If you want to cook Chinese food at home, having the right tools can be a big help. Sure, you’ll want a wok, but here are a few more essential Chinese cooking tools.
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 proper gear, 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, or Lunar 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 between January 21 and February 20 every year, depending on the lunar calendar. In 2020, Chinese New Year (also known as The Spring Festival) starts on Jan. 25, and we’re in The Year of the Rat, which last occurred in 2008. You can cook Chinese food for the occasion 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 that will make the endeavor a lot easier for you, and have you cooking Chinese classics long after the Lunar New Year ends.
In 2017—The Year of the Rooster—we spoke with chef Hana Chung, who helped develop the menu (with head chef Ryan McDonald) at Good Fortune, a Chinese-Americanese restaurant in St. Louis, Missouri (now closed). With professional experience in several kinds of Asian cuisines, 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 intel on some of her favorite tools for cooking Chinese food, and then we added a few more for good measure—seeing as how they’ve stood the test of time, we’re revisiting them in The Year of the Rat.
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 hot pot.
These 16 ½-inch long 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, because twice is nice, especially at such a reasonable price.Buy Now
“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.
We Like: Calphalon Tri-Ply Stainless Steel 12-Inch Wok with Cover and Helper Handle, $89.99 on Amazon
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 Now
A 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.
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. (Also available on Amazon.)Buy Now
Alternative Option: Microplane Premium Stainless Steel Zester Grater, $11.32 on Amazon
Peel your ginger with a spoon and use this to grate it (and your garlic).
Spider 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.
We Like: Helen Chen’s Asian Kitchen 7-Inch Stainless Steel Spider Strainer with Natural Bamboo Handle, $11.99 on Amazon
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 Now
A Heavy 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.
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. (Also available on Amazon.)Buy Now
Bamboo Steamer 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.
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 Now
Look for long cooking utensils with light stainless steel and bamboo or wooden grips. Chinese-style ladles have a basin flush with the handle.
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 Now
A 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.
Instead of buying just a rice cooker, give in and get the Instant Pot already—a seven-in-one multi-functional wunder-gadget cooker that acts (as you surely know by now) as a pressure cooker, a slow cooker, a rice cooker, a yogurt maker, and a steamer/warmer (oh, and it sautés too). It really does cook rice well, and you can even make fermented rice (jiu niang) in it. As for entrees, using the high pressure function reduces cooking time by up to 70 percent, and the low pressure avoids overcooking delicate food.Buy Now
Chopsticks (for Eating)
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.
Made of sleek black fiberglass with subtly imprinted flowers, these dishwasher-safe chopsticks are perfect for large meals with guests, the Chinese New Year, and other special occasions. And please don’t throw these away; they’re reusable and quite durable. If you want, you could also use them for in the kitchen for stir-frying, beating eggs, and mixing ingredients.Buy Now
Floral Chopsticks, 10 pairs for $13.98 at World Market
If you prefer a pop of color, these reusable bamboo choptsticks are another great option, and you get enough for 10 people to use at once.
Related Video: Is the Dumpling the Perfect Food?
This post was originally published in 2017 and has been updated with new images, links, and text.
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.