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I want to get started with Chinese cooking

I have a lot of cooking experience, especially in French cuisine, but I have never really cooked Chinese cuisine. What cookbook should I start out with? I was thinking one of the Dunlop books (which one is the best?) or perhaps something else entirely. My next question is, basically, is a wok absolutely essential for cooking most Chinese food? I live in a relatively small apartment with three other people and kitchen space is quite limited so I may not be able to get one, at least not right away. Thanks

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  1. In my opinion, there is no need to buy a wok. You probably have a nicely seasoned cast iron pan or something else that heats up well on your presumably western stove. Use that. I use a 10 inch cast iron pan even though I own a well seasoned wok. That works for a single meal sized portion, but note that I do the veggies separate from the meat. Do not overload whatever pan you choose (you know that, of course).

    It also helps to have a favorite steaming apparatus. You don't need a bamboo steamer.

    1. When I started to do Chinese cooking in the 1970s, I bought Wokcraft:

      http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780...

      I seem to have lost or misplaced my copy, but I recall it seemed like a good introduction.

      The essential book for getting deeper into Chinese cooking at that time was Chang and Kutscher, which has hundreds of recipes, and no fluff.

      1. There are hundreds of Chinese cookbooks and Dunlop's three are a good start. No need to buy a wok until you get a 22,000 BTU BlueStar range. With most home ranges at around 8,000 to 11,000 BTU, a flat frying pan works best.

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqYO3V...

        5 Replies
        1. re: scoopG

          scoopG, any idea how much these ranges start at? This info doesn't appear to be readily available on the internet. Are there any other home ranges you know of that deliver the proper BTUs and scooped-out pit type burner that is appropriate for wok cooking?

          Mr Taster

          1. re: Mr Taster

            Mr. Taster, there are both BlueStar Cooktops and Ranges. The Cooktops are in the $3,000 area and the Ranges start around $5,000 to $6,000 depending on the bells and whistles. For example BlueStar offers an option on self-cleaning ovens.

            BlueStar Cooktops are not finished Cooktops like the Wolf or Viking models, which utilize closed burners. Closed burners limit the BTU’s, which of course is much safer for general home use.

            For much cheaper outdoor options:.
            http://www.indiajoze.com/equipment.html

            Wok-A-Q
            This one may have a better control on it, but base is the same. (Looks like he overdoes the sauce here and the vegetable cuts do not match the pork belly cubes...).
            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKu6Wf...

            Here is one with a stand:
            http://importfood.com/thaigasburner.html

            1. re: scoopG

              Great alternatives. I'm in a rented apartment with no real outdoor space but this is great into to file away for future reference. I imagine that LAX-C in downtown LA stocks these burners... I'll have to check it out.

              Mr Taster

              1. re: scoopG

                I would love to use one of these. Right now I'm using a cast iron wok on a Wolf "open burner" rangetop. Doesn't get hot enough to suit me, but I'm not sure I'd appreciate the "hassle" of cooking on one of these all the time...

                FWIW, my SO's Chinese mother never cooked in a wok, but always used a frying pan.

              2. re: Mr Taster

                We have a Capital Culinarian (23k BTU). I prefer its wok grate to Blue Star - it is much taller and holds the wok more steady.

            2. A wok is useless for most home cooks. I am a real novice at Chinese cooking and don't have your culinary background/skills. I've been happy with my heavy bottomed, 12" stainless pan. I don't even know the proper term for it. (It has 2 handles, and straight 3-4" sides). It's great for all things stir fried. Keep us posted, please. :-D

              1. I case you do not know, March COTM (cookbook of the month) in the latest Dunlop's book - Every Grain of Rice. Here is the link to reporting threads: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/892286

                One other Dunlop's book was a COTM a few years ago. I find COTM discussion of recipes and shared experience about making recipes from a book very informative and inspiring.

                3 Replies
                1. re: herby

                  I agree with poster herby -- "Every Grain of Rice" is a good start. The cover states, after the title, "simple Chinese home cooking".

                  1. re: blue room

                    I'll jump on this bandwagon.

                    "Every Grain of Rice" is a spectacular book, particularly if you live in an area with several great Chinese groceries. To fully take advantage of this book, you'll need to have access to ingredients that may be very hard to find. Even here in Los Angeles, where we have dozens (if not hundreds) of Chinese supermarkets across the region, in trying to track down some of the ingredients I had to travel to no less than five or six different markets in order to find exactly the right kind of pickled cabbage, or exactly the right kind of chile pepper, that her recipes call for. In many cases she does offer approximations of easier to find ingredient equivalents, but I live in LA-- I wasn't willing to compromise, since I knew the ingredients had to exist here somewhere :)

                    I've had a cooking epiphany from making the recipes from this book, that's greatly deepened my understanding of the difference in cooking philosophies between east and west. The main difference is that Chinese cooking starts out with intensely flavored ingredients like fermented tofu, seaweed, chile paste, pickled mustard greens, black vinegar, rice wine, garlic, ginger, etc. The reason Chinese food can be cooked so quickly and taste so good is because a huge amount of the prep work has been done for you by the ingredients in your larder.

                    Contrast this with western foods like stews or braises, for example, which start out with bland ingredients like raw vegetables, raw meat, water (garlic might be the main exception), etc. that require long cooking times to intensify flavor by cooking out the water, and braising over low heat in order to tenderize the meat. This process takes hours, whereas an spectacularly flavored Chinese dish can be prepared in minutes-- that is, if you know how to put the ingredients together.

                    To analogize this with a 100m race, when you start with intensely flavored ingredients, you're starting at the 90m mark, whereas a dish made of inherently bland ingredients starts at 0m.

                    As for the "should I buy a wok" argument, it is true that most of us lack stovetop ranges capable of producing the intense heat necessary for proper wok cooking. Our ranges simply aren't hot enough, and they're not designed to accommodate woks. (On her first visit to our apartment, my Taiwanese mother-in-law cooked us dinner. "How do I turn it to high?" she asked in Mandarin. "It is on high, mom," my wife answered.)

                    A real Chinese stove top has a rounded, recessed pit which is meant to accommodate the rounded bottom of the wok, while the flames can lick up the sidewalls of the pan. This gives you an area of intense heat in the middle, which dissipates the higher up the wall of the wok you go. (The hammered, divoted texture of the wok metal helps to hold ingredients in place). A Chinese chef who knows what he's doing will take advantage of the hotter/cooler areas of the wok.

                    Our American stovetops are designed for flat pans, and there's no way around it. Like others have mentioned here, your best bet is a heavy pan (I use cast iron) because it's your best shot at approximating the super high BTUs of a real Chinese stovetop. No, it's still not going to be hot enough. Yes, you're going to lose the hot/cold areas you would have in a wok, but having an extremely high heat level is unquestionably more important, so we make do with what we have.

                    Mr Taster

                    1. re: Mr Taster

                      Mr Taster,

                      That was an eloquent and convincing review of the book Every Grain of Rice. I just ordered it.

                      Now, several degrees removed from Dunlop's level of cooking, I have had great fun with The Chinese Take Out cookbook by Diana Kuan. :-D