It may be mid-February, but New Year celebrations are far from being over. On February 19th, we will welcome the Year of the Sheep according to the Chinese lunar calendar. To mark this paramount celebration, gather your loved ones, give thanks and feast together on homemade Chinese cuisine.
For advice on mastering the art of Chinese cooking (we know, it can be intimidating for newbies!), we tapped Helen and Lise Tse, celebrated Chinese restaurant owners and authors of the entirely swoon-able and accessible Sweet Mandarin Cookbook. Below you will find the Tse’s eight priceless tips pulled from their debut title’s pages.
Helen and Lisa’s Top Tips for Chinese Cooking
Our top tips for basic Chinese cooking (eight is a lucky number in Chinese because it rhymes with the character “to get rich”):
1. Buy a wok. If you haven’t got a wok yet, go out and buy one. It is one of the most versatile pieces of equipment and is one of the secret pieces of the jigsaw needed to make perfect stir-fries. Woks can also be used for steaming, deep-frying, and boiling. Their gently sloping concave shape ensures everything cooks evenly. When using a wok, always heat it fully over high heat before putting in the ingredients—this ensures that everything cooks quickly and vegetables stay crisp.
2. Find a local Asian supermarket. Most of the ingredients we use are widely available from mainstream supermarkets, but a few are available only from specialist Asian supermarkets.
3. Always prep. Preparation is key to successful Chinese cooking. Make sure all the ingredients are washed and prepped before cooking. In many of the recipes, it is recommended that meat and vegetables are cut into similar sizes to ensure that they cook evenly.
4. Observe yin and yang. The Chinese philosophy behind cooking involves balancing the yin and yang—for example, a yin ingredient such as ginger, which is hot, is balanced with a yang ingredient such as chicken, which is cooling. There are five key flavors in Chinese cuisine—sweet, sour, spicy, savory, and umami—at least one of these flavors is present in every recipe in the book.
5. Use a rice cooker. For perfect, fuss-free rice, invest in a rice cooker. Chinese rice cookers are foolproof. I have recently come across a ceramic one, which cooks rice in 9 minutes in a microwave—now that’s impressive!
6. Don’t shy away from strong flavors. Don’t be afraid of garlic, ginger, or scallions, also known as the holy trinity in Chinese cooking. When cooked, these strong flavors mellow out and infuse the dish with a light perfume rather than intense grating flavors.
7. Don’t scrimp on the sauce, as this is what will bring the dish alive. Many of the sauces can be made in advance and stored in the fridge until needed (see pages 14–15 for recipes). There are some really good sauces available from supermarkets if you don’t have time to make your own.
8. Try potato starch! Potato starch is used for thickening sauces and binding ingredients together. It is gluten-free and flavorless. Where a recipe asks for potato starch mixture, combine 1 tablespoon of potato starch with 4 tablespoons of cold water and stir or whisk into a boiling sauce right at the end. Make sure you mix in the potato starch mixture thoroughly, stirring until the sauce thickens. If you don’t have potato starch, you could always use cornstarch instead as this is also gluten-free.