IRENE KUO was born to one of the great old families of China. A family with a passion for food and philosophy. The other day she was quoting the Sage Kwan Tze who in 700 B.C. noted, "To the ruler the people are Heaven; to the people food is Heaven." To me, the lunches I've had with Madame Kuo have been a little bit of heaven. She has run Chinese restaurants for over 20 years and authored "The Key to Chinese Cooking," published by Knopf. Her views on Oriental cooking utensils are worth knowing.
She feels any well-equipped American kitchen has sufficient implements to deal with the needs of most Chinese recipes. For years, before the introduction and massive commercial distribution of Chinese cooking equipment in America, Madame Kuo was able to do all her cooking with standard American cookware.
She still feels a wok should not be used on an electric burner because there isn't enough direct heat to properly use this type of pan. For stir-frying on an electric range she uses a large, deep skillet for small ingredients and a stock pot or spaghetti cooker for bulky, leafy ingredients. And, she says, there is no reason why these two basic pots can't be used by the occasional stir-fryer on a gas range.
She thinks the Chinese spatula and ladle (scaled down models of professional restaurant tools) sold with most woks are clumsy in the hands of many cooks who have limited experience in using them. She suggests a small western spatula instead.
She points out that a substitute for the Chinese bamboo steamer can be fashioned by placing a cake rack on a trivet in a large pot. The base pot should be deep enough to hold two inches of water in the bottom and still have about two inches of space above the food on the rack. The air space above the food is essential for the proper circulation of the steam.
Having almost convinced me the collection of Oriental cooking equipment I have amassed is totally unnecessary; Madame Kuo proceeded to point out there are a number of special Chinese utensils well worth purchasing.
On Round Bottomed Woks "tempered iron is the best. The 14-inch size is the most convenient, big enough for stir-frying, simmering, steaming but small enough so that it does not interfere with the functioning of the other burners on the stove. It should not weigh less than 2 1/4 pounds, so that while the metal is thin enough for the fast spreading of heat, it is also thick enough so the oil used in stir-frying won't smoke immediately."
The collar used for holding the wok off the range should be slope-sided, not straight, about 2 1/2 inches high and studded with large holes for ventilation. The sloping sides allow you to reverse the collar and thereby set your wok over the smaller opening when you want less heat for simmering and over the larger one when you want it to be closer to the flame for stir-frying. The wok also needs a close fitting lid to retain heat. Madame Kuo has an electric wok which whe uses during her demonstrations in stores and on television. She prefers them to woks used on electric burners. My own tests have shown the Farberware and Westbend models to be extremely effective.
Chinese Skimmers or strainers are used for turning foods that are being cooked in hot oil and scooping them out quickly. She also uses it for handling slippery foods such as shrimps covered with velvety batter. The classic Oriental skimmer is made of woven brass reinforced with steel wire. It has a long flat bamboo handle that does not conduct heat.
Bamboo Steamers are used in the preparation of foods that require gentle cooking like steamed dumplings. The steamers are circular, flat-bottomed, woven baskets that are stacked in tiers. Place your cooking liquid into the bottom of a wok and put the steam basket above it. Two baskets can be used to cook food -- sufficient heat will not rise much above the two basket level but a third and fourth basket can be placed above for warming or reheating foods. The secret in choosing a steamer is to get one at least two inches smaller in diameter than your wok. It will sit well and securely and keep enough steam below to properly cook the food. And always buy a lid and keep it on when you're steaming, the baskets will not function properly with the lid.
Madame Kuo loves her Sandy-Pot Casserole. The Chinese do not have ovens as we understand them. They use earthenware casseroles that sit directly over the fire box. Casserole dishes are very popular during the winter months because foods stay warmer longer in these pots. They are brought to the eating area and have the side benefit of warming the dinners. The casserole has an unglazed earthenware finish and a glazed inside. The lid has a flat upper surface that becomes a base on which the casserole can stand when served at the table. Madame Kuo points out that this type of pot is quite fragile and should not be subjected to a sudden high flame or used without some liquid inside. "When ingredients must be seared first, do them in a skillet and then transfer them to the sandy-pot for long simmering."
Economist friends tell me gas and electric bills will continue to rise. The wok, steamer and sandy-pot evolved in a society short on fuel, so the current interest in Chinese cooking throughout the United States could not have come at a better time.