Essential Pantry Ingredients in the Chinese Kitchen
An ancient tradition that spans the millennia, Chinese cuisine is defined by carefully balanced flavors and time-tested techniques. Here are some of the key ingredients you'll find in the Chinese kitchen.
Soy sauce: An incredibly versatile ingredient in Chinese cooking, soy sauce is used to flavor sauces, stews, marinades and meat, fish and vegetable dishes. Chinese soy sauce is generally saltier and not as sweet as Japanese. Try it in General Tsao's Chicken II.
Plum sauce: A traditional sauce for duck and pork recipes, plum sauce is a thick, sweet-and-sour sauce. It is made with plums, apricots and seasonings and sometimes goes by the name "duck sauce." Make your own Plum Sauce. And try it with Peking Duck.
Black bean sauce: A sauce made from fermented soybeans, ginger and orange peel. Try it in Chicken with Green Peppers in Black Bean Sauce.
Hoisin sauce: Sweet and spicy, hoisin sauce is primarily a table condiment made with soybeans (or wheat), garlic, chile pepper, and other spices. It is almost jam-like in consistency and is frequently used to flavor meat, poultry and seafood dishes. Try it in Chinese Barbeque Pork (Char Siu) or On Luck's Hoisin Pepper Steak Stir-Fry.
Peanut oil: A flavorful oil with a high smoking point excellent for stir-frying. Chinese peanut oil has a pronounced peanut flavor often missing in American versions. Try it in Hong Kong Sweet and Sour Pork.
Sesame oil: Dark and flavorful, sesame oil accentuates many Chinese dishes and is meant to be used sparingly. Store sesame oil in a cool, dry place. Try it with Chinese Pork Dumplings.
Rice wine: Somewhat sweet and low in alcohol, rice wine is made from fermenting steamed glutinous rice. Try it in Lion's Head Meatballs.
Five-spice powder: A pungent mix of Szechuan peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, fennel seed, and star anise, five-spice powder is used extensively in Chinese cooking. It is not always limited to just five ingredients, however. Try it in Grilled Five Spice Chicken.
Sesame seeds: Mild and nut-like, sesame seeds are used to add texture and flavor to a variety of Chinese dishes. Their flavor intensifies when toasted. Try it with Beef and Riced Broccoli Bowl or Chef John's Shrimp Toast.
Ginger: Spicy, pungent, peppery and somewhat sweet, fresh ginger adds big flavor to Chinese dishes, whether grated, ground, slivered or minced. Try it in Steamed Fish with Ginger.
Pork: The most important meat in Chinese cooking, pork is highly versatile, found in everything from dumplings to soups, stir-fries to spare ribs. Try these Chinese Pork Recipes.
Tofu: A versatile ingredient, tofu is enjoyed in stir-fries, soups, casseroles, salads, sauces, and sandwiches. It is high in protein and an excellent meat substitute. Tofu is made by pressing curdled soy milk in a process similar to cheese making. Smooth and creamy, the firmness of tofu varies. Tofu is perishable and should be refrigerated and eaten within a week of purchase. Try it in Vegan Mapo Tofu.
Rice: One of the most important ingredients in Chinese cuisine, particularly in the south, rice is indigenous to China and has been cultivated there for thousands of years. Many kinds of rice are used in Chinese cooking of various sizes, shapes, and colors. Rice goes with so many Chinese Main Dishes.
Wonton or spring roll wrappers: Look for these paper-thin sheets prepackaged in many supermarkets. Try it in Pork Dumplings.
Straw mushrooms: Grown on straw, these tiny mushrooms are earthy and musty. They are usually available in the United States in cans, though they can be found fresh in some specialty stores. Try it in Moo Goo Gai Pan.
Bean sprouts: The sprouts that spring forth from mung beans are the most popular in Chinese cooking, adding a crisp, earthy element to many dishes. They are quite perishable and should be stored refrigerated in a plastic bag or covered in water in the refrigerator. Best eaten raw, bean sprouts also do well in stir-fries after very brief cooking. Try them with Egg Foo Yung with Mushroom Sauce or Chicken Jook with Lots of Vegetables.
Shallots: Part of the onion family, shallots look more like garlic. Milder than an onion, shallots are used like onions in Chinese cooking. Dry shallots will keep in a cool, dry place for about a month. Try them in Chinese Steamed Buns with BBQ Pork Filling.
Bok choy: Actually a very small cabbage, bok choy's leaves are tender and mild; its stalk is crunchy. Boy choy is used in soups, salads, stir-fries, and cooked vegetables. Try it in Chinese Chicken Soup with Bok Choy or Flavorful Beef Stir-Fry.
Green onions: Also called scallions, green onions are indigenous to China and indispensable in Chinese cooking. Try it in Chef John's Chinese Scallion Pancakes.
Red chiles: The Portuguese brought chile peppers to China following the age of exploration in the Americas. Today, they are an indispensable ingredient in spicy Szechuan cuisine. Try it in Quick Szechwan Sauce or Hunan Kung Pao.
Garlic: A member of the lily family (along with leeks, chives, onions and shallots), garlic is the strongest-flavored, most assertive member of the group. Look for firm dry heads of garlic. Store them whole and unbroken in a cool, dry, dark location. They'll stay for about two months. To peel garlic, place the clove under the flat side of a chef's knife and gently press down with the ball of your hand, lightly crushing the clove. The skin will split, allowing you to pull it off the clove more easily. Try it in Chinese Take-Out Shrimp with Garlic.
Cilantro: A member of the parsley family (also known as Chinese parsley), cilantro has a distinctive green, waxy flavor. Cilantro is the usual name for the leaf of the plant otherwise known as coriander, and from which coriander seed is obtained. Try it in Fried Rice with Cilantro.
Cabbages: There are many kinds of cabbage sold in Chinese markets. One of the more familiar in the United States is the Napa cabbage, a light-flavored vegetable with very pale green leaves. A very popular addition to stir-fries. Try it in Black Pepper Beef and Cabbage Stir Fry.
Check out our collection of Chinese Recipes.