Kitchen Essentials for Southeast Asian Cooking

Whether you're making spring rolls, steamed dumplings, sukiyaki, wonton or noodles dishes of all kinds, you'll need a heavy-duty chopping block, mortar and pestle, wok, all-purpose knife, steamers, strainers, spatulas and tongs in the preparation.

  • 01 of 07

    Heavy-Duty Chopping Block

    Chopping block
    Evonne Chia @

    In Southeast Asian cooking, whole chickens and fish are chopped through the bone, and you will need a heavy-duty chopping block for the job. Traditionally, cross-cuts of tree trunks are used as chopping boards, but with the prevailing environmental concerns about forest denudation, chopping blocks ​made with bamboo as well as hard plastic are becoming more and more common.

    If you can get a solid wood chopping block, it would be ideal. Otherwise, get the best quality and sturdiest substitute that you can afford.

  • 02 of 07

    Mortar and Pestle

    Mortar and pestle
    Amanda Dodds @

    Grains, spices, and herbs are ground to a paste to create the base for many dishes of Southeast Asia. The grinding is done by placing the ingredients in the mortar (the bowl) and using the pestle (the grinder) in a circular motion to break them into bits as they release their essential oils.

    Food processors and blenders have replaced the mortar and pestle in many modern kitchens, but this simple tool for pounding and grinding has not totally disappeared and continues to gain proponents. 

  • 03 of 07

    All-Purpose Knife


    An Asian all-purpose knife is used like the Western chef's knife. Asian knives are sold as slicers, choppers or cleavers, and they come in different sizes. They might all look the same, but the thickness of the blades vary. Get a chopper to use as an all-purpose knife. The blade is strong enough to cut through chicken carcasses and whole fish. Buy an Asian knife that fits snugly in your hand and is not too heavy for you.

    Be sure to keep it sharpened using a whetstone or ​sharpening steel.

  • 04 of 07

    Quality Wok


    In most Western kitchens, there is an array of pots and pans for stewing, braising, frying, poaching, making soup and so on. In most of Asia, there is only one cooking vessel for all that. The wok originated in China, but it has found its way to East and Southeast Asia. It is the standard cooking vessel in Southeast Asian cooking.

    Made primarily for cooking on gas stoves, the wok's unique shape with its rounded bottom and flared sides makes it easy to scrape and move food around using a spatula. Wok sizes vary. If you intend to do a lot of Asian cooking, get one that you can use for everyday cooking and another for cooking for a larger crowd.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Stackable Bamboo Steamers

    Bamboo steamer
    © Connie Veneracion

    There are non-bamboo steamers meant for the stovetop, and there are steamers with their own heating system. Why opt for the bamboo steamer?  Little condensation occurs inside a bamboo steamer because the bamboo absorbs most of the evaporation. That means that the food being steamed is less likely to get soggy from condensation.

    Bamboo steamers come in different sizes. Whatever the size, the steaming baskets are meant to be stackable so that several batches of food can be steamed at the same time. To use a steamer, boil water in a wok and place the steamer over the water.

  • 06 of 07


    Kitchen Spider
    © Connie Veneracion

    There are two basic strainers that are useful (if not totally essential) in Southeast Asian cooking. The first is the kitchen spider, which can be shallow or deep. The shallow kitchen spider is useful for scooping out deep fried small food pieces such as shrimp or pieces of meat.

    The deep variety is used to reheat noodles in boiling water before they are dumped into a bowl and bathed with simmering broth. The second strainer is the colander, also a staple in Western kitchens. It is useful for draining rinsed vegetables, seafood, and cooked noodles. 

  • 07 of 07

    Spatula and Kitchen Tongs

    For frying and stir-frying, you'll want a good quality spatula and a pair of kitchen tongs. In Asian cooking, a spatula must be sturdy enough to flip a whole fish during frying. Ideally, it should be subtly curved to contain the food and prevent it from sliding back into the pan. A pair of kitchen tongs is most useful for picking up small pieces of food individually.

    When frying, for instance, some pieces of meat brown faster than others, and kitchen tongs are ideal for picking them up and moving them out of the oil. Kitchen tongs are also great for tossing stir-fried noodles with all those small pieces of meat, seafood, and vegetables in the wok.