About the Book
About the Author
Ingredients and Equipment
Soups and Starters
Classic Chinese chicken stock
Cantonese egg flower soup
Sweetcorn and crab soup
Cantonese wonton soup
Spicy hot and sour soup
Sesame prawn toast
Crispy fried wontons
Dim sum-style pork dumplings
Peking-style caramel walnuts
Fish and Shellfish
Steamed Cantonese-style fish
Sichuan braised fish
Sweet and sour prawns
Spicy Sichuan-style prawns
Stir-fried squid with vegetables
Cantonese crab with black bean sauce
Steamed fresh oysters
Meat and Poultry
Stir-fried pork with spring onions
Sweet and sour pork, Chiu Chow style
Crackling Chinese roast pork
Stir-fried beef with oyster sauce
Stir-fried chicken with black bean sauce
Spicy chicken with peanuts
Classic lemon chicken
Chinese chicken curry
Crispy aromatic duck
Vegetables and Side Dishes
Stir-fried mixed vegetables
Braised Sichuan-style spicy beancurd
Sichuan-style green beans
Perfect steamed rice
Northern-style cold noodles
About the Book
Chinese food is popular the world over. In Ken Hom’s Simple Chinese Cookery (formerly called Foolproof Chinese Cookery), available in paperback as well as hardback, Ken proves that anyone can cook this healthy and delicious cuisine.
Ken demonstrates 40 of the most popular and well-known Chinese dishes with step-by-step instructions and photographs to accompany every stage from start to finish. The recipes (including soups and starters, fish and shellfish, meat and poultry and vegetable accompaniments) are not only quick and easy to prepare but are also convenient as they use readily available ingredients. The cookbook also features a special menu section so that you can plan your perfect meal.
From simple Green Chicken Curry to the more elaborate Whole Fish in Coconut Milk, Ken’s easy recipes have foolproof instructions that will guarantee even the novice cook excellent results every time.
About the Author
Ken Hom is widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest authorities on oriental cooking. He has made several series for the BBC including Hot Wok, Travels with a Hot Wok and Foolproof Chinese Cookery, and his many books are worldwide bestsellers.
My knowledge and love of Chinese cookery came from watching and imitating chefs at my uncle’s restaurant, where I was a young apprentice. Later, as a culinary professor, I was struck by the fact that although many of my students had read about various techniques in one or more of the many fine Chinese cookbooks available, it was only when they saw them demonstrated that they really understood them. And only then could they attempt to duplicate what I had shown them. The step-by-step procedures that I developed became the basis of my teaching and I used them extensively as a broadcaster. They form the backbone of the recipes in this book. The cliché about pictures being worth a thousand words is more valid than ever.
China has one of the world’s oldest culinary traditions. Its cuisine is unique because it developed independently of the West. Because of the ancient, insular civilization, poor transportation network, lack of arable land, shortage of fuels and lack of ovens, Chinese chefs were forced to accommodate their art to necessity. Later, as the Chinese moved abroad, they took this culinary heritage with them. If one wishes to understand the essence of Chinese cooking, therefore, it is important to make a cultural leap of faith.
‘Chinese cooks are engaged in creating harmony. The size and shape of the food, the fragrances and the contrasting tastes and textures are all part of the final result.’
Chinese cooks are engaged in creating harmony. The size and shape of the food, the fragrances and the contrasting tastes and textures are all part of the final result. Our aim is to attain a balance between all these elements. Often when I demonstrate, people are surprised by the simplicity and logic of this ancient cuisine. The tools we use are remarkably few and simple and the techniques so effective that cooks from other cuisines now use many of them.
In this book, you will see that Chinese cooking is really not very complex. The step-by-step photographs and the thoroughly tested recipes will help you to achieve success. However, you should be bold. Trust your palate. Follow the techniques and recipes but feel free to add your own touches. Adjust, invent, as Chinese cooks have done for centuries. Incorporate your favourite Chinese ingredients when cooking dishes from other cuisines. Use the techniques that you have mastered from this book and build upon them.
It is my hope that the pleasure you gain from making these foolproof recipes will give you the confidence of a true Chinese cook.
Ingredients and Equipment
Events of the past few decades have opened up the kitchens of the world to Asian food, and many of the most exotic ingredients are now readily available in the West. This is especially true of Chinese food. The following is a brief guide to ingredients used in this book.
Also known by its Chinese name, doufu, or the Japanese, tofu, beancurd is highly nutritious and rich in protein, with a distinctive texture but bland taste. It is made from yellow soya beans, which are soaked, ground, mixed with water and then cooked briefly before being solidified. Beancurd is readily available in two forms – as firm cakes or as a thickish junket – and may also be found in several dried forms and in a fermented version. The soft junket-like variety (sometimes called silken tofu) is used for soups, while the solid type is used for stir-frying, braising and poaching. Solid beancurd ‘cakes’ are white in colour and are sold in supermarkets and Chinese grocers, as well as in many healthfood shops. They are packed in water in plastic containers and may be kept in this state in the refrigerator for up to five days, provided the water is changed daily.
To use solid beancurd, cut it into cubes or shreds with a sharp knife. Do this with care as it is delicate. It also needs to be cooked carefully, as too much stirring can cause it to crumble.
Bok Choy (Chinese White Cabbage)
Although there are many varieties, the most common bok choy is the one with a long, smooth, milky-white stem and large, crinkly, dark-green leaves. The smaller the plant, the more tender it will be. Bok choy has a light, fresh, slightly mustardy flavour and requires little cooking. It is now widely available in supermarkets. Look for firm, crisp stalks and unblemished leaves. Store bok choy in the vegetable crisper of your refrigerator.
Caul fat is a lacy membrane that lines the stomach cavity of pigs and cows. It melts during cooking and is often used by European and Chinese cooks to encase stuffings and keep meat moist and delicious. You should be able to order caul fat from your local butcher. It is highly perishable, so buy it in small quantities and use quickly. For longer storage, wrap the caul fat carefully and freeze it. To defrost, rinse in cold water. I find that soaking caul fat in cold water before use helps to separate the fat without tearing its lacy, fragile webs.
Chillies are used extensively in western China, less so in the south. They are the seed pods of capsicum plants and can be obtained fresh, dried or ground. There are many types available and they vary greatly in flavour and heat.
Fresh chillies should look fresh and bright, with no brown patches or black spots. As a general rule, red chillies are milder than green ones because they sweeten as they ripen, but nevertheless some red chillies can be very spicy indeed.
To prepare fresh chillies, rinse them in cold water, then slit them lengthways with a small sharp knife. Remove and discard the seeds. Rinse the chillies again under cold running water and then prepare them according to the recipe. Wash your hands, knife and chopping board before preparing other foods, and be careful not to touch your eyes until you have washed your hands thoroughly.
Dried Red Chillies
The dried red chillies used in China are usually small, thin and about 1 cm (½ in) long. They are normally left whole or cut in half lengthways with the seeds left in and used to season oil for stir-fried dishes, sauces and braises. The Chinese like to blacken them and leave them in the dish during cooking but, as they are extremely hot, you may prefer to remove them immediately after using them to flavour the cooking oil. They can be found in Chinese and Asian grocers as well as in most supermarkets and will keep indefinitely in a tightly covered jar. When eating out, most diners carefully move the blackened chillies to one side of their plate.
Chilli Oil/Chilli Dipping Sauce
Chilli oil is sometimes used as a dipping condiment as well as a seasoning in China. It varies in strength according to the chillies used. The Thai and Malaysian versions are especially hot, the Taiwanese and Chinese ones more subtle. Commercial oils are quite acceptable but the home-made version is best, so I have included a recipe below. Remember that chilli oil is too intense to be used as the sole cooking oil, so combine it with milder oils. This recipe includes pepper and black beans for additional flavours so it can also be used as a dipping sauce.
150 ml (5 fl oz) groundnut oil
2 tablespoons chopped dried red chillies
1 tablespoon unroasted Sichuan peppercorns
2 tablespoons whole salted black beans
Heat a wok over a high heat, then add the oil followed by all the rest of the ingredients. Cook over a low heat for about 10 minutes, then remove from the heat and leave to cool. Pour into a jar and leave for 2 days, then strain the oil. Store in a tightly sealed glass jar in a cool, dark place, where it will keep indefinitely.
Green and red fresh chillies; dried red chillies
Chilli powder is made from dried red chillies and is used in many spicy dishes. As with chillies in general, add it according to taste.
Chinese Flowering Cabbage
Chinese flowering cabbage, or choi sum, is part of the mustard green cabbage family. It has green leaves and may have small yellow flowers, which can be eaten along with the leaves and stems. In China this is one of the most popular leafy vegetables and makes a delicious stir-fry dish.
Clockwise from top left: pak choy, chinese flowering cabbage, coriander, bok choy
Chinese Leaves (Peking Cabbage)
This delicious, crunchy vegetable comes in various sizes, from long, compact, barrel-shaped ones to short, squat types. The heads are tightly packed with firm, pale-green (or in some cases slightly yellow), crinkled leaves. It is most commonly added to soups and meat stir-fries but its ability to absorb flavours and its pleasant taste and texture make it a favourite with chefs, who match it with rich foods. Store it as you would ordinary cabbage.
Coriander (Chinese Parsley)
Fresh coriander is one of the relatively few herbs used in Chinese cookery. It looks like flat-leaf parsley but its pungent, musky, citrus-like flavour gives it a distinctive character that is unmistakable. Its delicate leaves are often used as a garnish, or they can be chopped and mixed into sauces and stuffings. Parsley can be substituted, although the taste will not be the same.
When buying fresh coriander, choose deep-green leaves; limp, yellowing leaves indicate age and should be avoided. To store coriander, wash it in cold water, dry thoroughly (preferably in a salad spinner) and wrap in kitchen paper. Put it in the vegetable compartment of your refrigerator, where it should keep for several days.
In China there are many flours and types of starch, such as water chestnut powder, taro starch and arrowroot. They are primarily used to bind ingredients together, thicken sauces and make batters. These exotic starches and flours are difficult to obtain outside China but I have found that cornflour works just as well in my recipes. Used in marinades, it helps to coat the food properly and it gives dishes a velvety texture. It also protects food during deep-frying by helping to seal in the juices, and can be used as a binder in minced stuffings. Before adding cornflour to sauces, blend it to a smooth paste with a little cold water. During cooking, the cornflour paste will turn clear and shiny.
In Chinese recipes, egg whites are often used in batters and as a coating to seal in the food’s flavour and juices when it is plunged into hot oil. It is especially important in velveting – a technique where chicken is coated in egg white and cornflour, then blanched in oil or water. One large egg white is about 2 tablespoons. You can easily freeze raw egg whites in tablespoon-size cubes in an ice-cube tray.
Also known as five-flavoured powder or five-fragrance spice powder, this is becoming a staple in the spice section of supermarkets, and Chinese grocers always keep it in stock. It is a mixture of ground star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, fennel, cloves and cinnamon. A good blend will be pungent, fragrant, spicy and slightly sweet. The exotic fragrance it gives to a dish makes the search for good five-spice powder well worth the effort. It keeps indefinitely in a tightly sealed jar.
Garlic has been an essential seasoning in Chinese cookery for thousands of years. Indeed, Chinese food would be unrecognizable without its highly aromatic smell and distinctive taste. It is used to flavour oils as well as spicy sauces and is often paired with other pungent ingredients, such as spring onions, black beans and fresh ginger.
Select bulbs of garlic that are firm and preferably pinkish in colour. Store in a cool, dry place but not in the refrigerator, where it can easily become mildewed or start sprouting.
Garlic and ginger
Fresh root ginger is an indispensable ingredient in Chinese cooking. Its pungent, spicy taste adds a subtle but distinctive flavour to soups, meats and vegetables and it is also an important seasoning for fish and seafood, since it neutralizes fishy smells.
Root ginger looks rather like a gnarled Jerusalem artichoke and can vary in length from 7.5–15 cm (3–6 in). Select firm, unshrivelled pieces and peel off the skin before use. It will keep in the refrigerator, well wrapped in clingfilm, for about two weeks. Dried powdered ginger has a quite different flavour and should not be substituted for fresh.
Most of the recipes in this book that require ginger specify that it should be finely shredded or chopped. For shredded ginger, thinly slice a piece lengthways, then stack and cut lengthways again into fine strips. To chop finely, turn the shredded ginger round and chop it horizontally.
Chinese ham has a rich, salty flavour and is used primarily as a garnish or seasoning for soups, sauces, stir-fries, noodles and rice. Parma ham or lean English smoked bacon (with any rind or fat cut away) makes a good substitute.
Mangetout (Snow Peas)
This familiar vegetable combines a tender, crunchy texture with a sweet, fresh flavour. Look for firm pods with very small peas, which means they are tender and young. Mangetout should keep for about a week in the vegetable crisper of the refrigerator.
Chinese Dried Mushrooms
There are many varieties of these, either black or brown, but the very large, pale ones with a cracked surface are the best. They are usually the most expensive, so use them sparingly. They are available in boxes or plastic bags from Chinese grocers. Store in an airtight jar.
Clockwise from top left: straw mushrooms, tree fungus, Chinese dried mushrooms, wood ear fungus
To use dried mushrooms, soak them in a bowl of warm water for about 20 minutes or until they are soft and pliable. Squeeze out the excess water, then cut off and discard the woody stems. Only the caps should be used. The soaking water can be saved and used in soups or for cooking rice. Strain it through a fine sieve to discard any sand or residue from the dried mushrooms.
Chinese Tree Fungus
These tiny, black, dried leaves are also known as cloud ears, because when soaked they puff up like little clouds. They are valued for their crunchy texture and slightly smoky flavour. You should be able to find them at Chinese markets, usually wrapped in plastic bags. They keep indefinitely in a jar stored in a cool, dry place. Before use, soak them in hot water for 20–30 minutes until soft, then rinse well, cutting away any hard bits.
Chinese Wood Ear Fungus
This is a larger variety of the Chinese tree fungus described on the here. Soak and trim them in the same manner before use. During soaking, they will swell up to four or five times their original size. They keep indefinitely when stored in a jar in a cool dry place.
These are among the tastiest mushrooms to be found in China. When fresh they have deep brown caps which are moulded around the stem. In the West they are only available in tins, from Chinese grocers and some supermarkets and delicatessens. Drain and rinse in cold water before use.
In China, people eat noodles (pasta) of all kinds, day and night, in restaurants and at food stalls. They provide a nutritious, quick, light snack and are usually of good quality. Several types of Chinese noodles have now made their way into the West.
Clockwise from top left: flat wheat noodles, beanthread noodles, egg noodles, rice noodles, round wheat noodles
Bean Thread (Transparent) Noodles
Also called cellophane noodles, these very fine, white noodles are made from ground mung beans. They are available dried, packed in neat, plastic-wrapped bundles, from Chinese markets and supermarkets.
Bean thread noodles are never served on their own but are added to soups or braises or deep-fried and used as a garnish. Soak them in warm water for about 5 minutes before use. As they are rather long, you might find it easier to cut them into shorter lengths after soaking. If you are frying them, they do not need soaking beforehand but they do need to be separated. The best way to do this is to pull them apart in a large paper bag, which stops them flying all over the place.
These dried noodles are opaque white and come in a variety of shapes and thicknesses. One of the most common is rice stick noodles, which are flat and about the length of a chopstick. Rice noodles are very easy to prepare. Simply soak them in warm water for 20 minutes until they are soft, then drain in a colander or sieve. They are now ready to be used in soups or stir-fried.
Wheat Noodles and Egg Noodles
Available dried or fresh, these are made from hard or soft wheat flour, water, and sometimes egg, in which case they are labelled egg noodles. Flat noodles are usually used in soups, while rounded ones are best for frying. The fresh ones freeze well if they are tightly wrapped. Thaw thoroughly before cooking.
Dried wheat or fresh egg noodles are very good blanched and served as an accompaniment to main dishes instead of plain rice. If you are cooking noodles ahead of time or before stir-frying them, toss the cooked, drained noodles in 2 teaspoons of sesame oil and put them into a bowl. Cover this with clingfilm and refrigerate for up to 2 hours.
Oil is the most commonly used cooking medium in China, although animal fats, usually lard and chicken fat, are also used in some areas, particularly in the north.
To re-use oil after deep-frying, let it cool, then filter it through muslin or a fine sieve into a jar. Seal and store in a cool, dry place. If you keep it in the refrigerator it will become cloudy, but it will clarify again when it returns to room temperature. I find oils are best re-used just once, which is healthier, since their saturated fat content increases the more you use them.
This is also known as peanut or arachide oil. I prefer to use it for Chinese cookery because it has a pleasant, unobtrusive taste. Although it has a higher saturated fat content than some oils, its ability to be heated to a high temperature without burning makes it perfect for stir-frying and deep-frying. Most supermarkets stock groundnut oil but if you cannot find it, use corn oil instead.
Corn or maize oil is also quite suitable for Chinese cooking, since it has a high heating point. However, I find it rather bland and with a slightly disagreeable smell. It is high in polyunsaturates and is therefore one of the healthier oils.
Other Vegetable Oils
Some of the cheaper vegetable oils available include soya bean, safflower and sunflower. Light in colour and taste, they can be used in Chinese cooking but take care, since they smoke and burn at lower temperatures than groundnut oil.
This thick, rich, golden brown oil made from sesame seeds has a distinctive, nutty flavour and aroma. It is widely used in Chinese cookery as a seasoning but is not normally used as a cooking oil because it burns easily. Think of it more as a flavouring than a cooking oil. A small amount is often added at the last moment to finish a dish.
Raw peanuts are widely used in Chinese cooking to add flavour and crunch. They are especially good when marinated or added to stir-fry dishes. The thin red skins should be removed before use. To do this, simply immerse the nuts in a pan of boiling water for about 2 minutes, then drain and leave to cool; the skins will come off easily.
For most of the recipes in this book you will need medium-to-large raw, unshelled prawns. These are sweeter and more succulent than ready-cooked ones. Before cooking, they should be shelled and, if large, de-veined. To remove the shell, twist off the head and discard, then, using your fingers, break open the shell along the belly and peel it off. Run a small, sharp knife along the back of the prawn and pull out the dark intestinal vein. The tail shell can be left on for presentation.
There are many different varieties of rice in China but long grain is the most popular. Although the Chinese go through the ritual of washing it, rice purchased at supermarkets doesn’t require this step. However, if you wish to do as the Chinese do, put the rice into a large bowl, fill it with cold water and swish the rice around with your hands. Carefully pour off the cloudy water, keeping the rice in the bowl. Repeat this process several times until the water is clear.
Table salt is the finest grind but many cooks believe that the coarser sea salt has a richer flavour. Sea salt is frequently found in bins at Chinese markets. Rock salt is often used in certain kinds of chaozhou (a cooking style from southern China), especially with chicken dishes.
Salted Black Beans
These small black soya beans are fermented with salt and spices to preserve them. Their distinctive flavour makes them a tasty seasoning, especially when used with garlic or fresh ginger. They are inexpensive and can be obtained from Chinese grocers, usually in tins labelled ‘black beans in salted sauce’, but you may also see them packed in plastic bags. You can rinse them before use as an optional step; I prefer to chop them slightly, too, as this helps to release their pungent flavour. Transfer any unused beans and liquid to a sealed jar and they will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator. For convenience, black bean sauce is now available in supermarkets, which in many cases is authentic and quite acceptable.
Sauces and Pastes
Chinese and Asian cookery involves a number of tasty sauces and pastes. They are essential for authentic Chinese cooking, and it is well worth making the effort to obtain them. Most are sold in bottles or tins by Chinese grocers and some supermarkets. Once opened, tinned sauces should be transferred to screw-top glass jars and kept in the refrigerator, where they will last indefinitely.
Chilli Bean Sauce
This thick, dark sauce or paste is made from soya beans, chillies and other seasonings, and is very hot and spicy. Be sure to seal the jar tightly after use and store in the larder or refrigerator. Do not confuse it with chilli sauce (see here), which is a hotter, redder, thinner condiment made without beans.
Clockwise from top: chilli bean sauce, hoisin sauce, yellow bean sauce, oyster sauce, chilli oil
This hot, bright-red sauce, made from chillies, vinegar, sugar and salt, is mainly used as a dipping sauce. There are various brands available in Chinese grocers and many supermarkets and you should experiment with them until you find the one you like best. If you find chilli sauce too strong, dilute it with hot water. Do not confuse this sauce with chilli bean sauce (see here), which is a much thicker, darker sauce used for cooking.
This thick, dark, brownish-red sauce, made from soya beans, vinegar, sugar, spices and other flavourings, is sweet and spicy. It is sold in tins and jars (it is sometimes also called barbecue sauce) and is available in Chinese grocers and supermarkets. If refrigerated, it should keep indefinitely.
This thick, brown sauce is made from a concentrate of oysters cooked in soy sauce and brine. Despite its name, it does not taste fishy. It has a rich flavour and is used not only in cooking but also as a condiment, diluted with a little oil, for vegetables, poultry and meat. It is usually sold in bottles and can be bought in Chinese grocers and supermarkets. I find it keeps best in the refrigerator. A vegetarian oyster sauce made with mushrooms is now available.
This rich, thick, creamy brown paste is made from sesame seeds and is used in both hot and cold dishes. If you cannot obtain it, use peanut butter, which has a similar texture. Don’t substitute tahini, the Middle Eastern sesame seed paste, since the flavour is not as strong.
Soy sauce is an essential ingredient in Chinese cooking. It is made from a mixture of soya beans, flour and water, which is then fermented naturally and aged for some months. The liquid that is finally distilled is soy sauce.
There are two main types. Light soy sauce, as the name implies, is light in colour, but it is full of flavour and is the better one to use for cooking. It is saltier than dark soy sauce, and is known in Chinese grocers as Superior Soy. Dark soy sauce, confusingly, is known as Soy Superior Sauce. It is aged for much longer than light soy sauce, hence its darker, almost black colour, and is also slightly thicker and stronger. It is more suitable for stews. I prefer it to light soy as a dipping sauce.
Supermarkets tend to sell dark soy sauce. Chinese grocers sell both types and the quality is excellent. Be sure you buy the correct one, as the names are very similar.
Whole Yellow Bean Sauce
This thick, spicy, aromatic sauce is made of yellow beans, flour and salt, which are fermented together. It is quite salty, and adds a distinctive flavour to Chinese sauces. There are two forms: whole beans in a thick sauce, and mashed or puréed beans (sold as crushed yellow bean sauce). I prefer the whole bean variety because it is slightly less salty and has a better texture.
These are the dried seeds of the sesame herb. Unhulled, the seeds range from greyish white to black in colour. The tiny hulled seeds are cream coloured and pointed at one end. Stored in a glass jar in a cool, dry place, they will last indefinitely.
To toast sesame seeds, heat a frying pan, then add the seeds and stir occasionally. Watch them closely to make sure they don’t burn. When they begin to brown lightly, after about 3–5 minutes, stir them again and tip them on to a plate. Leave to cool, then store in a glass jar in a cool, dark place.
Alternatively, you could spread the sesame seeds on a baking sheet and roast them in an oven preheated to 160°C/325°F/Gas Mark 3 for 10–15 minutes, until lightly browned.
Shaoxing Rice Wine
Rice wine is used extensively for cooking and drinking throughout China, but I believe the finest of its many varieties to be from Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province in eastern China. It is made from glutinous rice, yeast and spring water. Now readily available in Chinese markets and in some wine shops in the West, it should be kept tightly corked at room temperature. A good-quality, pale dry sherry can be substituted but cannot match its rich, mellow taste. Do not confuse this wine with sake, which is the Japanese version of rice wine and quite different. Western grape wines are not an adequate substitute either.
If you cannot get rice wine, use a good-quality, dry pale sherry instead. Do not use sweet or cream sherries.
Sichuan peppercorns are known throughout China as ‘flower peppers’ because they look like flower buds opening. They are reddish brown, with a strong, pungent odour that distinguishes them from the hotter black peppercorns. They are actually not from peppers at all; instead they are the dried berries of a shrub belonging to the citrus family. Their smell reminds me of lavender but their taste is sharp and mildly spicy.
Sichuan peppercorns are inexpensive and will keep indefinitely if stored in a well-sealed container. They can be ground in a conventional peppermill and are very often roasted first to bring out the full flavour. To roast them, heat a wok or heavy frying-pan to a medium heat. Add the peppercorns (you can cook about 150 g (5 oz) at a time) and stir-fry them for about 5 minutes, until they brown slightly and start to smoke. Remove the pan from the heat and let them cool. Grind the peppercorns in a peppermill or a clean coffee grinder, or with a mortar and pestle. Store in a tightly sealed screw-top jar. Alternatively keep the whole roasted peppercorns in a well-sealed container and grind them when required.
Spring onions (from top) finely chopped, shredded, cut on the round, cut on the diagonal
Western varieties of spinach are quite different from those used in China but they make satisfactory substitutes. Spinach is most commonly stir-fried, so frozen spinach is unsuitable since it is so moist. Chinese water spinach is the most common type in China and is available in Chinese markets in the West. It has hollow stems, delicate, pointed, green leaves, and a paler colour and milder flavour than common spinach. It should be cooked when very fresh, preferably on the day it is bought.
The recipes in this book specify a variety of ways to prepare spring onions, both for cooking and for garnish. First, peel off the outer layer if it is bruised or damaged. Trim the tops and bottom and remove any damaged green tops.
To chop finely, split into quarters lengthways, then chop into small pieces horizontally. To shred, cut the onions in half horizontally, then split very finely lengthways. To curl shredded spring onions, put them in a bowl of ice-cold water. This makes an attractive garnish. Spring onions can also be cut simply on the round at various thicknesses, and also on the diagonal, which is useful for certain recipes and also looks pretty as a garnish.
Spring Roll Skins
These 15 cm (6 in) square, paper-thin wrappers are made from a soft flour and water dough. They are available in packets of 20 from Chinese grocers and keep well in the freezer if wrapped in clingfilm.
Star anise is a hard, star-shaped spice, the seed pod of an attractive bush. It is similar in flavour and fragrance to common anise but more robust and liquorice-like. Star anise is an essential ingredient in five-spice powder (see here) and is widely used in braised dishes, to which it imparts a rich taste and fragrance. It is available in plastic packs from Chinese grocers and should be stored in a sealed jar in a cool, dry place.
Used sparingly, sugar helps to balance the flavours of sauces and other dishes. Chinese sugar comes in several forms: as rock or yellow lump sugar, as brown sugar slabs, and as maltose or malt sugar. I particularly like to use rock sugar, which has a richer, more subtle flavour than refined granulated sugar and gives a good lustre to braised dishes and sauces. It is available in packets from Chinese grocers. You may need to break the lumps into smaller pieces with a wooden mallet or rolling pin. If you cannot find it, use white sugar or coffee sugar crystals (the amber, chunky kind) instead.
Vinegars are widely used in Chinese cooking. Unlike Western vinegars, they are usually made from rice. There are many varieties, ranging in flavour from spicy and slightly tart to sweet and pungent. They can be bought in Chinese grocers and will keep indefinitely. If you cannot get Chinese vinegar, I suggest you use cider vinegar. Malt vinegar can be substituted if necessary but its taste is stronger and more acidic.
White Rice Vinegar
This clear vinegar has a mild flavour with a faint taste of glutinous rice. It is used in sweet and sour dishes.
Black Rice Vinegar
Black rice vinegar is very dark in colour and rich, though mild, in taste. It is used for braised dishes, sauces, and sometimes as a dipping sauce for crab.
Red Rice Vinegar
This is sweet and spicy, and is normally used as a dipping sauce for seafood.
Water chestnuts are a white, sweet, crunchy bulb about the size of a walnut. In China they are often simmered in rock sugar and eaten as a snack. They are also used in cooked dishes, especially in southern China.
In the West, tinned water chestnuts are sold in many supermarkets and Chinese grocers. They have a good texture but little taste. Rinse them well in cold water before use and store any unused ones in a jar of cold water. They will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator if you change the water daily. Fresh water chestnuts can sometimes be obtained from Chinese grocers or good supermarkets. They are tastier than tinned ones and will keep, unpeeled, in a paper bag in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Peel them before use and put any leftover ones back in the refrigerator, covered with cold water.
Clockwise from top: fresh water chestnuts, star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, wonton skins
These thin, yellowish, pastry-like wrappings made from egg and flour can be stuffed with minced meat and fried, steamed or used in soups. They are available fresh or frozen from Chinese grocers or supermarkets, sold in little piles of 8 cm (3¼ in) squares, wrapped in plastic. Fresh wonton skins will keep for about 5 days in the refrigerator if wrapped in clingfilm or a plastic bag. If you are using frozen wonton skins, just peel off the number you require and leave to thaw completely.
Traditional cooking equipment is not essential for the preparation of Chinese food but in some cases will make it very much easier. These implements have been tested through many centuries of use. Once you become familiar with woks and clay pots, for example, you will have entered the culinary world of China.
All your faith in Chinese cookery and your own skills will come to nothing without a good wok. This versatile piece of equipment can be used not only for stir-frying but also for blanching, deep-frying and steaming. Its shape permits fuel-efficient, quick and even heating and cooking. When stir-frying, the deep sides prevent the food spilling over; when deep-frying, much less oil is required because of the tapered base of the wok.
There are two basic types: the traditional Cantonese version, with short, rounded handles on either side, and the pau, sometimes called the Peking wok, which has one 30–35 cm (12–14 in) long handle. The long-handled wok keeps you at a safer distance from the possibility of splashing hot oil or water.
The standard round-bottomed wok may only be used on gas hobs. Ones with flatter bottoms are now available, designed especially for electric hobs. Although this shape really defeats the purpose of the traditional design, which is to concentrate intense heat at the centre, it is better than an ordinary frying-pan because it has deeper sides.
Choosing a Wok
Choose a large wok – preferably about 30–35 cm (12–14 in) in diameter, with deep sides. It is easier and safer to cook a small batch of food in a large wok than a large quantity in a small one. Be aware that some modernized woks are too shallow or too flat-bottomed and thus no better than a frying-pan. A heavier wok, preferably made of carbon steel, is superior to the lighter stainless steel or aluminum type, which cannot take very high heat and tends to blacken, as well as scorch the food. Good non-stick carbon steel woks that maintain the heat without sticking are now on the market. They need special care to prevent scratching but in recent years the non-stick technology has improved, so that they can now be safely recommended. They are especially useful when cooking food that has a high acid level, such as lemons.
Seasoning a Wok
All woks except non-stick ones should be seasoned before first use. Many need to be scrubbed as well, to remove the machine oil that is applied to the surface by the manufacturer to protect it in transit. This is the only time you will ever need to scrub your wok – unless you let it become rusty.
Scrub it with a cream cleanser and water to remove as much of the machine oil as possible. Then dry it and put it on the hob on a low heat. Add 2 tablespoons of cooking oil and, using a wad of kitchen paper, rub the oil over the inside of the wok until the entire surface is lightly coated. Heat the wok slowly for about 10–15 minutes and then wipe it thoroughly with more kitchen paper. The paper will become blackened. Repeat this process of coating, heating and wiping until the kitchen paper comes clean. Your wok will darken and become well seasoned with use, which is a good sign.
Cleaning a Wok
Once your wok has been seasoned, you should never scrub it with soap or water. Just wash it in plain clear water and dry it thoroughly after each use – putting the cleaned wok over a low heat for a minute or two should do the trick. If it does rust a bit, scrub it with a cream cleanser and re-season it.
Stir-frying in a Wok
The most important thing when stir-frying is to have all your ingredients ready and to hand – this is a very fast method of cooking and you will not have time to stop and chop things while you are cooking.
Heat the wok until it is very hot, then add the oil and distribute it evenly over the surface using a metal spatula or long-handled spoon. It should be very hot – almost smoking – before you add the ingredients.
Add the food to be cooked and stir-fry by tossing it around the wok or pan with a metal spatula or long-handled spoon. If you are stir-frying meat, let each side rest for a few seconds before continuing to stir. Keep moving the food from the centre of the wok to the sides.
I prefer to use a long-handled wok, as there can be a lot of splattering due to the high temperature at which the food must be cooked.
This is a metal ring or frame designed to keep a conventionally shaped wok steady on the hob. It is essential if you want to use your wok for steaming, deep-frying or braising. Stands come in two designs: a solid metal ring punched with about six ventilation holes, and a circular thin wire frame. If you have a gas cooker use only the latter type, as the more solid design does not allow for sufficient ventilation and may lead to a build-up of gas, which could put the flame out completely.
This light, inexpensive domed cover, usually made from aluminium, is used for steaming. It is normally supplied with the wok but, if not, may be purchased at a Chinese or Asian market, or you may use any domed saucepan lid that fits snugly.
A long-handled metal spatula shaped rather like a small shovel is ideal for scooping and tossing food in a wok. Alternatively any good long-handled spoon can be used.
When steaming food in your wok, you will need a wooden or metal rack or trivet to raise the food above the water level. Wok sets usually include a rack but, if not, Asian and Chinese grocers sell them separately. Department stores and hardware shops also sell wooden and metal stands which can serve the same purpose. Any rack, improvised or not, that keeps the food above the water so that it is steamed and not boiled will suffice.
This bundle of stiff, split bamboo is used for cleaning a wok without scrubbing off the seasoned surface. It is an attractive, inexpensive implement but not essential. A soft washing-up brush will do just as well.
One decided improvement over traditional Chinese cooking implements is the modern chopping board made of hardwood or white acrylic. Typical Chinese chopping boards are made of soft wood, which is difficult to maintain and, being soft, provides a fertile surface for bacteria. Hardwood or white acrylic boards are easy to clean, resist bacterial accumulation, and last much longer. Chinese cookery entails much chopping, slicing and dicing so it is essential to have a large, steady chopping board. For reasons of hygiene, never place cooked meat on a board on which raw meat or poultry has been prepared. For raw meat, always use a separate board and clean it thoroughly after each use.
Many Western diners feel challenged by chopsticks, but I always encourage their use. Attempting any new technique is an interesting experience, and chopsticks do indeed offer the novice a physical entrée into Chinese cuisine. They are used as a combination spoon and fork, and for stirring, beating, whipping and mixing. But, of course, you can also get along nicely with Western spoons, forks, ladles, spatulas and whisks.
Chopsticks are cheap and readily available. I prefer the wooden ones but in China plastic ones are more commonly used (and reused) for hygienic and economic reasons.
To Chinese cooks, the cleaver is an all-purpose cutting instrument that makes all other knives redundant. Once you acquire some skill with a cleaver you will see how it can be used on all types of food to slice, dice, chop, fillet, shred, crush or whatever. In practice, most Chinese chefs rely upon three different sizes of cleaver – light, medium and heavy – to be used appropriately. Of course, you may use your own familiar kitchen knives instead, but if you decide to invest in a cleaver choose a good-quality stainless steel model and keep it sharpened.
A deep-fat fryer is very useful and you may find it safer and easier to use for deep-frying than a wok. The quantities of oil given in the recipes in this book are based on the amount required for deep-frying in a wok. If you are using a deep-fat fryer instead, you will need about double that amount, but never fill it more than half-full with oil.
Wok with lid, spatula, chopsticks, wok stand, cleaver and rack
Electric rice cookers are increasing in popularity. They cook rice perfectly and keep it warm throughout the meal. They also have the advantage of freeing a burner or element so the hob is less cluttered. They are relatively expensive, however, so are only worth buying if you eat rice frequently.
Sand or Clay Pots
The Chinese rely upon these lightweight clay pots for braised dishes, soups and rice cooking. Their unglazed exteriors have a sandy texture, hence their name, and their design allows the infusion of aromas and tastes into foods. Clay pots are available in many sizes, with matching lids, and, being quite fragile, they are often encased in a wire frame. They should be used directly on the hob (most Chinese do not have ovens) but never put an empty clay pot on a heated element or a hot one on a cold surface: the shock will crack it. Clay pots should always have at least some liquid in them and, when filled with food, they can take very high heat. If you have an electric cooker, use an asbestos pad to insulate the pot from direct contact with the hot coils. Note that because of the release of hot steam you should always lift the lid away from you.
Clay pots and bamboo steamers
Steaming is not a very popular cooking method in the West. This is unfortunate because it is the best way of preparing many foods with a delicate taste and texture, such as fish and vegetables. In China, bamboo steamers have been in use for thousands of years. They come in several sizes of which the 25 cm (10 in) one is the most suitable for home use. The food is placed in the steamer, which is then placed above boiling water in a wok or pot. To stop the food sticking to the steamer as it cooks, put it on a layer of clean, damp muslin. A tight-fitting bamboo lid prevents the steam escaping; several steamers, stacked one above the other, may be used simultaneously.
Before using a bamboo steamer for the first time, wash it and then steam it with nothing in it for about 5 minutes. Of course, any kind of wide metal steamer may be used instead if you prefer.