My Favourite #Chinese cookbooks, kitchen tools and pantry staples

The ever-so-versatile wok – street food in China – photo credit – Karen Anderson

This week I’m getting ready for Chinese New Year (#CNY2016) which happens on February 8, 2016. I’ve talked about the #CNY2016 festivities happening around Alberta and this post is for people who are interested in doing some Chinese cooking. You’ll find a list of cookbooks to get you up and running, my three most important Chinese kitchen tools and a long list of my favourite Chinese and Asian ingredients.

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My Top Five Favourite Chinese Cookbooks

The Breath of a Wok: Unlocking the Spirit of Chinese Wok Cooking Through Recipes and Lore. Young, Grace & Richardson, Alan. (Simon & Schuster, 2004)

The Food of China: A Journey for Food Lovers. Hsiung, Deh-Ta & Simonds, Nina. (Whitecap, 2001)

Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the other China. Alford, Jeffrey & Duguid, Naomi. (Random House Canada, 2008).

The Essential Asian Cookbook. Bowring, J & Price, J. eds. (Murdock Books, 1997).

The Versatile Rice Cooker. Simmons, Bob & Coleen. (Bristol Publishing, 1992)


My wok takes the lead in my favourite kitchen tools – photo credit – Geoff Lilge

My Three Favourite Chinese Cooking Tools

#1 – My Joyce Chen carbon steel flat-bottomed wok is my all-time favourite cooking implement. Period. That’s whether I’m cooking Chinese or ANYTHING. If I could only have one pan in my kitchen this would be it. If my house caught on fire, I would rush to save it (after husband, child, dog, purse and iPhone).

I’ve had my wok for over 20 years and the reason I treasure it is for the shiny black patina you see in the photo above. A patina is a chemical reaction that happens over time. Each time I heat oil in the pan, it oxidizes on the carbon-steel and forms a coating on the pan. The oil is actually converted to a hard non-stick surface. This is what is known as “seasoning” a pan. It takes at least a year of regular use to begin a great patina but it is worth the effort and you can enjoy watching your wok’s beauty form as you grow old together.

Author Grace Young (see in the cookbook list above), says that the Chinese call an old wok “a thousand-year-old wok”. It is valued for the flavour it can provide from its patina.  I’m fastidious about the cleaning of my wok and really won’t allow anyone else to do it lest they mess up what I’ve worked so carefully to create (I’m not like that with any other dishes – trust me). I gently scrub my wok after each use with a sponge under hot running water and dry it immediately with paper towel. It is a joy to cook with and is essential for proper Chinese cooking, stir-frying, steaming, and braising.

Note: – the beautiful Japanese knives you see in the photo above make my daily cooking life JOYOUS – especially so with Chinese cooking as it involves a great deal of chopping.

A lovely copper hot pot in Lijiang, China – photo credit – Karen Anderson

#2 – A hot pot or fondue pot to make Chinese hot pot. Just for the fun of it!

The rice cooker in this “posh” kitchen in the HuTong District of Beijing is prominently featured – photo credit – Karen Anderson

#3 – My Tiger Brand 5.5 cup Rice Cooker – I bought my rice cooker in 1994 at Hing Wah Imports on Centre St. in Calgary and it’s still going strong. I paid $149.00 but they now cost about $100.00. The 5.5 cup is the ideal size because you can cook as little as one cup but the full 5.5 cups will feed a large crowd. I believe the world is divided into those with a rice cooker and those without. You know which camp I’m in. Tips: You can also use it to cook oatmeal and other grains. I also heat the cooker while its empty and stir fry aromatic ingredients right in the pot before adding the rice and water and closing the lid to cook it.

Rice cookers at Hing Wah Imports in Calgary’s Chinatown – photo credit – Karen Anderson

My Favourite Chinese Ingredients (stock up on the staples for your pantry)

Asian Greens – Bok Choy (Chinese chard), Chinese cabbage, Choy sum (Chinese flowering cabbage – looks like a mustard green), Gai Lan (Chinese broccoli)
Barbecued Chinese Pork – Cha Siew – marinated in five-spice powder, soy, sugar and red colouring from annatto seeds and then barbecued over charcoal.
Black Beans – one of the most popular flavours of Southern China, these are dried soy beans that have been cooked and fermented with salt and spices.
Black Fungus – cloud ear – a tree fungus valued for its crunchy texture. Most commonly available in its dried form. Soak in warm water for a half hour before use. It will swell to 5 times its size.

Chili flakes and dried chilies – soak in hot water before use
Chilies, fresh – The smaller, the hotter
Coriander – Cilantro or Chinese parsley – all parts are used in dishes and as a garnish.
Daikon – Carrot-shaped white radish used in stews and soups and fresh in relishes with chillies
Fish Sauce – used mainly in Thai and Vietnamese cooking -also known as Nam Plah – adds a salty, fishy flavour – Golden Boy is my favourite brand
Five Spice Powder – fragrant mix of anise, Szechwan peppercorns, fennel, cloves and cinnamon -use it sparingly as it can overpower the flavour of other ingredients
Garlic and Garlic chives
Hoisin Sauce – a thick brown sauce made from soy beans, garlic, sugar, and spices -used in cooking and as a dipping sauce
Lemon Grass – a long grass-like herb with a citrus aroma -use only the base after the tough outer layers have been removed – I learned this the hard way once when I spent hours grinding the long fibres for a Thai paste in a mortar and pestle only to find out I only needed the tender bits at the base
Mushrooms – Chinese dried black – grown on fallen decaying trees they have a distinctive woody, smoky taste -rarely eaten fresh
Noodles – dried mung bean vermicelli also known as cellophane or glass noodles – need to be soaked but small bundles of unsoaked noodles can be deep-fried for a garnish; rice stick noodles are short, flat noodles; dried rice vermicelli – thin translucent noodles for stir-fries; fresh egg noodles; fresh rice noodles – bit of a jelly like texture; Shanghai noodles – made form wheat flour and water
Oyster Sauce – a thick, smooth, deep brown sauce with at rich, salty, slightly sweet flavour which although it is made from oysters and soy, does not have a fishy taste – look for the Premium Brand by Lee Kum Kee – you won’t be able to go back to the cheap stuff
Rice – 

Rice growing in Kunming, China – photo credit – Karen Anderson

If you want to learn more about rice, read Seductions of Rice by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. You’ll be glad you did.

Rice Wine – Shaosing – amber coloured with a rich sweet taste
Rice Vinegar – clear and pale yellow with at mild sweet taste as made from fermented rice
Sesame Oil – a dark amber, very aromatic oil pressed from toasted white sesame seeds
Shallots– choose red Asian – sweet and mild
Shrimp paste – blachan – shrimps that have been dried, salted and pounded
Snake beans – long beans – snip off the ends and cut into bite-sized pieces
Soy sauce – made from fermented soy beans, roasted grain and salt – look for the Kimlan brand
Spring onions – scallions
Star Anise – dried star-shaped pod of a tree native to China – used to simmer with meat and poultry dishes
Tofu – bean curd – processed extract of soy beans and an excellent source of protein
Water Chestnuts – prized for their semi-sweet taste and crunchiness
Watercress – introduced to China by the British, its peppery flavour is added to soups and steamed dishes
Wrappers – thin pieces of dough used to wrap bite-sized savoury fillings – wonton, spring roll, gow gee, dried rice paper

So – now what?

If you get all these cookbooks, kitchen tools and ingredients you’ll be ready to cook, but what exactly will you cook? The next two posts will give you ideas for rocking your wok and dining with a hot pot. Both are great ways to savour it all at Chinese New Year or any day of the year.


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