What are the most useful tools in an Asian kitchen?
September 29, 2011 1:01 PM   Subscribe

What kitchen tools are necessary for a home cook in a western country looking to try their hand at creating dishes traditionally found in east and southeast Asia?

I would like to start experimenting with recipes from China, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam and eventually tackle a dish or two from other areas in that region of the world.

I live in a somewhat remote area with no access to an Asian grocery, so I plan to purchase the kitchen accessories online and have them shipped. I'd like to put in a large one-time order to reduce the costs and impacts associated with shipping.

I'm familiar with ingredients used in Asian cooking, but would appreciate your recommendations for tools to facilitate the cooking process.

I have a wok, a mortar and pestle, and a rice cooker.

Thank you!
posted by Juniper Toast to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I find a spider strainer to be useful when frying in a wok.
posted by Seamus at 1:07 PM on September 29, 2011

I cook a fair amount of Chinese food and other than the wok the only specialized tool I use regularly is a dedicated steamer pot. It has two baskets that stack on top of the main water vessel and you can cook enough for a family of four in it.

The wok is not going to give you "real" stir-fry unless it has a huge heat source under it; your home stove will not get hot enough. You can get specialized propane burners that point a bunch of jets all around the round wok, but I wouldn't use on indoors.

There are specialized (ceramic, I think?) containers meant for making casserole-style dishes, but I can't remember the name of them offhand.
posted by backseatpilot at 1:09 PM on September 29, 2011

I eventually got pretty pissed with using a wok on a normal western stove, they're not really built to accommodate a wok... You really need to have a specific stove setup if you're using a wok...something that the wok can rest inside, and almost seal around to retain heat. I took a lead from SheSimmers and started using cast iron. It works much better with western stoves.

Also, shesimmers is the best thai-cookery blog ever...worth the read!
posted by furnace.heart at 1:11 PM on September 29, 2011

My girlfriend's family is from Vietnam and she cooks a lot of Asian foods and I don't think she has much in the way of specialty implements aside from what you already have. She uses chopsticks as cooking implements sometimes and we also have some extra large soup bowels for dishes like pho.

And yeah, wok cooking on a propane burner (outside) is way better.
posted by ghharr at 1:16 PM on September 29, 2011

I think a mandolin slicer might come in handy for preparing vegetables
posted by unlaced at 1:17 PM on September 29, 2011

I think you're almost there. Maybe you'd like to learn to cut with cleaver (pdf alert), buy a cheap one to find out if you like it. There's lots and lots of cutting going on in Asian cookery and using the cleaver speeds up the task. I bought mine 20+ years ago for $12 and I sharpen it once in a while. It's still in great shape.

I bought this rice washing colander last year and I can't believe I never thought of it before. Saves you the juggling with the lid.

You probably already have lots of little bowls. Use them when you are cutting and preparing the food.
posted by ouke at 1:38 PM on September 29, 2011

If you are willing to get specialty items, a dolsot is essential for making insanely delicious bibimbab and can easily be purchased online.
posted by boobjob at 1:40 PM on September 29, 2011

chopsticks or tongs for cooking noodle dishes.

i have a dumb electric stove, so i use a huge, high walled, skillet (and have to "stir fry" a little slower). a splash guard and a spider strainer are useful if you're frying. i love my santoku knife.

i know you said you had the ingredients down - but as a note, unless you are already familiar with the brand of pastes and sauces (oyster, fish, black bean, etc), get a few different brands. there are huge differences between them sometimes.
posted by nadawi at 1:41 PM on September 29, 2011

I come from a Vietnamese family, and I wouldn't say you need much more than you already have (to prepare Vietnamese food, anyway).

I'd recommend getting a big stock pot if you don't already have one (broth galore!), and remember to use wooden chopsticks when frying food-- the non-wood ones get ugly bloated tips if you use them.

One thing I've seen in our kitchens that I haven't yet in non-Asian kitchens is a hand crank nut chopper. We don't really use it too often, but it's always fun to crank dem nuts.

If you plan to eat family style, these things come in handy. Someone can prepare the rice paper for spring rolls, layer them with those divider things, and then just keep the stack on the table so people can take as they need, buffet/assembly line style.

Have fun!
posted by desertface at 1:44 PM on September 29, 2011

Some rice cookers have a setting to do sticky rice. If yours doesn't, a Thai steamer and basket set-up is a fun thing to have, if you don't mind some single purpose equipment.

I personally love Chinese clay pots (also called sand pots) for casseroles -- they're not essential, but they're nice for both cooking and serving.

And I use my shovel-like Chinese spatula/turner for everything.
posted by neroli at 2:02 PM on September 29, 2011

I cook a lot of Japanese food.

The specialised tool I would not be without is a little microwave rice cooker - a Japanese friend pulled a face when I said that, but I did at least buy it in Tokyo - which is small enough to do a single portion of rice without drying out the bottom layer. My electric rice cooker turned out to be great if I wanted to feed three or more, but very wasteful of rice for just me.

Other than that, I use: the paddle that came with the rice cooker; some onigiri moulds in various shapes (definitely optional, but fun); cooking chopsticks, occasionally; a gyoza press; and... something I don't have a name for. It's a heavy rubbery white disc with a pig's face in the middle of it; it weighs ingredients down so that they stay in boiling water rather than floating on its surface, and the pig's snout has holes in that are the right size for chopstick ends, so that you can pick it out of the pan.

My European pans and utensils have been just fine; I'm sure a Japanese sushi chef would throw up his hands in horror at my knives, but hey.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 2:23 PM on September 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I use an out-of-print blue Ikea ladle most of the time, but in general you want the spider and some spatula/turner things (aka wok turner).
posted by rhizome at 3:39 PM on September 29, 2011

My wife is Vietnamese. She uses the spider strainer mentioned above, large cooking chopsticks, and an unglazed ceramic pot which she uses for cooking kho.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:08 PM on September 29, 2011

Also, if you like (strong!) coffee, a Vietnamese coffee maker is really nice to have around.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:10 PM on September 29, 2011

I took a lead from SheSimmers and started using cast iron. It works much better with western stoves.

I came in to recommend this, too -- I never got stir-fry to come out right until the day I tried it in my giant cast-iron pan, and I haven't touched the wok since. Get a couple of these wok brushes to scrape out the pan with.
posted by vorfeed at 8:01 PM on September 29, 2011

Kom Kom Miracle Knife. Green papaya salad, carrot / daikon for pickles, etc.

Is your mortar and pestle one of those piss-ant little ceramic / timber handle jobs? Or a huge stone job that weighs half a tonne? Because you want the second one.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:00 AM on September 30, 2011

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