An Ultimate Guide to Essential Chinese Ingredients
Before I moved to New York, a world-class kitchen serving all kinds of cuisine around the world, I’ve always struggled to make a one-hour trip to Asian Grocery Stores in South Florida. Back that time, I was’t a big fan of online shopping. Maybe I am just too doubtful, or too conservative, whatever you might say. But the truth is, I miss the time when I went to local fresh market with my Mom every time I spent school break at home. We talked about what we should prepare for lunch, had some nice conversations with local farmers and then walked home slowly. If you’ve never been to China, it’s hard to picture how the local market looks like. Think about a supermarket here in the U.S. Now imagine it’s outdoor (or maybe indoor as well, sometimes with a roof or a tent), and each seller has their own “booth” displaying whatever they want to sell. They will greet you, tell you the price and measure it for you. Sometimes, if you go to a specific seller often, he or she may give you a discount. But you can always negotiate a bit to get a better price.
But don’t get me wrong. China has supermarkets too, big or small ones. Some people may prefer to go there. It’s convenient and totally personal decision. But most people still like the personal aspect of shopping. They want to talk to someone, share their recent stories, or simply compare among different ‘booths”. Make sense, right? So that’s what I missed so much when I moved to the U.S.
Today, much has changed: as busy as we can be, we don’t have the patience to compare or talk much. We just want to get things done and move on to the next jungle, maybe our kids, job or other chore. We are always on the go. That’s when I finally surrender. I said to myself, “Ok, enough! I don’t have the patience anymore to shop around and compare. I will go to Amazon, read a few reviews and ratings, and then 1-click should do the rest.” What a contrary!
Recently I got an email from one reader. The question was, what are the main or essential Chinese ingredients? I think this is a very good question! So in this post, I’ve compiled the key ingredients commonly used in the Chinese recipes. As you start to gain more knowledge about this list, hopefully you’ll want to decide which one you should keep handy. If you have an Asian Store close to you, that’s great. If not, no worries, as almost all of them are available on Amazon. I was even surprised to find my favorite brand/type:) For your quick reference, I also added the link under each item. So you don’t have to grasp at any straw in an Asian Grocery Store or spend too much time diving into Amazon. I know that feeling–it’s not pleasant, especially because I have sort of choice phobia disorder (when I am hungry!)
Sauces and Condiments
- Chinese Black Vinegar
Made from fermented rice, wheat, and barley. “Chinkiang” is a city name in Southeastern China. “Chinkiang Black Vinegar” is the most well established brand in the industry.
- Rice Wine
Made from fermented rice and yeast. It’s an indispensable ingredient used in a variety of Chinese dishes, from stir-fries to dumplings, from beef stew to marinades. “Shaoxing Rice Wine” is the brand everyone trusts in China. “Shaoxing” is also a city name in Southeastern China.
- Sesame Oil
Made from sesame seeds. It’s used to enhance the nutty sesame flavor of a simple Chinese soup or a cold dish. Just add a few drops to season a dish.
- Soy Sauce
Here is the tricky one. Chinese people like to use two types of soy sauce: one dark, one light. The dark one is often used in stew or braising; the main purpose is to add color. The light one is for cold dishes or regular stir-fry. I hope this clarification helps. I use “Lee Kum Kee” for both types.
- Black Bean Sauce
Also called “Doubanjiang” in Chinese. It’s a spicy and salty paste. Kind of a weird combination. But it’s very essential in many Chinese dishes, such as Mapo Tofu. It’s made from fermented broad beans, soybeans, salt, rice, and various spices.
- Laoganma Black Bean and Chili Sauce
Here comes my favorite one. It used to be, and I guess it still is, the life of a Chinese kitchen. “Laoganma” simply means “an old and dry grandma”. Why dry, you may ask? Well, I don’t know either. But it has the face of the founder (I guess the recipe developer of this product) on its package. It has certainly become one of the most well-known women faces in China! No kidding! And I feel obligated to add a picture because I love it so much! It literally saved me when I was in college running out of money sometimes. I would buy one bottle and some buns. Cheap but delicious meal! You can also use this for spicy stir-fries.
- Chili Oil
If you like Chinese cold dishes and spicy food, then chili oil is a must for you! I don’t use it too often, because I prefer hot dishes. But I still keep one in the kitchen just in case.
- Chili Paste
Made from crushed fresh red chilies, soybeans, salt and garlic. You can add some to stir-fries, or as a condiment or a seasoning for sauces and marinates.
- Plum Sauce
Made from plums, sugar, vinegar, salt, ginger and chili peppers. It’s both sweet and sour. You can certainly add some to sweet and sour ribs:) It’s also used as a dipping sauce for spring rolls and barbecued meats.
- Hoisin Sauce
Also knowns as the seafood sauce. made from rice brewed with soybean paste, garlic, sugar, star anise, chili paste and other spices. It is a good seasoning for marinade and as a dipping sauce too.
- Peanut Oil
Obviously, it’s made from peanuts. Because Chinese cooking involves high heat, olive oil or coconut oil may not be a good fit. Peanut oil is used in all stir-fries.
Spices and Seasonings
- Five-spice Powder
A combination of five ground spices: star anise, Sichuan pepper, fennel, cloves and cinnamon. Essential for making Chinese pancakes or dumplings.
- Dried Red Peppers
Sichuan dishes use dried red peppers ALL THE TIME–in hotpot and stir-fries.
- Star Anise
This star-shaped spice is the seedpod of a small tree found in Asia. Used whole, it can add a subtle aroma to stew or stir-fry dishes.
- Sichuan Peppercorns
An essential ingredient to many Sichuan dishes. It can create a unique tingling sensation in the mouth. Used often with dried red pepper to achieve “mala” (meaning numbing and spicy) flavor.
Canned or Dried Ingredients
- Dried Black Mushrooms
It is also known as cloud ears. It comes dried and should be soaked in warm water before using. It is a natural cleanser for the lung. It can be used in both hot and cold dishes.
- Water Chestnuts
A kind of vegetable that grows in Asian marshes. Used as a nice addition to add a crunchy texture to stir-fries or soups. Water chestnuts are available canned or fresh. I’ve only bought the fresh ones in the grocery store, but I guess canned ones are not bad either.
Note: No favorable brand for me, but this link works for the category:
- Bamboo Shoots
Harvested before the bamboo plant matures, bamboo shoots serve the same function as water chestnut. Both canned and fresh ones are available. Any unused bamboo shoots should be stored in water and kept in the refrigerator.
Note: No favorable brand for me, but this link works for the category:
- Baby Corn
These baby corns are the ears of corn and often used in stir-fries to add a unique texture. Come both canned or fresh.
- Rice Vermicelli
A thin form of rice noodles, often eaten as a part of stir-fries, soup or salad. Cantonese people call it “Maifun” and they use it in many dishes.