The Essentials of Chinese Cuisine


Food Editor

There’s usually a big difference between the Chinese cuisine that’s served in restaurants outside of China and the cuisine that’s considered to be authentic. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise, though. While the taste of the food itself is, of course, important, the quality of so-called “ethno-cuisine” is usually determined by its degree of authenticity—the benchmark for all foodies. But how to define authenticity if you’ve never been to China, let alone tasted “real” Chinese food? Chinese cuisine is as diverse as the country itself and is comprised of a multitude of cultural influences. For example, the food culture of Shanghai focuses on fish and seafood, the regions of Sichuan and Hunan like it spicy, and the Uighurian western part of China is known for its aytpical Persian dishes. Nonetheless, there are similarities between all of the regional cuisines, and these similarities are the basis for the somewhat distorted representation of Chinese cuisine abroad. Of course, a nation or region’s cuisine always loses a bit of its authenticity when removed from its proper context, but you can come close in terms of replication with the right skills, and most certainly the right tools. Outlined in the following article are some basics you’ll need to have on hand if you want to bring the flavors of China into your home kitchen.

Special wok with top

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A wok is one of—if not the most—important tools in the Chinese kitchen. As opposed to pans that are commonly used in Western cuisine, there is no separation between the bottom and the side of the wok. Typically, it does not have a flat bottom, which is why the wok is usually used on open, coal-burning ranges or gas stoves. The heat is concentrated in the center, which means that the temperature of the food must be regulated through constant motion. Woks can be used for a variety of cooking techniques—whether it is frying, steaming, braising, blanching, smoking, or roasting. The most common use, however, is stir-frying ,a method in which food is cooked rapidly and at a high temperature.
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Large enameled or stainless steel saucepan

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In addition to stir-fried dishes, soups are also an important part of Chinese gastronomy. Whereas in many westernized Chinese restaurants soup is served as an appetizer, in China it is served as a final course. The most well-known soup is probably sweet-sour soup. It is particularly popular in the north and west of China, but can also be found elsewhere. The most exotic and expensive soup is the bird’s nest soup, which is made of the nests of swallows. One pound of these nests can cost up to a couple of hundred dollars. Noodle soups are especially popular in the north, but also in the Yangtze delta. To prepare these kinds of soups, it is essential to have a large saucepan.
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Rice cooker

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Rice is an integral part of every southern and eastern Chinese dish. You can prepare the grain in a pot, but for the sake of efficiency, every Chinese household uses a rice cooker these days. If you love to cook Asian dishes, you should definitely consider getting one. Especially if you’re a newbie, the preparation with a rice cooker is much easier than with a pot. Some devices come with an integrated steam cooker and, thus, can also be used for the steaming of vegetables and fish.
Russel Hobbs’s rice cooker has proven to be very reliable. You can find it here.

Ginger, garlic and green onions

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Famously known as the Holy Trinity of the Chinese Cuisine, all three spices are highly valued in traditional chinese medicine and are used to prevent and treat diseases. Ginger is mostly used in meat and fish dishes. Brewed with muscovado sugar, it makes for a tasty and salutary tea, which prevents colds and rheumatic pains. Although we don’t typically associate garlic with Chinese food, it plays an important role. Just consider the scale of garlic production : about 80 % of all globally traded garlic comes from China. It has been used against parasites and to treat inflammation and blood stasis for thousands of years now. The medical knowledge of the great value of green onions can be traced back to the Han dynasty (25 BC – 220 AD). Different Chinese scholars and physicians praised the plant for its ability to treat rheumatic symptoms, dyspepsia, and intestinal parasites. Given the fact that they are easy to grow, green onions can be found in almost all parts of China.
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The secret to stir-fried dishes is the high temperature of the cooking fat. Through constantly stirring the ingredients in the wok, they are evenly browned and cooked to perfection. The oil is heated to around 150°C/ 300°F to 180°C/ 355°F. It’s best to use neutral oils like rapeseed oil, sunflower oil or peanut oil. Olive oil should not be used due to its strong taste and low smoke point.
In case your supermarket does not have such an oil, you can find some here.

Soy sauce

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Pork is another important ingredient in Chinese cuisine. Its taste is often enhanced by a pinch of sugar. However, the combination of sweet and sour only plays a subordinate role.
A lot of Chinese dishes get their dark shade from a generous use of thick soy sauce. The characteristic umami taste can be reached through using a thin soy sauce.
You can find soy sauce here.

Oyster sauce

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In the south of China, you’ll be more likely to find oyster sauce as an all-purpose spice—especially in fish and vegetable dishes. Originally, it is made of oysters fermented in sea water. Nowadays, it consists of oyster extract and soy sauce, which is preserved with salt, garlic, and onions and thickened with corn flour. The salty, slightly fishy aroma gives dishes a pleasantly unique flavor.
You can find oyster sauce here.