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Best cookware and cooking products for making Asian American food

We asked these Asian American cookbook authors for 2020 kitchen must-haves you can gift this season.
Chef cooking vegetables in wok pan
Equip your kitchen (or someone else's) with the right tools and products fit for mainstay Asian dishes.zeljkosantrac / Getty Images/iStockphoto

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From gifts fit for your favorite home cooks to cookbooks that make good use of their skills and everything they might need while traveling over the holidays, you have a lot of options when it comes to cooking-related gifts this season. And if the people on your list are relatively new to cooking, getting all of the equipment and ingredients they might need to create (or experiment) with the Asian dishes they know and love might seem intimidating.

To help you find what you need, we asked several leading cookbook authors what they recommend people grab for their kitchen if they attempt more Asian dishes in the coming holiday season and into the new year.

1. 777 brand Rasam Powder

Entrepreneur Chitra Agrawal is the author of “Vibrant India.” Agrawal first came onto the food scene with her blog ABCDs of Cooking. As the blog took off, she realized highlighting South Indian food resonated with readers.

“I do feel like North Indian recipes are what people think of when they think of Indian food,” Agrawal told NBC News in 2017. “As a [cooking] teacher, I want to bring another cuisine to the forefront.”

But Agrawal knows that jumping into more complicated recipes is often intimidating for those just getting started with Indian cooking. So she keeps her trusted brands on hand for when she’s in a time crunch but still wants to conjure up an elegant meal.

“When I run out of homemade rasam powder, the only one that comes close is 777 brand,” said Agrawal. “I use the powder to make rasam, a tangy and spicy tomato lentil brothy soup served over rice — but it's also wonderful to punch up the flavor in veggie stir-fries or rice dishes.”

2. Sur La Table Professional Carbon Steel Wok

Throughout her writing, Diana Kuan has explored America’s relationship with Chinese food and the unique dishes Chinese Americans have created since first arriving in the 1800s — she wrote the cookbook “Red Hot Kitchen: Classic Asian Chili Sauces from Scratch and Delicious Dishes to Make With Them."

A longtime cooking instructor, Kuan stresses the importance of having the right tools to her readers. That’s why she says every kitchen should have a carbon steel wok.

3. Craft Wok Traditional Hand Hammered Carbon Steel Pow Wok with Wooden and Steel Helper Handle

“Carbon steel works as well as cast iron for cooking, and is also naturally non-stick after you season it,” Kuan explained, adding that another advantage of carbon steel is its weight — it’s lighter than an iron wok and takes less time to cool down.

4. Made In Blue Carbon Steel Wok

“I also recommend getting a wok with a flat bottom and a long handle for home cooking," Kuan advised. "Round bottom woks need wok rings to be stable and work better for restaurant stoves.”

5. Cole & Mason Granite Mortar And Pestle

Author Leela Punyaratabandhu — whose cookbook "Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill: Classic Recipes of Seafood and Meats Cooked over Charcoal" will publish in 2020 — grew up surrounded by her family’s traditional Thai cooking. And since preparing Thai cuisine can be highly intricate, Punyaratabandhu recommends that anyone who wants to cook more Thai food get a large granite mortar.

“Pastes of fresh herbs and dried spices are central to all regions of Thai cuisine,” Punyaratabandhu noted. “True, you can use a mini chopper or a food processor for the task, but a paste of herbs and spices chopped into tiny pieces with a blade is not nearly as fragrant as one made from the same herbs and spices bruised, broken, and pulverized between two pieces of stone.”

Punyaratabandhu stresses, however, that it’s important to be slightly particular about the mortar you select. “Don’t go by its weight or overall size. Use the capacity of its inner bowl as the main criterion,” she advised. “Too small or too shallow a bowl makes it difficult to pound your curry paste ingredients into a smooth paste.”

Because mortars are so essential to Thai cooking, Punyaratabandhu also recommends purchasing one manufactured in Thailand with a bowl that’s six inches by six inches large. “This size mortar is enough to make about four to six ounces of curry paste at a time (anything more than that would be pushing it),” she explained, adding “that’s enough to make a huge pot of curry.”

6. Red Boat Fish Sauce

Andrea Nguyen has devoted her career to making Vietnamese food approachable to a wider audience.

Her latest cookbook “Vietnamese Food Any Day: Simple Recipes for True, Fresh Flavors” was named one of the best cookbooks of 2019 by Library Journal. In it, Nguyen stresses how any home cook can use simple ingredients to create authentic Southeast Asian meals.

7. Son Fish Sauce

“Get yourself a good bottle of fish sauce, such as Red Boat or Son brands (they're artisanal products from Vietnam),” Nguyen said. “Your Viet food adventures will go swimmingly well. Once opened, cap it well and store in the fridge.”

Woven throughout the book are Nguyen’s family stories, tracing their experience migrating to the U.S. after the Vietnam War as refugees. She stresses that anyone looking to begin cooking more in the new year should make sure that they have all of the right staples in their pantry.

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