HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >


What "Asian" cuisine to start with?

I'm a little embarassed to admit that Hot Sour Salty Sweet was entirely intimidating to me last month. I would like to start learning more about all different kinds of Asian (I don't know what else to call it- Asian just doesn't seem right!) cuisine. What would be a good one to start with? What intimidates me is buying a lot of specialty ingredients and the quick cooking part of it, i.e. stir frying. I tend to panic when I have to do something quickly, like stir fry. So, I guess I'm looking to ease into it. I don't know if it's better to start with a good all-around Asian cookbook or if it would be better to focus on one, like Chinese or Thai. Any thoughts, tips, cookbooks, pointers to beginner cookbook threads?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. I think that Chinese is the most approachable, at least that was my first Asian cuisine many years ago. If you can get hold of a copy of Irene Kuo's "The Key to Chinese Cooking," use it as an introduction. It was published years ago, before many Chinese ingredients were available in the States, so almost all of the ingredients are easy to come by. I believe that this is out of print now, but many libraries have it. If you can't find it, let me know and you can borrow mine.

    7 Replies
    1. re: pikawicca

      I think the key to the fast cooking thing is that you have to have everything ready to go and sorted out. I put all the ingredients that go in at the same time in one bowl etc., to at least save some what on clean up. I tend to go over board in getting ingredients - perusing through recipes that look good and then going and buying everything I think I'll need - I now have stashes throughout my apartment of "Chinese" ingredients, "Thai/Vietnamese" ingredients and "Indian" ingredients. I've actually only used the books by the authors of HSSS - that one plus the Seduction of Rice and Mangoes and Curry Leaves. I also have a Chinese Cookbook - old - by Craig Claiborne, which I like. I don't have a wok and just use a very large stainless steel saute pan instead - has worked quite well so far. Good luck!

      1. re: MMRuth

        We do already have two woks despite having a crappy electric stove- they are my husbands; he *is* good at quick cooking! (This is also why I'm bad at breakfast food!)

      2. re: pikawicca

        From past threads, I was actually thinking about ordering a used copy from B&N- there are some decent prices. But, I wanted to figure out where a good start would be before I started ordering a bunch of stuff, like I usually do!

        1. re: pikawicca

          I'm just starting with Chinese cooking and find the whole "passing through" concept to be very foreign, and takes some getting used to. Sunday, I had oil popping all over my kitchen trying to hold it at the right temperature.

          I have found Thai cooking to be very accessible.

          Also, if the OP includes South Asian in her definition of Asian, Indian cooking is really interesting and intricate, but not super technically challenging. It blows my minds how the techniques are completely different than the (French-based) techniques of western cooking to accomplish similar results.

          1. re: Megiac

            Sorry, what do you mean by "passing through"? (I would include South Asian too, hence not knowing what to refer to it to encompass all the possibilities.)

            1. re: Katie Nell

              In Szechuan and Hunan cooking (possibly in other styles too--I only have one Chinese cookbook which is primarily those styles), you precook the meat (and sometimes vegetables) in hot oil before stir frying. It is supposed to give it a velvety texture, and the slightly crisp crust that will absorb the seasoning/sauce when you stir fry.

              Basically, you put 1 to 1 1/2 inches of oil at the bottom of your wok, heat it up to 320 degrees (you need a deep fry thermometer to get the right temperature), and drop the meat in in small batches, cook for a short period of time, scoop it out quickly and strain in a colander. Then, you dump out all but a tablespoon or so of the oil and start your stir fry.

          2. re: pikawicca

            I think this is a really good suggestion. Irene Kuo's Key to Chinese Cooking was written in 1977, in the same vein and level of instruction as Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Hazan's Classic Italian Cooking. It's very instructive, clear and is successful at demystifying unfamiliar cooking techniques. It was also the book that my Chinese college roommate gave me when I asked her for a recommendation for a good book to learn Chinese cooking from. I think after cooking from this book for a while, Katie, you'd be much more comfortable approaching other asian cuisines.

            Here's a link to the book on Amazon:


          3. I think that Vietnamese food is less complex and would probably be less intimidating for you. Ingredients are easy to find and, from what I know of the cuisine, the preparations are not nearly as involved as those required for authentic Chinese or Thai cooking.

            1 Reply
            1. re: FlavoursGal

              I disagree. I grew up on authentic, homecooked Vietnamese food and it takes almost the whole day prepare. Unless you are talking about basic stuff like spring rolls or rice noodle salads. Also, I do hear good things about the cookbook "Into the Vietnamese Kitchen". I think basic Chinese is the easiest as there are so many Americanized Chinese recipes out there already (cold sesame noodles, stir-fry, hot and sour soup). Japanese cuisine isn't that difficult, either. Though they treat their cooking as a tradition and artform that shouldn't be bastardized.

            2. You might try a straight on approach: do a bunch of simple and quick stir fries until you're comfortable with this almost pan-Asian technique. To do so, however, you need a STRONG gas flame. Some simple combos:

              1. Oil, garlic, Chinese cabbage, fermented black beans, sliced pork, splash of soy sauce
              2. Oil, garlic, bitter greens, squid, splash of fish sauce, dash of chili (20 secs for the squid)
              3. Oil, garlic, young green beans sliced on the bias, sliced beef, soy, chili, splash sesame

              4 Replies
              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                Yes, I was going to say using a wok on an electric burner might not cut it...won't get hot enough.

                1. re: prunefeet

                  Yeah, we know, but at this point, it can't be helped! Hopefully someday we will have a house and be able to have a gas stove, but apartment livin' and crappy electric stove for us right now!

                  1. re: Katie Nell

                    Do you have a place to BBQ? If so you might think about getting a single burner stove on legs with a tank of gas. I got one in a sporting goods store. made for car camping probably and only about $40 (n.b., a few years ago). Perfect for wok use--sturdy, big heat.

                    1. re: Katie Nell

                      Look for a flat bottomed wok. Atlas makes them and they are effective on an electric range. Not exoensve either. Get The Key to Chinese Cookoing

                2. Most of the general supermarkets have an Asian section nowadays. Asian is pretty broad stroked. Chinese is very different from Vietnamese. If I were to recommend a style to start with it would be Chinese. My preference is Vietnamese, the foods are lighter because it is such a hot climate. Thai has similarities to Vietnamese.

                  As for the stir fry, it is quite simple because you have prepared all your ingredients ahead of time. Nothing to scare you. I don't know where you live but check out and see if there is an Asian cooking class might ease your anxiety. If not, if there is an Asian restaurant in your area ask if you can work for free in the kitchen one day and see how things are done.

                  As for Chinese food cookbook authors: Martin Yan, Ken Holm, Barbara Tropp (The modern art of Chinese cooking...techniques and recipes). Or try Ming Tsai or Patricia Yeo's cookbooks. I always look on Amazon.com for used books.

                  The hot, sour, salty and sweet ..is very similar to our receptors on our tongue: sweet, bitter, salty, and sour....so it isn't to off putting. Some believe we have the "hot" receptors as well. If a dish seems dull a splash or citrus or vinegar, a pinch of salt, a hint of sugar..will perk up a dish.

                  I hope I haven't been "master of the obvious" here and this has been some assistance.

                  1. Katie, Here are my thoughts on stir frying, etc.
                    It's easy. The trick is to get all your vegs etc ready. Get vegetables cut, arrange separately (I use a dinner plate or 2). Chop ginger and garlic, keep in sep. containers or separately on chopping board. Take everything else out that you'll need too, like soya sauce, oyster sauce, chili paste, whatever.
                    I marinate some sliced meat while I'm prepping the vegetables - In a bowl, pour in: soya sauce, oyster sauce, a bit of sesame oil, some sherry, chopped garlic and ginger, and some cornstarch, stir to blend, add your meat.
                    Then get your pan nice and hot, add sliced ginger & garlic to flavor the oil. I take them out and discard after they get golden. Then I'm ready to start adding vegetables to the hot pan, in order of cooking time they need. Experiment. This is easy because just about any combination works. Carrots, peppers, onion, celery, mushrooms etc etc
                    Once stir frying has gone on for some minutes, add soya sauce & some oyster sauce to vegs., cover for a couple of minutes. I cook the meat in separate hot pan (with oil), and add to the cooked vegetables. At this point I add a bit of sesame oil and chili oil or paste as desired.
                    It's way easier to do it than to explain it! : ) As you can see, I don't use a recipe, just go by feel. The other 'trick' is to have the pan & oil hot enough (you have to 'scare' the vegetables apparently! you know, they make a noise when they go in.) Also, I use a heavy cast iron pan, no problem (I have a wok, but the SO uses that, I feel it's not necessary! I cook on an electric stove, again no problems.
                    I took a Japanese cooking class, which demystified some Japanese ingredients & techniques. Chicken teriyaki is now on regular rotation for instance. A very nice Japanese lady gave a great comprehensive class, I lucked out that time!
                    I also took a Thai cooking class which did the same thing. It's interesting to actually see the packages & ingredients, etc. I would have read books & studied the ingredients, but I still wouldn't have 'gotten it' without the classes. (My crazy recipe didn't come from a class though! that's my own easy invention for weeknights!)

                    1. Slightly off-topic, but I'd seriously recommend that you take a knife-skills class. Preparing vegetables for a stir-fry can be very time-consuming and frustrating; knowing how to use a chef's knife properly definitely adds to your enjoyment and efficiency when cooking, for all cuisines, not just Asian.

                      1. Whichever one you like the best..."accessible" is a highly relative term. Start learning to cook the dishes you like to eat. The positive sensory reinforcement of your favorite foods will motivate you to keep learning.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Hungry Celeste

                          Great point! Also if you're doing Chinese you don't have to start with stir-fry. There are braises, steamed dishes, salads... I had Chinese braised pork shank for lunch, I didn't cook it but I bet I could, easily. Add some rice and a salad (cucumber for example), you're good.

                        2. I'd go with the one you're most familiar with. It's hard to make something if you have no idea what it's supposed to be like or anything about it. I don't know if you can find a good all-around "Asian" cookbook. Imagine looking for a "European" cookbook. Stick with one specialty, possibly even one region as suggested above. It all takes a lot of prep--I was telling my MIL that I rarely make chinese food because I normally don't have the time to prep. Plus, you can't cook in advanced. You can prep in advance but cooking as to be right before eating (for the most part, there are dishes that can be).

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: chowser

                            Well... I wasn't really meaning an all-around cookbook as in a cookbook that covers *all* Asian cuisines, but more one that focuses on several regions, something like Trang's Essentials of Asian Cooking or Hot Sour Salty Sweet.

                          2. There are some good Japanese cookbooks in English as well. Look online--Japanese food is not too difficult and a lot of the dishes involve simmering, so it may not feel as overwhelming.

                            1. What Chowser said....

                              1. I would suggest beginning with the dishes of a single country or region. That way you won’t be faced with acquiring an overwhelming number of new ingredients and cooking tools.

                                A friend and I both began Chinese cooking at the same time in the 1980's. We each purchased a copy of CHINESE COOKERY by Rose Cheng. It is a high quality trade paperback that is now out of print but still available through Amazon or in used bookstores. (198 pages with table of contents and index.) The descriptions, illustrations and well explained recipes make it very easy to follow for anyone from novice upward. Most of the recipes feature accompanying photos. It starts off with an illustrated list and discussion of the ingredients and cooking tools you’ll need as well as preparation and cooking methods. The author also explains the distinct types of regional cooking in China and provides recipes representing China’s different regions.

                                We started with familiar dishes such as the garlic chicken, Yangchou fried rice and hot & sour soup. Then we ventured outward. I've had total success with with every recipe I've tried from this book. That covers main dishes, appetizers/dim sum and desserts/sweets.

                                I would recommend Rose Cheng’s book without hesitation and I’m apparently not the only one. Every person who has reviewed this cookbook on Amazon has given it 5 stars which is Amazon’s highest rating. Here is the link:

                                1. You might try starting with Asian dishes that are more forgiving in the prep/cook time - perhaps something like a Thai/Indian curry or Chinese BBQ chicken/pork (you can just bake it). Those are pretty easy, many times there's a curry paste, sauce, or marinade that's pretty much already mixed up for you in the store. That way you can take your time with it in the beginning while you're learning, and it doesn't matter too badly if you leave the stove on too long!

                                  1. Cradle of Flavor by James Oseland would be a good cookbook to start with. It deals with Indonesian, Singaporean, and Malaysian home cooking. The recipes are written in such detail that someone who has never cooked anything(not just anything Asian) should be able to do well. Some of the ingredients may be difficult to find but more available substitutions are provided. http://www.amazon.com/Cradle-Flavor-I...

                                    1. I'd say Chinese and specifically Cantonese is the easiest to get into because it is least dependent on ingredients such as sauces and spices that may not be easily available or be too exotic for an untrained palette, e.g. various kinds of Thai basils, fish sauce, shrimp paste etc.

                                      1. No need to be intimidated by stir-frying. Just fry things that need longer cooking first, then put in your water chestnuts, vegetables, etc. next. The main thing is to get the ingredients prepared beforehand.

                                        The big secret (for me) is creating a sauce that's as good as those at even shopping-mall Chinese restaurants. I've tried hoisin sauce, plum sauce, oyster sauce, honey, brown sugar, etc., etc., and have found nothing quite as tasty.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: mpalmer6c

                                          try chili oil, viniger( there are over 10 different kind of viniger you can find in asian market) dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, fresh garlic, sesame oil, or try to combine them together, find the perfect onefor you. I

                                        2. You CAN use a wok on an electric stove! It is admittedly easier and nicer to have gas, but you can make do with electric. When I used live in a tiny apartment with a crappy electric stove, we would make a ring out of aluminum foil that was slighly larger than the burner that the wok could sit on and also would insulate the heat from the element so that more heat would be directed to the wok (this was actually my SO's invention). And definitely start with dishes you like the best. It will be fun for you to go searching for lots of different ingredients and then you will also see other things that will interest you and you will want to try. I was was sort of in the opposite situation--being Korean and very intimidated by French food (still am actually).

                                          4 Replies
                                          1. re: grubn

                                            We do have a wok ring- I know it's not an ideal situation and probably authentic Chinese cooks would poo poo using a wok on an electric stove, but ya gotta do what ya gotta do! :-)

                                            1. re: Katie Nell

                                              Flat-bottomed woks work better. And they're awfully versatile pans, I use my small one constantly for all sorts of cooking.

                                              1. re: Aromatherapy

                                                I'd go with the flat bottomed wok, too. The wok ring holds the wok too far from the heat source and you end up with steamed vegetables rather than stir fried. My MIL gets a great stir fry but she uses far more oil than I do.

                                              2. re: Katie Nell

                                                Oh good. You can additionally wrap the ring in foil so that the heat is being directed to the wok and not escaping out the holes on the side of the ring (which of course, those holes are necessary when using on a gas flame)!