Chinese kitchen essentials

Chinese kitchen essentials

Jeremy Pang
1 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
978 184949 5745
Martin Poole

What is the difference between a Chinese cleaver and a Chinese chopper?

Are they the same thing?

Are they just big western butchers’ knives with Chinese writing on them?

Do I really need one to cook Chinese food?

Equipment: The cleaver

Well, none of these statements are necessarily correct. Much like Western and Japanese chefs’ knives, there are hundreds of different types of cleavers (a composite term for all of the above) that all have different uses within the Chinese cooking world. And while, no, you don’t necessarily need one to make Chinese food, they are an interesting and efficient piece of equipment to have and enjoy should you decide to make the purchase. They come with their own history and their own specific technique, different from the Western knife, making them a unique and useful addition to your kitchen equipment.

Cleavers come in many different shapes, sizes, thickness and weights – from general slicers to duck slicers, and general choppers to kau gong (heavyweight choppers). There are even cleavers made specially to create perfectly round dim sum pastries. The difference between a cleaver and a chopper is the weight of the knife itself and the materials it’s designed to cut through.

For those looking to make their first cleaver purchase I would recommend starting with a ‘general slicer’. General slicers tend to have a nice thin blade, with a well-balanced weight and a fairly sized grip or handle. These types of cleavers are designed for slicing and simple vegetable chopping, not for chopping through bones. If you want to chop through bones, it’s best to leave that to the butcher, or invest in a chopper: a cleaver specifically made with enough weight on the top of the blade to withstand the extra force required to cut through tougher materials.

When it comes to using your cleaver, efficiency is key. Slicing is by far the most efficient way of prepping your food. A good slicer has an incredibly sharp, thin blade with a slightly thicker top edge to allow you to use your non-knife hand to push down on it. When we slice a vegetable or a piece of meat, we tend to use a good 70% of the blade; therefore, the whole blade has been sharpened in order for it to be used efficiently. This differs from chopping, where one point of the blade is used.

Equipment: The wok

Back in the old days woks used to be made of cast iron, and even the thinner woks would be extremely heavy to handle. These days, the best stir-frying woks are made of thin carbon steel. They conduct heat incredibly well, but more importantly, due to the thin metal, they also lose heat very quickly, which suits stir-frying perfectly.

Traditional woks are round-bottomed, and for good reason – the circular bowl assists with circulation of heat through the pan, which is essential for stir-frying or tossing ingredients through the wok. Unfortunately it is difficult to use traditional round-bottom woks on a modern hob, which is where I would definitely recommend opting for a flat-bottom wok instead. While there are plenty of flat-bottom woks on the market, my best tip is to look for a flat-bottom wok that still has ‘curvature’ and maintains a smooth bowl shape even though it has a flat base. If your flat-bottom wok has a shape much like an upside-down roof, then I’d recommend investing in a new one.

Non-stick woks were invented for ease of cleaning and have the benefit of simple maintenance. Although they may not be as hard-wearing as traditional carbon-steel woks, with new technology they are becoming more resistant to damage from everyday use and utensils. Personally, I still much prefer to use the traditional carbon-steel woks as they give off that extra smoky, caramelised stir-fry flavour when cooking. If it’s easy maintenance you’re after a non-stick wok will serve you well, however if you really want to get your stir-fries closer to your favourite Chinese restaurants and takeaways (if not better), then get yourself a carbon-steel wok and take the time when you’ve first bought your wok to season your new toy as explained below.

Seasoning the wok

Most carbon-steel woks will come with an anti-rust layer on the wok to prevent it from corroding when sitting on a shop shelf, but seasoning the wok is essential to creating a natural ‘non-stick layer’ on the wok. Follow the steps below and look after your wok and it should last a lifetime.

Creating a natural non-stick layer:

Give your wok a good scrub with a metal scourer.

Heat the wok over a high gas flame until the inside is a dark grey/blue colour all the way around.

Let the wok cool down.

Dip a thick pad of kitchen towel in a little vegetable oil.

Polish the inside of the wok by rubbing it with the oiled towel in a circular motion. N.B Apply oil sparingly... Do not pour oil into a hot wok as this is dangerous

Heat the wok on a high heat until it starts to smoke. Once all the smoke disappears and the wok is dark grey/black in colour it is ready to use.

Keeping your wok clean and seasoned…

To clean your wok, half-fill it with hot water and place it on a high heat.

Boil vigorously and de-glaze.

Clean the wok through with hot water and a sponge using a little detergent only if necessary.

Dry the wok on the hob over a high heat until all the water has evaporated.

PLEASE NOTE: If you look after your wok, the more you use it, the better it becomes!

Other equipment

The following equipment and accessories are also incredibly helpful when cooking in a Chinese kitchen and can be found in almost all Chinese supermarkets around the world. All of these accessories will come in different shapes and sizes, depending on what you require.

Wok ladles

If you want to get serious with your wok cooking, certain accessories help. Wok ladles, much like Western ladles, are made to hold a certain amount of liquid in the bowl of the spoon. The end of the spoon, however, is positioned at a slightly more obtuse angle to allow for easy stirring and to maintain a good circular movement when it comes into contact with a wok full of ingredients.

Wok spatula/fish slice

Full metal spatulas can also be found with a similar angle to the wok ladle. They are incredibly helpful if you want to get completely underneath your ingredients without breaking them apart. Some people find spatulas or fish slices easier to use than ladles when folding through food, as they allow it to be more delicately handled.

Wok mesh strainers

Wok mesh strainers, or ‘bamboo spiders’, as I like to call them, are giant, flat sieves with large, web-like metal mesh surfaces and long bamboo handles. The web-like mesh helps to fish out food from a wok or pan when deep-frying or blanching ingredients.

Cooking chopsticks

Wooden cooking chopsticks are incredibly useful when cooking Chinese food. They essentially act as wooden tongs, but are a little more versatile as they can be used to test oil heat too. Large wooden chopsticks are also very useful for deep-frying, as the extra length keeps you further away from the hot oil in case of spitting.


Steamers come in several different forms, from stainless-steel bases with glass or metal lids to the more traditional bamboo steamers. You can also find stainless-steel steamer stands that sit inside your wok – these are great for steaming large items such as whole fish.

Bamboo Steamer: The biggest difference between a bamboo steamer and a stainless-steel steamer is that the bamboo lids of the steamer collect condensation between the layers of bamboo, acting as a ‘sponge’ and preventing excess water from dripping back into the food after the steaming process has finished.

Stainless-steel Steamer: Stainless-steel steamers usually come with a large saucepan at the bottom to hold large amounts of water and therefore have the ability to steam for long periods of time. If you have a stainless-steel steamer and are worried about condensation and dripping from the lid, the trick is to wrap the lid with a clean tea towel to absorb the excess moisture.

Stainless-steel Steamer Stands: If you want to save space in your cupboards, a small steamer stand and wok lid are all you need to create a steamer using your wok. Simply fill your wok halfway up with hot water, place your steamer stand in the middle of the wok, then carefully place your plate of food on top. Finally, cover the wok with a suitable high-level lid, which can be found in most Chinese supermarkets.

Slicing and dicing

Chinese cooking terms in general are much less technical than the brunoise, macedoines and juliennes of what is considered classical Western cooking, but the principles of slicing, dicing, matchsticks, and general preparation are just as important – if not more so, given the importance of preparation in this type of cuisine.

Our terms of cooking are, in fact, very literal. When we want something finely sliced, we say it’s finely sliced. When we need it in big chunks, we cut off a big chunk and show the shape and size to our peers. And when it comes to cooking processes, we call a stir-fry a stir-fry, because the food should be continuously moving (in the right way, of course…). With such quick cooking processes, Chinese cooking can almost be split into ninety percent preparation, ten percent cooking. And with such emphasis on preparation, it is crucial to understand how to use your cleavers properly to slice, dice or chop in the most efficient way possible, as the success of your dish is reliant on this preparation of ingredients.

Preparation is the key to unlocking successful Chinese cooking. For example, when I am at home cooking a meal for my friends and family, the first step I tend to make is to prepare and slice all my key ingredients for the meal. I always start with the basic ingredients i.e. ginger, garlic and spring onions or onions. Once everything has been sliced and diced, I then organise myself and get ready to cook, starting with the slowest cooking techniques (roasting, braising and poaching), while leaving the quicker cooking methods (stir-frying, deep-frying and steaming) to the last 15–20 minutes just before serving. Even when cooking just one dish, the same process can be used.

Additionally, when considering the different cuts, shapes or sizes, keep in mind that everything you prepare for one dish should be a similar size in order to cook quickly and maintain the texture of the ingredients. Here are some tips on how to improve your general knife skills and therefore become much quicker at cooking your home Chinese meals.

The ‘crab’

Gaining confidence in holding a large cleaver or knife is all down to practice. We have two hands for good reason – the non-dominant hand is what we call a ‘five-legged hermit crab’; where the three middle fingers become the front legs, and the little finger and thumb act as the back legs.

The golden rule is never to allow the back legs to stray ahead of the front legs!

The hand structure is ‘crab-like’ as the fingers are always bent, never straight. This creates a stable guide for the dominant hand to start slicing.

The slicing movement needs to follow long, stroking movements in a down and forwards motion.

Once the blade is completely flush with the surface of the board, push forwards and slice.

TIP: Never leave a gap between the blade and the board when slicing – firstly, it will allow your fingers to get underneath, and secondly, it will not slice through your ingredients properly!

Preparation and presentation


Present the crab (with your non-dominant hand) lightly on top and in the middle of the ingredients you wish to cut. Push down and forwards with the cleaver to slice in half. Once halved, place each half securely on the board and slice through the ingredients to the desired thickness using a down and forwards motion with your knife.


Take your prepared slices and lay them flat on the board lengthways. Using a down and forwards rocking motion, lift up your wrist while pulling back slightly to slice the ingredients into large sticks.


Take your prepared matchsticks and turn them ninety degrees. Using the same rocking motion, starting down and forwards and picking up your wrist, cut the sticks into large dice.


When finely slicing, you must be confident enough to hold the flat part of the cleaver or knife much closer to your crab hand. With the side of the knife leaning against the front knuckle of your crab hand, follow the same down and forwards motion described above to achieve fine slices.


Take your fine slices, lay them in a neat line flat on the board lengthways (without towering them up too high), and slowly push down and forwards, lifting up your wrist when coming back up in a rocking motion to cut the slices into fine matchsticks.


Take your fine matchsticks and turn them ninety degrees. Line them up neatly and, once aligned, use your crab hand to hold the matchsticks in place lightly. Use the rocking motion, starting downwards and forwards, to cut the fine matchsticks into fine dice.

Meat-slicing techniques


Hold on to the piece of meat with the back legs of your crab (thumb and small finger) on the side of the meat and the front legs of your crab in a straight line. Using long sawing motions with the knife hand, cut the meat into roughly 1cm chunks.


Fine strips are the quickest and simplest way to cut into your meat for simple stir-fries. Hold on to the piece of meat with your crab hand as when cutting into chunks and slice into strips no more than 2mm thick.


Carefully lay your crab hand over the meat. Place the blade of your cleaver at a slight angle, roughly 3–4mm from the edge of the meat, then slice through the meat on the diagonal in long, sawing motions. Once you’ve sliced all the pieces, flatten them with the side of the cleaver to tenderise the meat and create the perfect pieces for a stir-fry.


There are plenty of ways to infuse more flavour into meats. This method creates extra surface area across a piece of meat without the need for accessories such as meat hammers.

Place the meat in the centre of your board. Hold the tip of your cleaver with your crab hand.

Rock the cleaver up and down in a fast rocking motion and run the blade up and down the piece of meat lightly, taking care not to cut completely through it. This will make lots of little cuts across the meat, opening up the surface area to allow as much of the marinade to penetrate as possible.

Once you have made plenty of scores along the meat, slice into whatever shape you desire and then flatten with the side of the cleaver before marinading.


The large surface area of a slicing cleaver is great for butterflying as it is easy to lay the side of it horizontally on top of the piece of meat.

To butterfly the meat, lay the side of the cleaver on top of the centre of your chosen cut of meat and push down slightly with the thumb on your knife hand. This will create a slight ‘groove’ in the piece of meat.

Now lightly lay your crab hand on top of the other side of the meat. In one slow, long, slicing movement, slice the ‘groove’ of the meat down towards you, keeping your knife in a horizontal position (so as to cut into the meat, but keeping it intact and in one piece).

Once you have made the first slice, move your crab hand and pick up the top part of the meat that has just been sliced into, and then place your knife back into the groove and repeat the above step. However, this time, pull the meat upwards with your crab hand while you are slicing into the groove. You will see the meat starting to unravel or ‘butterfly’.

Continue to slice through the groove, pulling upwards, until you have reached the end of the piece of meat, but do not cut through it. You should finish with one piece of meat.

Now turn your piece of meat and repeat steps 2–4 on the other side of the meat to open it up fully and finish off the butterflying movement.

The Chinese pantry

Having a well-stocked pantry is paramount to learning about any new cuisine. Aside from all the wonderful implements and utensils such as woks or cleavers, I’ve always thought that the modern Chinese pantry shows just how versatile our cuisine can be. With its use of fermented soybean-based sauces, flavoured oils and China’s long history of noodle making, rice agriculture, and food preservation, there is a world of store-cupboard ingredients out there.

The problem with such a huge choice of ingredients is that it can become a little daunting. As I’m a big believer in starting small and building onwards and upwards, I would like to touch on just a few store-cupboard ingredients at a time.

‘LEVEL 1’ INGREDIENTS form the basic level of a Chinese pantry that I believe are essential to our cuisine. Once you understand where these ingredients come from and the general principles of how they are used, you will notice that tens of different recipes follow the same simple rules. These pantry ingredients are more often than not found in most Western supermarkets and convenience stores.

Suggested recipes for Level 1 ingredient use: Garlic and Egg-Fried Rice; Steamed Trout with Chilli Bean, Garlic and Ginger Oil; Barbecued Hoisin and Cola Ribs.

‘LEVEL 2’ INGREDIENTS delve further into the realms of Chinese cooking. These ingredients should start to give you an idea of new flavours and textures, while working to balance quantities of certain sauces or different suggested soaking times for thicker noodles. These ingredients may be easier to find in more specialist Oriental supermarkets or convenience stores than in Western supermarkets.

Suggested recipes for Level 2 ingredient use: Flash-fried Cabbage with Dried Chillies and Sweetened Soy; Braised Curried Squid; Pickled Lotus Root and Spinach.

Throughout the book, there are also suggested ‘SWAPSIES’ as there are often times that you cannot find certain more unusual ingredients. The true essence of Chinese food is this; with these core techniques set out in the book, and a stock of basic Chinese sauces in your pantry, you will always be able to cook delicious Chinese meals and will not always have to rely on the traditional ingredients. The point is not to be intimidated by ingredients. Feel free to try out the alternative ‘Swapsies’ and see how close you can get to the essence of the real thing!


Noodles are considered to be symbols of good luck as they represent long life in Chinese tradition. It is important to make sure the noodles are cooked properly in order to maintain their structural integrity and add a textural component to your dish. Dried noodles are amazing store-cupboard ingredients as you can essentially make a whole meal in a matter of 10–15 minutes without much more than a bit of technique and a sauce or two.

Noodles can be bought either dry or fresh in most convenience stores these days. There are certain differences between using freshly packaged noodles and dry packets of noodles. Personally, if I have the choice, I’d rather use dried noodles as there is no added oil or extra flour used to keep the noodles separated.

Fresh noodles

Fresh noodles bought from Chinese supermarkets are often coated in a bit of oil or excess flour to keep them moist and separated. Before using fresh noodles make sure to separate the noodle strands carefully using your fingertips. They are then ready to use however you wish to cook them

Dried noodles

Dried noodles are an essential part of a Chinese pantry. They can be stored easily in a cool, dry place and will last for quite a few months. To make the most of any pack of dried noodles, follow the instructions below:

Put your noodles in a large mixing bowl

Cover the noodles fully with boiling water and leave for 3–5 minutes (depending on the thickness of the noodles). Note: If you leave the noodles in the water too long, they will become too soft and will not have the ‘al dente’ bite that they should once cooked.

Once the noodles have been soaked and separated nicely (essentially once they have lost their packet shape), immediately drain them in a strainer and run them through cold water.

Cover a tray with a clean tea towel and place your noodles on top.

For best results, leave the noodles out to dry for 20 minutes before use. Alternatively, to speed up the drying process, pop them in a fan-assisted oven with the fan function on the lowest possible heat, or no heat at all if possible. This will dry your noodles out within 5–10 minutes.

The noodles are now ready to cook in any way you like (whether boiling adding to a soup, stir-frying or deep-frying)

TIP: When looking for a good pack of dried noodles, if the noodles are packaged in ‘nests’, ensure you can see that the strands of noodles are indeed separate even if tightly woven. The little pockets of air show that they will separate easily when soaked.


Egg noodles

Egg noodles are usually made from wheat flour, water, egg and oil. As well as acting as an extra binding agent, the egg adds an extra depth of flavour and colour.

Rice vermicelli/Singapore vermicelli

Rice vermicelli can be found in many convenience stores both fresh and dry. These noodles need very little soaking if bought dry and must be well dried and separated before stir-frying; otherwise they become very soggy and start to break up in the wok.


Chop suey/Chow mein noodles

For those who cannot eat egg, chop suey or chow mein noodles are a great alternative. These noodles are also made with wheat flour, water and oil and get their distinct yellow colour from traces of the alkaline lye water. Depending on thickness, these noodles should only require 3–4 minutes of soaking in hot water if bought dried.

Hor fun rice noodles

Hor fun noodles can come in all different shapes and sizes. They are essentially slightly thicker versions of rice vermicelli. The thickness provides a totally different texture and when soaked properly (usually around 5–8 minutes) or bought fresh, they can feel almost a little slippery in texture. Hor fun noodles work well with caramelised sauces such as black bean or pad thai.

Mung bean vermicelli/Glass vermicelli

All types of bean vermicelli can be found in Oriental supermarkets and convenience stores. They are good used in stir-fries and are also great for warm and cold salads as they have a slightly jelly-like texture and feel fresh and delicate on the palate. They can also be used as light alternatives for soup noodle dishes.

Sweet potato noodles

Sweet potato noodles come in different forms, sometimes as vermicelli (thin) or flattened, more like hor fun noodles. They also have a glassy, jelly-like texture and are light on the stomach. Sweet potato noodles are fantastic for bulking out both cold and warm salads and work well with the earthy texture and flavours of ingredients such as mushrooms or crispy tofu.


There are so many different grains of rice around the world. Below are some of the main grains used in Chinese cuisine. The use of each type of grain has also been adapted depending on availability (and therefore popularity) among the many Chinese cultures that exist throughout the world. Each type of grain may require more or less water due to the amount of starch they contain and how well they absorb water. Whatever rice is used, it must be washed well and soaked in some cases before being cooked, in order to remove any excess starch and keep the grains separate.

Jasmine rice

Jasmine rice sits halfway between a long-grain and a medium-grain rice and tends to be used to make steamed ‘Thai-style sticky rice’. This rice can be used for steaming and frying; however, when making fried rice using jasmine rice grains, I would suggest using roughly 10% less water than normal.

Suggested water-to-rice ratio:

1: 1 water-to-rice in small quantities (i.e. for 1 or 2 cups of rice)

1.25 : 1 water-to-rice for more than 2 cups of rice

Basmati rice

A long-grain rice often used in Indian cooking. This rice is also ideal for steaming in advance to use for fried rice, as the grains tend to keep separated better than other types of rice such as Thai-style jasmine rice.

Suggested water-to-rice ratio:

1: 1 water to rice in small quantities (i.e. for 1 or 2 cups of rice)

1.5 : 1 water to rice for more than 2 cups of rice

American long-grain rice

This rice has a distinct texture and bite to it and is often used in restaurants and takeaways for fried rice, as it tends to be slightly cheaper than the alternative basmati or jasmine rice. However it can sometimes feel almost a little too dry and may not provide as ‘fluffy’ a texture as jasmine or basmati when simply steamed.

Suggested water-to-rice ratio:

1: 1 water to rice in small quantities (i.e. for 1 or 2 cups of rice)

1.5 : 1 water to rice for more than 2 cups of rice

Glutinous rice

Glutinous rice, as its name suggests, is much stickier than the average rice grain and has a definite ‘gluey’ texture to it when cooked. This type of rice is used widely within Southern China and South East Asia for both savoury and sweet dishes. It is also ground down into flours for types of dim sum pastries and desserts. When using the rice it is advisable to soak it for at least 2 hours before cooking so as to allow as much moisture to be absorbed by the grains as possible.

Suggested water-to-rice ratio:

Roughly 0.7 : 1 water to rice

The Wok Clock

Now that we’ve covered how to use your cleavers, slicing, dicing and prepping your ingredients, the next hurdle is understanding how to organise yourself before you start to cook.

I often get asked how Chinese takeaways manage to serve up a number of dishes so quickly. Aside from the amazingly powerful equipment they have access to in their commercial kitchens, there are also some basic organising techniques they use which are invaluable when it comes to keeping your cooking quick as well as your kitchen clean and tidy. One specific technique, which we call ‘The Wok Clock’ and have developed and use daily at the School of Wok, will help you to take that leap forward by setting up your ingredients in order of use before you start to cook. By doing this, you won’t even have to look back at the recipe while in the throes of cooking, saving yourself time and energy without ever having to sacrifice the cooking of your ingredients while you re-read your recipe.

Once you have prepared all your ingredients, place them in their cooking order on a large round plate, beginning at 12 o’clock and working your way clockwise all around. It’s that simple! This organisation is not exclusive to wok cooking (the ‘wok clock’ is just a simple phrase to remember); whether you are cooking a stir-fry or a slow-cooked curry, it works. The photo opposite, for example, demonstrates a wok clock set up for our School of Wok Stir-fried Sichuan Chicken. Once you get in the habit of organising your ingredients in this way you’ll find cooking as a whole to be a much neater and more straightforward process, freeing you up to experience the joys of preparing dishes and learning new techniques rather than constantly scampering to consult your recipe books.

Balance in Chinese food

Chinese food is all about achieving a balance of flavour, texture and colour – whether you are serving one plate or several plates of food. While there are certain individual dishes that can touch almost all your flavour sensations at the same time, to master the true skill of Chinese cooking, the more challenging scenario is being able to select a number of dishes which touch all or most of the basic tastes (SWEET, SOUR, SALTY, SAVOURY/UMAMI, SPICY AND BITTER), a good combination of textures (CRISPY, SOFT, MELT-IN-THE-MOUTH OR SUCCULENT) and are in turns meaty and rich, light and fresh.

If your meal covers all of the above, you are almost there! The last part of the puzzle is making sure that there is a good balance of colours, bright, dark, neutral, which is what really plays a big part in the presentation of Chinese food. Remember, we also eat with our eyes! If you are able to understand this balance of flavour, texture and colour, you are definitely moving towards becoming a seasoned Chinese cook.

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