To learn the basic techniques used in Asian cuisine, start with the wok. Best known in the United States for stir-frying, this universal cooking pot of Asia is exceptionally versatile. Its also ideal for deep-frying, steaming, braising and even smoking.
Once you master the fundamentals, the wok will become an essential part of your repertoire for preparing quick weeknight meals as well as special dinners for guests.
Stir-frying is a technique of rapidly frying small pieces of food in oil over high heat. A wok is well suited for stir-frying because it exposes the ingredients to the maximum cooking surface, while the gradually sloping sides help contain small pieces of food inside the pan as they are rapidly tossed and stirred. For tips on how to stir-fry, click on the link at right.
Deep-frying is widely used in Asia for preparing savory dishes, such as tempura and spring rolls, as well as sweet dishes like banana fritters. To ensure that foods emerge with a crisp, tender crust and fully cooked interior, heat the oil to the temperature specified in the recipe and fry the food in small batches; otherwise, the temperature will drop and the food will absorb the oil. Always wait for the oil to return to frying temperature before adding the next batch.
Steaming is a popular way to cook a range of foods, particularly delicate ones, such as vegetables, fish and dumplings. To steam foods in a wok, fill the pan with 2 to 3 inches of water and place a bamboo steamer or a cake cooling rack inside. Bring the water to a boil, place the food on the steamer, cover and cook as directed in the recipe. For more information on bamboo steamers, click on the link at right.
Braising involves cooking food slowly in a covered pot or wok. This technique works well for preparing everything from eggplant to chicken. First the ingredients are seared in oil, then liquid and other aromatics are added. The food simmers slowly in the covered wok, emerging moist and tender and bathed in a flavorful sauce.
An ancient cooking method in China, smoking is excellent for preparing duck, quail and fish. Tea leaves and other fragrant ingredients, such as citrus peel and whole spices, are commonly used to impart flavor. To convert a wok to a smoker, line the pan with aluminum foil and place tea leaves and other aromatics on the foil. Set a rack in the wok and place the food on the rack. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and smoke-cook the food as directed in the recipe.