I have accumulated a few tools over the last few years with which I do my non standard cooking with (mostly outdoor and not using our kitchen oven/stove). In order to prepare Asian food in a wok, you need very high heat. While you CAN cook on a stove with a wok ring by leaving the wok on the fire for 4-5 solid minutes to get that intense heat – having a very high powered burner makes this much easier as the temperature won’t drop down as drastically when you add food and will even heat back up much quicker. If you do purchase one of these or something like it (and I recommend that you do if you intend to cook Asian cuisine) you will want to keep it outside but under a shelter. Asian restaurants have burners that will range in power from 200,000 to 300,000 BTUs but they have massive overhead vents to pump out the smoke and fumes that get produced by cooking with such extreme heat. No wonder you can smell what scrumptious things they are cooking in your corner Chinese restaurant the moment you exit your car in the parking lot. But as we don’t have these huge range hoods in our residential kitchens, we must cook outside when using a high BTU burner.
The first item I have here is a gas burner that I bought from a distributor that used to sell them out of California. It is made in Thailand and is used by street vendors who run roadside fast food establishments. It is powered by a propane tank and has a nice little pilot light that has its own flow valve. You can’t get this model anymore but there are plenty of others for sale that are even stronger than this one. It bears mentioning that the company that sold this burner to me made me sign a waver stating I took full responsibility for anything that might happen while using this. So if I blew my house up, I wouldn’t try and sue them.
This burner, when turned all the way up will produce 110,000 BTUs of heat making it far more powerful than even a commercial Vulcan stove found in most non Asian restaurants. Those typically top out at 30,000 BTU. Most home stoves will have one large high powered burner that will max out at between 16,000 to 24,000 BTUs.
Here’s my burner turned all the way up.
After my burner, my next tool for cooking Asian (and a lot of other types of foods) is a Kamado type grill. These use natural hardwood charcoal for their fuel and because of their thick ceramic shells they hold heat well making for precise temperature control and maintaining such temperatures over an extended period of time. The temperature doesn’t fluctuate and changes tend to occur slowly when adjustments are made.
These have become very popular over the last two decades here in the United States for barbecue cooking but make no mistake – the concept of a Kamado oven/grill is distinctly Asian in origin. The one shown here is a Big Green Egg. Over the last 40 years, American soldiers stationed overseas often would buy these made in the countries they were stationed in and bring them back home with them. Today there are a number of manufacturers here in the U.S. that offer a wide selection of sizes and upgrades. There is quite a culture following of owners devoted to using these grills and clubs and social groups are popping up everywhere. Using a Kamado grill is quite simple in theory, but they can take some time to master. There are vents on the top and bottom of the grill and the fuel goes into a firebox above the bottom vent chamber but below the cooking grate itself. This makes for an even flow of air up through the unit whose temperature can be easily controlled by how wide the vents are opened.
Beyond the cooking heat sources, we have the cooking vessels themselves. I have three pans I use more than any other with outdoor cooking. I have a 18″ Cantonese wok, a 14″ Mandarin wok and a 16″ carbon steel Paella pan.
The 18″ wok is used when cooking for groups of 5 or more people. Woks require seasoning before use which involves burning off a factory coating of some petroleum product before cooking some aromatics in peanut oil at high heat to complete the seasoning process.
This wok is well seasoned and I have used it to cook dozens of Chinese and Southeast Asian dishes. The seasoning gives it a perfect non stick surface as long as the wok is always heated well before adding any food to it.
Above, my 14″ Mandarin wok still has the factory coating on it in this picture. When put on the burner at very high heat, the coating will vaporize and the surface of the wok will show a lovely carbon steel finish. I use this when cooking individual portions or when it’s just my wife and I that I am cooking for.
And my Paella pan is an interesting piece. Below, it is shown on my indoor stove. Indeed you do not want high heat when making a paella. I show it here on my indoor stove but I now use this pan outside on my wok burner on very low heat and that seems to work well.
I won’t say much about the Paella pan until I make a post where I actually use it. And I will use it, trust me. Not all my posts will be strictly Asian dishes.
Perhaps this last tool is the most important. At least it is for Asian cooking. An argument can certainly be made for that, because rice makes up most of the diet of some 80% of the world’s population. And rice takes center stage in any Asian dish. Everything else is treated as a condiment by the Asians who originated traditional dishes overseas. That is to say everything you might cook and serve with the rice serves to spruce up a dish that historically, is primarily just rice. So you want a good rice cooker.
Now if you look at the rice cooker section in an appliance store in Japan, you will see a selection of cookers ten times the size of that found in even the largest Asian markets here in the U.S. The features in rice cookers vary greatly but I will only treat those I use and that are available in my cookers above. Both are made by Zojirushi, a high quality rice cooker manufacturer based in Japan. I purchased the white one above about 10 years ago and it still works very well. But the lithium clock battery in it has died so it forgets what time it is every time I unplug it.
Both cookers above work by using induction heating. Simply put, they have huge electromagnets around the rice pan socket that when current is run through them, puts a magnetic field around the rice pan which heats it. No electric elements heated by making a short circuit. There is a sensor touching the pan inside the cooker which is used by the device to determine when the rice is almost done. These things have a processor that does a lot of calculations and this has caused some to label these cookers “Fuzzy Logic” in reference to how they determine when and how the rice is cooked. The white one has several cook modes including for white rice, brown rice, sushi rice, sweet rice, rice porridge and quick cooking rice. The brown cooker on the right above is far newer (I got it just under 2 years ago) and has a pressure cycle it uses for umami rice which gives the rice a sweeter flavor. I will admit the pressure cycle does change the flavor profile of plain rice a little.
Aside from the items above, there are spatulas, ladles, tongs, steel nets and other implements used to manipulate food in pans which don’t need further treatment here.
I will reference this page a lot in my coming posts as this is the basis for almost all the cooking and recipes I will depict here. In my next post, I am going to talk about rice.