Say you want to start cooking Chinese food. Where do you start?
I’d suggest you start by stocking your pantry.
All you need are 12 essential Chinese pantry staples. At least two or three appear in nearly every Chinese recipe, guaranteed.
No, you won’t need to take out a second mortgage—these dozen ingredients should cost no more than $50 total, and they’ll last through the year.
So if you’re interested in cooking Chinese food (and I know an amazing cookbook, ahem, to get you started), stock up on the following.
A Very Chinese CookbookFeaturing 100+ Chinese recipes, from Sichuan street food to Hong Kong dim sum parlors to American Chinese classics.
1. Light Soy Sauce 生抽
Chinese light soy sauce, or sheng chou (“fresh extraction”), is a versatile, all-purpose soy sauce with a floral aroma. This is what we are referring to throughout the book when calling for “soy sauce.” The term “light” distinguishes this type of soy sauce from dark soy sauce and is not an indication of flavor or sodium content.
2. Dark Soy Sauce 老抽
Known in Chinese as lao chou (“old extraction”), dark soy sauce is made from soybeans that have been fermented longer than those used to make light soy sauce, and it sometimes also contains sugar. It’s darker, more viscous, and less salty than light soy sauce, with a flavor that’s a bit sweet, roasty, and wine-like. Given its concentrated flavor and dark hue, it is commonly used in marinades or to deepen the color of dishes such as Three-Cup Chicken.
A Celebration of Soy SauceSoy sauce is essential in a variety of culinary traditions—and no two styles look or taste exactly the same.
3. Shaoxing Wine 紹興酒
A staple in Chinese cooking, this amber-colored specialty of Zhejiang Province contributes distinctive nutty flavors to food. It’s used in everything from marinades to stir-frying sauces to braises. While drinking-quality Shaoxing wine has a more complex flavor, at a Chinese grocer you are likely to find Shaoxing cooking wine, which contains added salt and can also be used. Dry cooking sherry is a good substitute.
4. Black Vinegar 黑醋
Of several black vinegars produced in China, the most widely available is popularly known as Chinkiang vinegar, a romanization of Zhenjiang, where it’s made from rice and wheat bran as well as salt and sugar. Black vinegar brings earthy, complex flavors with hints of warm spice. It is used in dipping sauces and for braising meat. Balsamic and malt vinegars are (borderline) acceptable substitutes, though both lack Chinese black vinegar’s complexity.
5. Five-Spice Powder 五香粉
This common Chinese seasoning blend imparts bitterness, sweetness, and pungency. Most traditional blends include cinnamon, star anise, cloves, fennel, and Sichuan peppercorns. Some versions substitute white peppercorns for the Sichuan peppercorns.
6. Toasted Sesame Oil 麻油
Not for cooking, this fragrant oil, made from toasted sesame seeds, is a finishing oil for stir-fries, sauces, and dressings. Store it in the refrigerator to keep it from becoming rancid.
Toasted Sesame OilNutty and fragrant, a good-quality toasted sesame oil can enhance all kinds of dishes, but bad ones just taste oily or burnt. How do you guarantee great flavor?
7. Dried Chiles 乾辣椒
You’ll often find Sichuan chiles in our recipes, but labeling can be inconsistent. What you’re looking for are dried chiles with a moderate heat level. We use tien tsin chiles most often with our recipes, as these bright red chiles, 1 to 2 inches long and ½ inch wide at the stem, are readily available at the market and online. If tien tsin chiles are unavailable, arbols or other small medium-hot dried chiles can be used.
8. Long-Grain Rice 長粒米
Among the types of long-grain rice, jasmine rice is a staple in southeast regions of China, so you will often see it called for in Cantonese recipes (like much of what you’ll find in A Very Chinese Cookbook). Praised for its delicate floral and buttery scent, it cooks up relatively soft and sticky compared with other long-grain varieties, though it maintains a slightly firm chew. It’s classic in fried rice, especially if you use day-old jasmine rice. (Don’t have enough time for day-old rice? Use our hack for faux leftover rice.)
9. Doubanjiang (Broad Bean Chile Paste) 豆瓣醬
An essential flavoring in Sichuan cuisine, this deep reddish-brown paste is made from red chiles, broad (fava) beans, salt, and wheat flour. It adds spicy, meaty depth to many Chinese dishes, including Mapo Tofu. It’s worth seeking out doubanjiang from the town of Pixian (look for Pixian on the label); bright red and chunkier than standard-fare doubanjiang, it has a more assertive and richer flavor.
Mapo Tofu (Sichuan Braised Tofu with Beef)This braise of custardy tofu cloaked in a garlicky, spicy meat sauce is a signature dish of the Sichuan province.
10. Cornstarch 太白粉
The universal pantry starch is a thickener for sauces as well as a coating for meat, poultry, and fish—either to absorb moisture and encourage sauces to cling or to create a velvety texture while stir-frying. It is also vital in coatings and batters used in frying, as it encourages browning and crispness.
11. Peanut Oil 花生油
Refined peanut oil is the gold-standard for frying. Thanks to its relatively high smoking point (around 450 degrees), it can withstand periods of high heat without breaking down. We recommend it for many Chinese dishes, but especially when frying at temperatures above 400 degrees.
12. Chicken Broth 雞高湯
While European-style broth often has vegetal flavors, Chinese-style broth emphasizes chicken, with hints of scallion and ginger. Homemade is best, but if using store-bought, try Swanson Chicken Stock. It has a richer, meatier flavor than other broths. Avoid bouillon pastes, which can have more vegetal flavors and add unnecessary sweetness.