For years I struggled to duplicate the dishes I discovered in downtown Chinese restaurants. But replicating recipes using a cast-iron skillet on an electric stove-top with the wrong key ingredients inevitably produced something my dinner guests politely described as Chinese spaghetti sauce.
A recent dig through Chinatown allowed me to round up the essential equipment to cook classic Asian cuisine. Add a bottle of ghee and go Indian. Buy a toothpaste tube of wasabi and a bottle of Kikkoman and turn Japanese. Pick up a jar of hot red pepper paste and be primed for Korean, or get some lemongrass and Thai one on.
Now you're ready to wok!
Woks come in all shapes and sizes. This mid-size carbon steel version (1, $14.99) not only has two wooden handles, but a flat bottom so that it fits properly on a western stove. When cleaning, never put a wok in soapy water. Just rinse, re-oil and place over high heat until dry. And never scrub the wok's surface with an abrasive. Instead, use a bamboo wok brush (2, $2.49) to get rid of the grunge. A wire mesh strainer (3, $4.99) looks great and removes deep-fried tofu from hot oil. These cheap spatulas (4, 98¢ each) probably couldn't stir-fry anything heavier than a bean sprout.
Stackable, modular bamboo steamers (5, $1.69 to $3.99) are compulsory for cooking veggies and dim sum-style dumplings and buns. Remember to put a piece of waxed paper in the steamer so nothing sticks. Always use a bamboo steamer stand in the wok so that the steamer sits just above the wok's boiling water. To clean, bamboo steamers need only be rinsed in running water.
This 9-inch cleaver (6, $11.99) clocks in at a hefty 2 pounds and will last a lifetime if sharpened regularly with a sharpening stone (7, $2.99). Good for all cutting edges including scissors and lawn mower blades.
So you've got the gear, you've chopped your veggies -- let's wok. Think of fiery Srirachi hot sauce (8, $3.79, 740 ml) as Bangkok ketchup. Cold-pressed peanut oil is crucial (9, $5.29, 900 ml) for Asian cooking. It has a mild, distinctive taste and can be heated to high temperatures without burning. Once things start heating up, you'll need to get into the sauce. Pearl River Bridge mushroom-flavoured dark soy (10, $1.89, 500 ml) is free of MSG and artificial colouring. Hoisin (11, $2.49, 20 oz) is the secret to many a Chinese dish and Lee Kum Kee produces a vegetarian version in a squeeze bottle (12, $2.99, 20 oz). Y and Y keeps it meatless with vegetarian oyster sauce ($2.59, 375 ml).
Besides garlic, ginger and shallots -- the cornerstones of eastern cuisine -- here's a few other key ingredients for an Asian-style kitchen. Instead of using cornstarch to thicken sauce, try sweet tapioca flour (13, 59¢, 400 grams). Don't buy cheap 79-cent cans of coconut milk. Aroy-D brand (14, $1.59, 525 ml) might be twice the price, but it's three times as good. An intoxicating purée of minced chilies, garlic, onion, shrimp paste, lemongrass and galangal, Thai curry paste comes three ways, in red, yellow and green (15, $2.39, 400 grams). Keep the package refrigerated once open.
Dish up your freshly wokked spread on these beautiful octagonal plates (16,$5.99), matching bowls ($2.99) and saucers ($1.09). And who needs forks when there's cool, colourful chopsticks (17) for $3.99 a dozen?
Tap Phong, 360 Spadina, 416-977-6364
Sasmart, 6 Denison Square, 416-596-6415
Except for the small spatulas (Sasmart), all items shown come from Tap Phong.
All food is widely available at Asian grocers like:
Tai Kong, 310 Spadina, 416-581-0129
New Asia, 293 Spadina, 416-591-9314
Korean Central Market, 675 Bloor West, 416-516-8022
Fu Yao, 639 Gerrard East, 416-778-1920