So you want to start cooking Chinese food at home? Good plan! Your hand-crafted dan dan noodles are definitely going to taste better than the takeout junk you've been eating in shame. The first step, like any adventure, is proper outfitting. It's worth it to invest in all of the tools and ingredients for mastering Chinese cuisine from the get-go. You'll have everything you need to practice cooking at your fingertips and you'll be hosting Chinese banquet dinners in no time flat. Here's where to start.
1. Dark soy sauce
Dark soy sauce is richer, thicker and less salty than regular soy sauce. It's amped up with sugar or molasses and left to ferment for longer than the thin stuff. Use dark soy in sauces or marinades and shop for Chinese brands instead of Japanese ones, which tend to be leaner and sweeter.
2. Rice vinegar and rice wine
It's easy to confuse these two cooking liquids, which are both made with fermented rice. Rice wine is made by fermenting the sugars in rice into alcohol, which can be used for either cooking or drinking. Rice vinegar goes one step further and ferments the rice wine, turning it into an acid.
3. Five spice powder
This classic spice blend typically consists of star anise, fennel, cinnamon, cloves and Sichuan peppercorns, and sometimes black pepper and ground ginger. The number refers to five elements crucial in Chinese medicine: earth, wood, fire, metal, and water, which are represented by the sweet-savory-bitter-sour flavors in the powder.
4. Douchi (fermented black beans)
These black beans are actually dried soybeans fermented with tons of salt, giving them an intensely concentrated flavor that serves well as a base for many Chinese dishes. To buy, visit a Chinese grocer and look for the beans stored in plastic bags, which usually have more flavor than the jarred versions.
5. Chinese dried black (shiitake) mushrooms
Shiitake mushrooms are as ubiquitous in Chinese cuisine as bok choy and bamboo shoots. Drying mushrooms deepens their earthy, pungent flavor. To use, simply rehydrate the mushrooms in warm water before cooking.
6. Wok, spatula and lid
A curved wok is key for all sorts of Chinese cooking, from stir-fries to deep-frying. A hammered carbon steel model is best because it conducts heat evenly and quickly, and the hammered dimples help keep cooked food to the side without slipping when you add raw ingredients to the hot center. If you're using an electric stove, you'll need a flat-bottom wok. A wok spatula is specifically shaped to work with rounded edges, and a domed lid is essential for steaming.
Chinese cleavers are an indispensible all-around tool: Use them to chop ingredients, scale fish, pound meat, smash garlic, peel vegetables, slice and roll dough, and much more.
8. Bamboo steamer
A must for cooking dumplings, fish, vegetables and even rice. Bamboo is a natural alternative to metal steamers and just looks better.
9. Cooking chopsticks
Chopsticks are useful beyond simply eating — deploy them as a handy spatula or tong replacement, for testing oil heat, scrambling with finesse and more. Just be sure to get the longer version, which are safer for cooking.
10. Wire skimmer
The wire skimmer or strainer makes scooping food out of a hot-oil-filled wok foolproof.
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