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One thing all Asian cooking shares is that it starts with a properly seasoned wok if it is made from carbon steel or cast iron.
Here's how to season your new wok: Use oiled paper towels to rub the wok with peanut oil both inside and out, then heat on a burner on high heat for just a few minutes. Do not allow the oil to burn or smoke. Allow the wok to cool and wipe off the excess oil, if any, and repeat the process until you have a thin all-natural non-stick coating. After the initial seasoning, a wok should be simply wiped clean with a dry towel then given a thin wipe with the oiled towel to seal the metal surfaces. Woks just get better with time and use!
There are two basic types of Asian wok cooking. While both methods rely solely on Asian cookware, the techniques are completely different.
• "Pao," or the “explosion” method, is where food is rapidly stirfried in a dry (but seasoned) wok over the highest heat for just about one minute. These foods have usually been marinated beforehand which provides the tiny amount of liquid necessary to sear in flavor and tenderness of the meats and providing a perfect crunchy texture to vegetables. This method would best be done in a properly seasoned carbon steel or cast-iron wok or one of the non-stick hard-anodized aluminum varieties.
• "Lui" is wet stir-frying where food is constantly tossed and turned in the wok until cooked. Peanut oil is usually the preferred wok oil for its high heat properties and nutty flavor. The different foods are often cooked in stages, removed and then combined at the end with a sauce, using a mixture of cornstarch, stock, soy sauce and spices and seasonings to give it a beautiful glaze.
In China, stir-frying in a kitchen wok is the most widely used method of cooking, called, “Ch'au.” This method involves cooking a lot of thinly sliced ingredients in a small amount of oil over high heat in the convex shape of the wok. No matter which wok you choose -- from a gourmet wok to a grill wok and even a Japanese wok -- you'll need a separate set of Chinese cooking utensils just for tossing the food while stir-frying. Luckily, Asian cookware is usually sold in sets and in many different materials depending upon the material of your wok. If you choose a stainless steel, carbon steel or cast iron wok, you can use metal utensils. If you choose any type of aluminum interior or non-stick you'll need a wooden or plastic set to protect the finish on your wok. Here are the common types of utensils you need for stir-frying and how to use them:
• Chinese spatula: This is a wide-angled spatula perfect for tossing food around the side of the wok. It is designed to slide easily under a large amount of food and lift it up and over for easy, efficient stir-frying.
• Chinese wire strainer: This strainer helps lift foods out of the liquid in the wok. It also lifts deep-fried foods from hot oils and noodles from boiling water and into the wok for stir-frying. It has a flatter shape than a traditional ladle for easy scooping of large quantities of food. Look for ladles made of copper and stainless steel with a long wooden or bamboo handle, as well as plastic and slotted wooden ones.
• Set of extra long chopsticks: These are handy for removing just certain items from the hot wok, as well as for pushing things around during cooking. These also work great for tasting, too!
• Wok brush: Many sets will also include a wok brush perfectly shaped for whisking your wok clean.
Since cooking with a wok requires very little oil and very little cooking time, food is not infused with fats and it retains much of the natural nutrients. For people on a low-fat diet, this is an excellent cooking technique to adopt on a regular basis. For busy families, it's fast because ingredients can be diced up earlier and thrown together in the wok in a flash! From Chinese noodles to seaweed, to sesame seeds and peanuts, to rice paper and more, there's an endless supply of new ingredients and techniques to tempt more advanced cooks.
Why a wok, you ask? You could just stir-fry in a frying pan, but the food might fall all over the sides as you flip it. Or you could try a sauté pan but food may get stuck in the corners. Its definitely easier to achieve the stir-frying effect in the convex, rounded shape of the wok. Here are some of the benefits of using a wok:
• Low-fat meals.
• New tastes and techniques for adventurous cooks.
• Might get kids to eat their veggies! They love diced veggies as opposed to the whole ones.
• Fast meals from prep to the table.
• One-pot; clean-up's a snap!
Many great Chinese meals start with a knife. A cook does many things with a good quality cleaver: mincing garlic and ginger, dicing onions and peppers, cutting and slicing vegetables into delicate pieces and creating tender slivers of meat perfect for stir-frying quickly.
Cleavers are available in various grades of steel. The best all-purpose tool is made of high carbon steel that is heavy enough to cut through bones. Plain stainless steel cleavers are fine for cutting vegetables, but are too thin for heavy-duty chopping. Since fresh vegetables play such an important role in Chinese and Japanese wok cooking, invest in a good knife to ensure that this rapid and efficient method of cooking will help veggies retain their individual flavors, colors, textures and nutrient content.
Buy the best quality knives you can afford and keep them on a wall mounted magnetic strip (far above where children can reach) or in a wooden block. Knives kept in drawers get blunt quickly and are a danger to searching fingers.
Cooking in the eastern hemisphere, especially in Asia, is quite different from cooking in the United States. For starters, the techniques and ingredients were born out of necessity and have remained throughout the centuries. And it's much healthier, too. According to the latest Center For Disease Control statistics, approximately 57 percent of the American population, or roughly one in six American adults, are currently overweight or obese. Conversely, just a tiny fraction of that amount of the population on the entire continent of Asia is overweight, with even less obese. As western ways and McDonald's are becoming more prevalent in Asia, the obesity rate is rising.
One of the major accounts for this difference is cooking and eating. Asian cookware is different, the ingredients are different and the techniques are different. Here's how:
• Cookware: Whether, Chinese, Japanese, Korean or Mongolian the wok, steamer baskets and rice cookers are staples in the kitchen as are the Chinese cooking utensils that go with them. Luckily, you can find Oriental cookware and Asian cooking equipment, as well as a wok in any type or style from budget brands all the way to premium brands like All-Clad and Calphalon.
• Ingredients: Fresh rice, whether brown or white, at almost every meal is combined with fresh vegetables, fresh spices, healthier oils, fresh seafoods and very little meat. Western ways use white processed grains combined with canned veggies drowned in butter and cheese and lots of fatty meats all fried up to go.
• Techniques: A wok is used at very high heat to flip and toss the food around quickly so it gets seared on all sides with just a tiny bit of oil. This is how it retains most of its nutrients. Rice is simply steamed or boiled fresh and can be further stir fried with more vegetables. No dairy is included, except maybe a bit of egg in stir-fried rice and no major fat source is added except the tiny amount of oil necessary for stir-frying and the essential fatty acids supplied by the fish.
The standard Chinese New Year's greeting states, “May your rice never burn!” Since it's the staple of the Asian diet you'll need to know the different types of rice and how to cook it just right. Most Americans buy and use “instant rice” and “boil-in-bag” white rice because they are afraid of cooking rice the conventional way. Rice perfection is one of those techniques cooks develop over time, however the rules are there to guide you and only differ by the amount of water you use and the amount of time it takes for the rice to cook.
Many easterners swear by an Asian rice cooker which is a machine that cooks the rice for you to perfection every time. Automatic rice cookers from Zojirushi and Cuisinart can make up to 10 cups of rice and have non-stick interiors. Rice cookers are a great tool for people who entertain, cook and eat a lot of rice. Following are the basic rules for cooking rice by the traditional absorption method of boiling in a pot until all the water is gone.
• Tiger Rice: Also called Basmati, this rice has long, slender grains and originates in northern India. For every cup of rice, use two cups of water. Bring salted water to a boil; add rice and stir while boiling for one minute. Then cover with a tight-fitting lid and reduce heat to simmer for about 18 to 22 minutes. Fluff and serve.
• Whole grain Brown Rice: This rice is unprocessed and so it takes a little more water and longer to cook. Use two cups of rice for every 2 ½ cups of water. Add the rice to boiling, salted water. Then cover, reduce the heat and simmer for 45 to 50 minutes until all the rice is absorbed.
• For any rice: one cup of uncooked rice equals about 3 ½ cups of cooked rice.
• For stir-frying rice in a wok, use cooked, day-old cold rice from the refrigerator.