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Five Things I’ve Learned From Chinese Cooks

1. You don’t need a large kitchen

In a past life, before I came to China, I had a cook’s dream kitchen. Vast expanses of stainless steel benchtops, loads of cupboards, twin ovens and two large sinks. What I see here every day though, is marvellous, delicious food produced from the smallest imaginable preparation space, consisting of a sink (or sometimes just a plastic tub full of water), a chopping board (often blanced on top of the sink) and a single portable wok burner – either conventional electric or induction. There is isually also a rice cooker plugged in somewhere which can do double-time as a hot-pot and soup cooker.

The set-up in the photo is typical, and when your kitchen is this small it can be set up anywhere – outside your house on the street, at the back of your shop (I had one of my best meals cooked in the back of an indoor plant shop) or in your stairwell (in Shanghai, large houses were divided into multiple apartments during the Cultural Revolution, and with only one existing kitchen, all the new tenants needed somewhere to cook – usually the main stairwell). It makes me wonder what on earth I thought I needed all that space for.

2. You need only one knife, and it’s called a cleaver (qiē ròu dāo 切肉刀 or cài dāo 菜刀)

What a great invention the cleaver is! It sits so well-balanced in the hand that you can perform delicate tasks like peeling ginger, or heavy jobs like chopping roast duck. The broad flat blade is great for crushing garlic and nuts too. The only job it’s not much good at is slicing bread. 

3. You need only one pan, and it’s called a wok (chǎo guō 炒锅)

A single pan for frying, braising, boiling, steaming, smoking or deep-frying. The majority of woks now come with flat bases to make them suitable for induction hotplates (safer too). I’ve made bolognaise, curry, paella and pasta in mine. It’s big, it’s deep, it’s great.

4. You need only 5 condiments plus 3 seasonings to cook Chinese food

Soy sauce, oil, dark vinegar, oyster sauce and rice wine, plus salt, sugar, and white pepper will see you through hundreds if not thousands of different Chinese dishes. Used in different combinations and ratios they are the basics every cook keeps in a little tray next to the wok.

5. Nothing is inedible if cooked correctly

Now this is open to interpretation, and edible in one man’s book is inedible in another. But did I think duck tongues or jellyfish could be delicious? No! Are they? You bet! We could learn a lot from a food culture where absolutely nothing is wasted. When I bought the duck for last week’s Project Food Blog Challenge, I was given the liver and heart in one bag, and the feet and head in another. I’ve yet to learn what I was supposed to do with these, but rest assured they would have been cooked in some delicious way and eaten with gusto.

I’ll leave you with a picture of the duck tongues. They’re really more like duck mandibles with the lower bill attached, and the deal is, you dip them in the spiced salt, then gnaw the tiny bits of meat off the bones. It’s all about the gnawing really.

  • jen cheung

    you really dont need a large kitchen to cook 🙂 agree !!!

    have a lovely weekend!
    jen @

  • Fiona

    It's been very eye-opening seeing what tiny spaces people here use to cook! You have a great week-end too!

  • croquecamille

    Great tips! I've learned some similar space-necessity lessons from cooking in Parisian apartments in the last few years.

    Bummer about PFB! But very glad I found you, so it wasn't all for nought. 🙂

  • Fiona

    Thanks Camille! You've been fantastically supportive, I've even awarded you a prize (see Bugger! today)
    I've stayed in a few apartments in Paris and space was always at a premium! Chopping up on the stove top or a board balance over the sink, you can really learn to be compact in your cooking, but I would have to put the dirty dishes n the hallway til I'd finished cooking 😉

  • Mimimoza

    The cleaver truly is the multitasker! and chinese food won't taste the same if it wasn't fried with a wok.

  • The Enchanted Cook

    Great posting! Can't believe I don't have a cleaver! Think I must get one now 🙂


  • Fiona

    Do! They're so inexpensive! Buy the cheapest one that feels right in your hand, then get a pro sharpener to sharpen it for you.

  • adventuresomekitchen

    What an inspirational post! We can always do so much with little if we only use our imaginations!