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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?

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  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:

            http://www.amazon.com/Key-Chinese-Coo...

          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!)