a good marinade. Any typical marinade works as well.
  2. Most sauces are thickened with a small amount of corn flour mixed with cold water.
  3. You will typically season the oil with ginger and garlic before adding the meat and vegetables.
  4. Spring onions or green onions are added just before the meal is finished cooking.
  5. Don’t be afraid to add or substitute vegetables.

Recommended Chinese Cook Books

These are some books that I refer to for recipes and techniques that I am unfamiliar with. 

  1. This is my Chinese recipe bible. A classic cookbook by Yan Kit So who distilled a lot of her own experience and family history into this book. In this book you will find a lot of classic Chinese recipes that you can cook at home. Most of these are Cantonese recipes but she also has some of the more common regional dishes too. Some of the recipes calls for unusual ingredients that might not be easily available unless you go to a good local Chinese supermarket. 

  1. Ken Hom, the godfather of modern Chinese food. His cook books are very comprehensive and his recipes are written in a way that is easy for a home cook to recreate at home with ingredients that are easily available in any supermarket. 

3. Kwoklyn Wan’ takeaway cook book 

Kwoklyn is Gok Wan’s brother and they both grew up learning to cook from their dad who ran a Chinese restaurant. This book has all the favourite Chinese takeaway dishes that you can easily recreate at home.

4. Kwoklyn Wan’ takeaway cook book 

This is his new book which only has vegan and vegetarian classic Chinese takeaway recipes 

5. Ching He Huang ‘s Food in Minutes

This is one of Ching’s earlier cook books, introducing dishes that a home cook can recreate in minutes. Again, written for an audience who are unfamiliar with Chinese cooking, using ingredients that are easily available. 

6. The Food of Sichuan by Fuschia Dunlop 

If you like the spicy, numbing dishes of Sichuan, this is an essential book. Fushcia has created a book with all the most famous and recognisable Sichuan recipes. I have just started trying out the dishes in here and they are easy for the home cook too. You just need to buy some extra ingredients like the mouth numbing Sichuan peppercorns. 

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