Chinese takeout is as ubiquitous as pizza delivery in the United States for those of us too tired to lift a finger in the kitchen other than to press reheat on the microwave. Of course, home-cooked versions of either one are far superior, yet many of us aren't equipped to tackle the multifaceted, complex cuisine of the former. But between January and February, it could be time to grab some tools because we've got Chinese food on the mind more than usual. Why? These winter doldrums contain one of the globe's most colorful holidays — the Chinese New Year — bursting through the season's cold blandness with a vibrant energy we appreciate worldwide. It's not like we need much excuse to salivate over sizzling stir-fries and juicy steamed dumplings.
The moving holiday kicks off Jan. 28 with the Spring Festival, and the celebrations continue through Feb. 15, with the Lantern Festival. This is the year of the Fire Rooster, which last fell in 1957. The best time to gather friends, family, and food is on New Year's Eve, which is Friday, January 27, this year. You can cook Chinese food without buying special equipment, but thousands of years of Chinese history have resulted in a few time-tested tools used by professional chefs as well as seasoned home cooks.
Bolstered by her professional experience in several kinds of Asian cuisines, Chef Hana Chung helped develop the menu with head Chef Ryan McDonald at Good Fortune, a Chinese-Americanese restaurant that opened early this year in St. Louis, Missouri. She focused on creating traditional Chinese food in a new-wave, St. Louis style, such as the St. Paul sandwich with milk bread and egg foo young. And crispy pork belly fits in where it can.
Chung gave us some of her favorite tools for cooking Chinese food, and then we added a few more for good measure.
1. Long, Sturdy Wooden Chopsticks: "They are like an extension of your hand, and they are way easier to use than tongs because Chinese food is usually bite-size and a little fragile," Chung says. "And most importantly, wooden chopsticks do not conduct heat." Chopsticks a foot or longer help you fish out hard-to-grab food stuck in a hot wok or pot. Try this kind:
Uxcell Bamboo Noodles Cooking Chopsticks | Buy Now
These 16 ½-inch chopsticks are good tools for cooking noodles and rice, and are so long, they keep your hands and arms out of harm's way when deep-frying too. You get two pairs. Buy it here.
2. The Wok: "It's everything you need in one," Chung says. A wok can be used for stir-frying, deep-frying, boiling, and steaming!" Woks are designed to focus all the heat at the bottom. The sloping sides provide cooler areas for your food. Once you get comfortable with your wok, you can shake and flip your meat and vegetables because the wok's shape is conducive to tossing its contents instead of stirring. Don't get a nonstick wok, and instead try for one with hammered steel and a tight-fitting lid. You'll need a wok ring if you have an electric burner. Try this kind:
Calphalon Tri-Ply Stainless Steel Covered Stir Fry Pan | Buy Now
The 12-inch Calphalon wok is has a satin-finished interior and traditional wok design ideal for creating crisp stir-fry meals. Tri-ply means it has two layers of stainless steel plus an aluminum core for even and consistent heating on all types of stovetops. It's safe for the dishwasher safe, oven, and broiler, and backed by a lifetime warranty. Buy it here.
3. Ginger Grater: Spicy yet stomach-settling ginger is a mainstay in Chinese cooking, and you gotta use the root, not the prepackaged powdered version. Grating those stringy bits can be tough without help. Try this kind of help:
Microplane 3-in-1 Ginger Tool | Buy Now
Peel, slice, and grate your knob of ginger with this integrated tool that has a peeler to remove the outer skin, razor-sharp blades for 1/8-inch-thick slices, or the sharp holes for finely grated ginger. Ginger’s tough strings are no match. Use the slicer flat on the counter or hold it at an angle. There's a nonslip base and a blade cover for safe use and storage. Buy it here.
4. Strainer with Handle: "There's a lot of frying and steaming in Chinese food, so it's a great tool to scoop things in larger amounts and not hurt yourself," Chung says.
Helen Chen's Asian Kitchen Spider Strainer | Buy Now
This stainless steel spider strainer has a natural bamboo handle, above a 7-inch-diameter spider-style skimmer basket for lifting dumplings and wontons. The bamboo is heat-resistant, and the design drains liquids quickly for better cooking results. It's safe in the dishwasher. Buy it here.
5. Cleaver: "It's my favorite knife for cooking Chinese food," Chung says. "It's a two-fer: a knife and a scoop. Great for veggies and cutting whole cooked chicken or duck! They are a little heavy but they do come in smaller sizes." Cleavers are so thick and heavy, they're able to chop through bones. Try this one:
Global Heavy Cleaver | Buy Now
This 6 1/4-inch cleaver is a single 1-pound piece of heavy duty, high-tech CROMOVA stainless steel that can chop steak and cut through chicken bones. The molded handle with dimple pattern should ensure a comfortable, strong grip. The double-beveled edge means both right-handed and left-handed users can chop away with ease. Buy it here.
6. Steaming Baskets: Chinese cooking calls for steaming all kinds of food, such as pancakes, dumplings, fish, buns, meat, and vegetables. Although metal basket steamers are easy to clean, bamboo steamers are great for steamed bread because they don't allow water to pool. You can stack layer upon layer of these tray-like baskets to make multiple dishes, and they're often used in conjunction with a wok. This this bamboo kind:
Bamboo Steamer | Buy Now
It's not all frying in Chinese food. This 10-inch bamboo steamer is a healthy way to heat up your vegetables, pork buns, or fish without losing their nutrients. The lid and slotted bottom collaborate to keep steam trapped and free-flowing, while the bamboo absorbs excess moisture and retains heat. Buy it here.
7. Wok Spatulas and Ladles: Look for long cooking utensils with light stainless steel and bamboo or wooden grips. Chinese-style ladles have a basin flush with the handle. Try this one:
TableCraft Bamboo Handle Wok Spatula | Buy Now
A 14 ½-inch spatula will help toss and remove your food from the wok without much splatter. It's sturdy, and you can use it on on stainless, carbon steel, and cast iron because there's no coating. Buy it here.
8. Rice Cooker: Southern Chinese people especially love rice and use a rice cooker practically daily. The electric cooking utensil is used for pressure boiling or steaming rice, but more modern rice cookers also have different settings for different cooking functions. Try this one:
Instant Pot | Buy Now
Instead of buying just a rice cooker, get a seven-in-one multi-functional cooker that acts as a: pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, sauté/browning, yogurt maker, and steamer/warmer. This small appliance includes a three-ply-bottom stainless steel cooking pot, stainless steel steam rack with handle, manual, and recipes in English, Spanish, Chinese, and French. You can even make fermented rice (jiu niang). Cooking with the high pressure reduces cooking time by up to 70 percent, and the low pressure avoids overcooking delicate food. Buy it here.
9. Eating Chopsticks: For noodle dishes, sushi, or dim sum, chopsticks are our go-to utensils. Like Chung says, they become an extension of your hands when you get accustomed to them, and are they're great for picking up delicate food. Try these beauties:
Floral Chopsticks | Buy Now
Made of bamboo with colorful imprinted flowers, these chopsticks are perfect for large meals with guests, the Chinese New Year, and other special occasions. Made of bamboo, the set includes two sets of five chopstick pairs in assorted colors. So that's enough for 10 people at one dinner. And please don't throw these away; they're reusable. If you want, you could also use them for in the kitchen for stir-frying, beating eggs, and mixing ingredients. Buy it here.
Amy Sowder is the assistant editor at Chowhound in New York City. She loves cheesy things, especially toasties and puns. She's trying to like mushrooms. Her running habit is the excuse for her gelato passion. Or is it the other way around? Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, What Do I Eat Now. Learn more at AmySowder.com.