Cooking authentic Chinese food at home is a great and tasty way to immerse in the local culture. And with the right tools, ingredients and recipes, and maybe some hands-on instructions, Chinese cooking is not difficult.
As a Beijing expat you may think, eating out Chinese is so convenient and cheap in Beijing, why should I cook Chinese food at home? Good question.
Here are a couple thoughts:
You may leave Beijing or China eventually and will miss the authentic Chinese food. So now is the time to learn how to prepare it yourself.
Chinese ingredients, from sauces over spices to vegetables are cheap and easy to buy here. Home cooked Chinese food is much cheaper than home cooked Western food.
Learning new things is fun.
You are in China!
So how do you get started with cooking Chinese food at home? Let’s go over the basics: the kitchen, utensils, ingredients, recipes, and outside help.
A typical kitchen even in a nice Chinese apartment is rather small with limited counter space. It features a gas stove with 1 or 2 burners, sometimes 3 burners in newer buildings, a sink and a fridge.
Oven, microwave, and dishwasher are usually absent if you don’t live in an apartment that is geared towards foreigners. You can easily buy a small oven or microwave, e.g. at Walmart, Carrefour, or online, but finding a place in the kitchen to put it can be a bigger challenge. And for typical Chinese dishes, you won’t need one.
What do I need?
In Chinese cooking you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment. Just a few items are all you need and they are easy to buy (see Shopping in Beijing) at supermarkets, local markets, specialty markets, or online.
Here are the essential items to consider:
- Wok – buy a good steel wok (with lid) and season it before first use (for instructions how to season and care for a wok, check out this Thai Food & Travel blog – don’t try this on a non-stick wok, steel only). It gets nice and hot and needs minimal maintenance.
- Wok brush to keep your wok clean
- Wok turner – a metal spatula for stirring and mixing things in the wok
- Wok ladle
- Wire strainer
- Steamer – we like the steel pots with a fitting stacked steamer basket on top as it can also double as a big pot to boil noodles, blanch veggies, etc.
- Rice cooker – fuzzy logic ones work really well, plus you can program them to make zhōu 粥(aka congee or porridge) overnight
- Cleaver – typically this is the only knife in a Chinese kitchen, but it takes some getting used to in Western hands. You can find cooking classes (see Resources page), where they also teach cleaver skills
- Cutting board
- A few bowls and plates – try to also find 1 or 2 that fit into your steamer, to prep things
- Tableware – again, most markets sell basic things, IKEA is always an option, HOLA and many malls have nice things as well
Typical fresh ingredients that go into almost every dish are garlic, ginger and spring onions or leek.
In addition, you need some dried and other non-perishable staples. Some of those are common across many Chinese dishes. But with China’s many different cuisines, ingredients vary.
So depending on the type of food you like, the list of spices, paste and sauces will vary and can be long.The good thing is that everything is easy to get here and doesn’t cost much. I think this gives you the license to experiment. (If you are reading this and are not living in China, many ingredients are available in Asian supermarkets and online.)
Let’s break it down into the more common basic staples first:
- Rice – mǐ 米
- Peanut oil – huā shēng yóu 花生油
- Salt – yán 盐
- Sugar – táng 糖
- White pepper (ground) – bái hú jiāo fěn白胡椒粉
- Cornstarch – yù mǐ diǎn fěn 玉米淀粉 or qiàn fěn 芡粉, or potato flour
- Light soy sauce – jiàng yóu 酱油 shēng chōu 生抽
- Dark soy sauce – jiàng yóu 酱油 lǎo chōu 老抽
- Chinkiang black vinegar – chén cù 陈醋
- Oyster sauce – háo yóu 蚝油
- Shaoxing rice wine – liào jiǔ
- Rice vinegar – bái cù 白醋
- Sesame oil – xiāng yóu 香油
- Dried wood ear mushrooms – mù’ěr 木耳
- Dried shiitake mushrooms – xiāng gū 香菇
Additional sauces, paste and spices to have in you kitchen cabinet or fridge that are used in many Chinese dishes:
- Chili oil – là jiāo yóu 辣椒油
- Chili oil with chili flakes – lǎo gān mā 老干妈
- Sesame paste – zhī ma jiàng 芝麻酱
- Sichuan chili bean paste – dòu bàn jiàng 豆瓣酱
- Sichuan peppercorns – huā jiāo 花 椒
- Fermented black beans – dòu chǐ – 豆豉
- Dried hot chiles – gān là jiāo 干辣椒
- Sweet bean paste – tián miàn jiàng 甜面酱
- Flour (if you plan to make your own noodles or dumplings) miàn fěn面粉
- Star anise – bā jiǎo 八角
- Cassia bark – guì pí 桂皮
- Five-spice powder – wǔ xiāng fěn 五香粉
- Rock sugar – bīng táng 冰糖
- Dried shrimp – xiā gān 虾干
Good authentic Chinese recipes
We found great authentic Chinese recipes in Fuchsia Dunlop’s cookbooks. We prepared many recipes from her book Land of Plenty and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. My sister loves her latest book Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking, which I gave to her when she tried to recreate some authentic Chinese dishes back home after visiting us in Beijing.
Learning the basics in a cooking class
Do you rather have someone show you how to cook Chinese food than try it by yourself? Beijing has a couple of cooking schools for foreigners, targeting both expats and travelers. Classes are offered during the week and on weekends.
The cooking classes can vary in how hands-on they are. In some, you will learn some knife skills and, for example, making and shaping noodle dough but the actual cooking is only demonstrated by a chef. In other classes, you will have more opportunities to stir the wok yourself. When signing up for a class, make sure you understand if you will actually be able to do some cooking yourself if that is what you are after. Check out the Resources page with links to cooking schools.