Top 10 tips for making Asian cooking easier
A member of the SCMP family
cover img
Top 10 tips for making Asian cooking easier
7mins reading

The biggest complaints I get from readers about cooking some of my Asian recipes on SCMP Cooking is that they can’t find the ingredients, and that the dishes are too difficult or take too long to prepare.
The first is easy to deal with: if you have a computer, and you have postal service that delivers to your home, there’s no excuse. I’m a big advocate of supporting small businesses by buying from them, but if your local supermarket doesn’t sell Asian products, then buy from an online shop that does.

The logical place to look is Amazon, where you can buy Asian pantry essentials such as soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, chilli paste, rice wine, dried shrimp and dried mushrooms, but there are other online specialist shops that need your support more.

The bottled ingredients keep for ages at room temperature, while dried products can be stored in the fridge or freezer. While you’re shopping online, also buy a carbon steel wok (35cm/14 inch), if you don’t already have one, plus a lid for it, and a wok spatula. Once you’ve seasoned the wok (look on YouTube for tips) you’ll find yourself using it for many other dishes - not just Asian ones.

The other complaint - that the recipes are too difficult or take too long - is more of a mental block. I’ve met people who think nothing of making homemade confit - for which duck legs are gently poached in duck fat until the meat is almost falling off the bone - but think that Chinese red-cooked beef takes too much time. Others have the kitchen skills to make beef Wellington, but can’t be bothered to learn the Chinese technique of stir-frying.  

So here are my top 10 tips on how to make Chinese and other Asian cooking easier.

Stir-frying a dish takes just a few minutes: the majority of the work is in the preparation of the ingredients. You need a sharp cleaver or chef's knife to slice the ingredients into pieces small enough so that they don’t take long to cook. As you slice the ingredients, put each one in separate piles on a plate or tray, keeping the meat or seafood apart from the rest so there’s no cross-contamination. When you’re ready to cook, have all the ingredients ready and within easy reach, including the seasonings.
As you would with a cast-iron skillet, heat the wok before adding the oil. Most stir-fries require high heat, at least for part of the cooking process. Heat the wok first, then add the oil and swirl it (or use a paper towel to rub it in) so the metal is sufficiently coated. A well-seasoned wok is as good as a non-stick pan, and you don’t have to coddle it nearly as much.
Some dried ingredients - Chinese (shiitake) mushrooms, in particular - need quite a long time to rehydrate - a minimum of two hours, but usually longer. I’ve seen recipes that advise soaking mushrooms for 30 minutes - this is not nearly enough time. You can quicken the process, if you must, by using boiling water, but this leeches the flavour out of the mushrooms into the soaking water.
If you use dried mushrooms often (and when buying them, look for thicker caps), you might want to keep a container of rehydrated mushrooms in your fridge, so they’re ready whenever you need them. Just briefly rinse the mushrooms then put them in a lock-and-fresh type plastic container and add cool water so they’re bobbing around freely.
When fully hydrated, leave the mushrooms in the water and put the container in the fridge. The soaking liquid for dried mushrooms, dried scallops and dried shrimp (which take far less time to rehydrate) can be used in place of plain water in dishes.
If you’re cooking several Chinese (or Asian) dishes to serve for a meal, make only one or two stir-fries, because these need to be eaten hot out of the wok. To round out the meal, choose dishes that can be braised or steamed, because they don’t require constant monitoring. 
If you don’t have an ingredient called for in a recipe, use one that’s similar. This doesn’t work all the time, of course. But if a recipe calls for Chinese celery and you don’t have any, slice a celery stalk lengthwise into thin strips, and use that. If you don’t have bird’s-eye chillies, use another type of spicy chilli; if you’ve run out of mild banana chillies, substitute a bell pepper (or only part of one, because they are larger than banana chillies).
The flavours won’t be exactly the same, but if you have to pick between cooking a dish with alternate ingredients, or not cooking the dish at all, choose the former.
Forget the canned vegetables, at least if you want flavour. Canned bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, baby corn and straw mushrooms were used in the past because the fresh ingredients were so difficult to find outside Asia. But while the canned versions add bulk and texture, they taste nothing like the fresh vegetable, so take that into consideration if you’re cooking with them - you might need to slightly increase the seasonings.
If you do use the canned versions, drain off and discard the soaking liquid, which has an odd flavour, then rinse the vegetables thoroughly. 
In a pinch, use bottled sauces. If you’re short on time, there’s nothing wrong with stir-frying some clams with bottled black bean sauce, or chicken with black pepper sauce from a jar. Personalise the dish by adjusting seasonings to your taste: add a bit more chilli, or soy sauce, or sugar, or whatever else you think it needs.
Stock up your fridge or freezer. Who has the time to shop daily for fresh ingredients? Keep packets of meat, fish and seafood in your freezer, portioned out in sizes suitable for your household, and thaw when needed. Fresh ginger also freezes well. 
Fresh vegetables are a little more problematic. If you shop only once a week and eat a lot of fresh vegetables, use up the more fragile, leafier varieties first, and save the sturdier vegetables - pak choi, summer squash, white radish, lotus root - for later in the week.  
Take advantage of the siu mei (roast meat) shop, if there’s one near you. Buy a strip of char siu (barbecued pork), a nice piece of siu yuk (crisp-skinned roast pork), roasted duck or cooked chicken (soy sauce, salt-baked or white cut).
When fresh and warm, these meats are good with a bowl of rice, a fried egg and stir-fried vegetables. If you’re cooking for more people, supplement your home-cooked dishes with something from the siu mei shop. Leftovers can be used in other dishes.
Practice makes perfect! As with all types of cooking, you’ll get better at preparing Asian dishes the more you do it, and it will seem much easier with repetition. Moving a wok with one hand and wielding a wok spatula with the other will become second nature, and you’ll learn when to adjust the heat just by looking at the ingredients as they simmer - and it’s not necessarily when the recipe and timer says you should.
You’ll also figure out if you prefer dishes saltier or less salty, spicier or more mild, and will adjust the recipes accordingly.
Welcome to SCMP Cooking

We'll be showing you a whole range of Asian dishes for you to cook at home. We're starting small but are thinking (and planning) big - we'll be adding recipes to the site every week, and will expand to include international dishes, cooking videos, interviews with famous chefs and much more. Be sure to sign up to receive our weekly newsletter!