Monday, May 30, 2016

3 Essential Tools for Traditional Asian Cooking

As a hardcore foodie who loves everything from growing food to consuming it, I am often amazed at how complicated some people try to make cooking. I have seen more than one kitchen that was stocked with enough gadgets to qualify as a research facility, but couldn’t produce a decent sandwich, much less a meal worth eating.

That is one of the things I love about traditional Asian food. It is all about bold, balanced flavors, produced quickly and with a minimum of fuss and with just a few basic tools. In truth after spending years living here, I have decided that a good Asian Chef can produce “Michelin Star” quality food with only 3 basic kitchen tools.

Wok and Lid
By Mats Stafseng Einarsen - Own work, CC BY 2.5,

You probably saw this one coming, but the truth is every Asian Cookset should begin with a good quality Wok. It doesn’t matter if you are cooking Chinese, Thai or Filipino Food the wok is the standard pan you will use most often.

When choosing a wok, don’t be tempted by nonstick woks. The temperatures that true Asian cooking is performed at, will not only destroy them but can present health hazards to you.

What you want is a good quality cast iron, steel or aluminium wok. A cast iron and steel wok will hold heat better but take longer to get hot and are heavier than aluminium. An aluminium wok will heat much faster and be easier to handle, being much lighter.

Which is best depends on what you are cooking and personal style? I suggest trying all three and seeing what works best for you with different dishes.

Bamboo Steamer
By chidorian - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0,

In most Asian cultures ovens are rare. Instead, most of their baked goods and bread are either grilled or steamed. In fact, many Asian chefs can cook an entire meal in a stacked bamboo steamer. You could consider the steamer as the slow cooker of the Asian world.

Yes, you can get metal and even an electric steamer, but remember we are talking traditional here and to be honest, there is something about food steamed in bamboo that just taste better. Kind of like the difference in a burger cooked over an open fire instead of fried in a skillet only to the tenth degree. Bamboo itself adds a special flavor to the food, unlike any other found.

Mortar and Pestle

Often seen but it seems rarely used in many western kitchens is a classic tool that is another must have to cook authentic Asian Cuisine. In the Asian kitchen, the classic Mortar and Pestle are still very widely used to do everything from crush and grind spices to creating a wide variety of paste that can be used as seasonings or served as stand-alone dishes.

In my personal kitchen, I have three of varying sizes and made of different materials. My Stone mortar and Pestle,  I use for cracking and grinding hard spices such as peppercorns and making fresh cornmeal; Yes, I make my own from dried corn, or for making curry and saffron paste. It excels in this area because it doesn’t hold flavors, is easy to clean and stands up to hard use.

Our Wood mortar and pestle is perfect for crushing the herbs we dry to make our homemade teas. It’s softer yet more textured surfaces are great for blending and crushing the delicate leaves without bruising them and our  Bamboo mortar and pestle is reserved for making pastes like bagoong or grinding dry fish for seasoning rice dishes. It has seen many years of use for this purpose, in my wife’s family and is well seasoned with a saltwater taste. :-)

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