Understanding Chinese Ingredients

It’s easier than ever to stock a Chinese pantry. With the proliferation of the ethnic sections at local supermarkets, common Chinese ingredients are no longer difficult to find, especially when it comes to items like soy sauce, oyster sauce, and sesame oil. More exotic Chinese ingredients can be purchased online at various Chinese/Asian grocery websites. If you live in a small city where there is a concentrated Asian population, it’s very likely that you will find an Asian food store or market that carries a supply of Chinese ingredients. If you live by the coast or near a major city with a Chinatown, (for example: San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Washington DC, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, or Honolulu) consider yourself lucky because you can get just about any Chinese ingredient at the many markets there. If you are unsure about where to go, just ask your Asian or Chinese friends and I am almost certain that they will point you to a good source. Building a Chinese pantry is both fun and rewarding. Here is the list of the most common Chinese ingredients I use on a daily basis and are used in the recipes of this cookbook.
Bamboo Shoots are the edible young and tender stems of bamboo plants. Bamboo shoots are available either fresh or canned, but canned bamboo shoots are the most easily found and probably safest to use as some fresh bamboo shoots have a strong and unappetizing odor. Canned bamboo shoots are already cooked and come sliced, whole, or in thin strips. I prefer the sliced version so I can use it for stirfries, and I can cut them into thin strips for Hot and Sour Soup.

Bok Choy is a common Chinese vegetable that has white stems with green leaves. Bok choy has a mild flavor and the white stems are always crisp. They come in different sizes but the one I love most is baby bok choy, which is about 3-4 inches (7-10 cm) in length. They are very versatile and can be used in stir-fries, soups, or to add texture and color to noodle dishes.

Chicken Bouillon powder (Chicken Powder) is the secret ingredient used by many Chinese chefs and home cooks. It’s a superior flavoring agent because it’s made with real chicken. I love it as a marinade or as a seasoning. Chicken bouillon powder is also marketed as “chicken powder” or “chicken seasoning powder.” I prefer Knorr brand, which has a no-MSG version.

Chinese Black Vinegar is made of fermented rice, wheat, barley, or sorghum and often labeled as “Chinkiang vinegar.” It’s used as a dipping sauce for dumplings. It’s very dark in color with a mouthpuckering flavor. When it’s used in cooking, it imparts a complex, tart, and smoky flavor to dishes.

Chinese Broccoli (gailan/kailan) is a dark green vegetable with thick stalks. The leaves are sturdier when compared to other Chinese greens, and resemble kale, and so it’s sometimes called Chinese kale. If you shop in a Chinese or Asian store, Chinese broccoli is often labeled as gailan or kailan.

Chinese Chives (Garlic Chives) This green, flat, and grass-like vegetable has a distinctly garlicky flavor, an ideal ingredient for Chinese dumplings or jiaozi. When shopping for Chinese chives, make sure that you don’t confuse it with regular green onions (scallions), which have hollow leaves. Chinese chives are believed to have antiseptic qualities and so many people combine it with oil to season a new wok. Yellow Chives are basically Chinese chives (garlic chives) that have been grown in the dark, that is, without the exposure to sunlight. As a result, yellow chives are stripped of the green color found in regular Chinese chives.

Yellow chives are commonly used in Cantonese cuisine, such as soups and noodles. They are best used when fresh because they don’t keep well in the refrig erator. If they become stale they will emit a strong and unpleasant smell.

Chinese Rice Vinegar is clear in color, has a sharp and acidic smell, and has a tart taste. It’s used to pickle vegetables as well as to give a sour taste to some Chinese dishes. Chinese rice vinegar is usually sold in a tall glass bottle. A bottle will last forever because it’s used sparingly in recipes. It keeps well at room temperature or in the refrigerator.

Chinese Rice Wine is used in many recipes in this book. I prefer Shaoxing wine, which is an amber-hued wine produced in the town of Shaoxing, in the Zhejiang province of China. It has a low alcohol content and is great for marinating proteins. When added to sauces, it imparts a hint of alcohol flavoring. Dry sherry is a great substitute for Chinese rice wine.

Chinese Rose Wine this intense and highly aromatic wine is called Mei Kuei Lu Chiew in Chinese. It’s sometimes labeled as Rose Essence Wine in English. Chinese rose wine is basically sorghum liquor that is distilled with rock sugar and rose petals, and is about 46% alcohol! Hailed as the Chinese brandy, it’s used in marinating meats such as BBQ pork or char siu. Because of its strong alcohol flavor, it’s used sparingly but infuses the marinated meats with an unforgettable aroma.

Dried Shiitake Mushrooms are readily available in Chinese markets. They are reconstituted in water before using. Dried shiitake mushrooms have a wonderful “umami” flavor that makes it a great addition to a variety of dishes, from soups to dim sum and dumplings. Dried shiitake mushrooms keep in the pantry or refrigerator for a long time, but make sure they are stored in a sealed container or plastic bag so they don’t lose their smoky aroma.

Fermented Black Beans Pungent and salty, fermented black beans are the basic ingredient of Chinese black bean sauce. They are usually available in a plastic or paper packet, and labeled as “fermented black beans,” “preserved black beans,” or “salted black beans.” Before using, they must be rinsed and soaked in cold water.

Fish Sauce While fish sauce is an essential part of Vietnamese and Thai cuisines, it’s not an uncommon ingredient in Chinese cooking, especially in Southern Chinese cooking from Fujian and Chaozhou. Fish sauce is pungent, but a little dash adds a new taste dimension to many dishes.

Five Spice Powder is a blend of five spices: star anise, Sichuan peppercorn, cloves, cassia or cinnamon, and fennel seeds (although white pepper, licorice, and ginger might be used in other variations). Chinese five spice powder has an exotic aroma and it’s highly concentrated. It’s mostly used to marinate pork or poultry because it imparts a complex taste and a striking smell to roasted meat. It’s also used to flavor the stewing stock for Chinese Tea Leaf Eggs.

Hoisin Sauce This sweet and savory sauce is an essential ingredient for many Chinese recipes. It can be used as a dipping sauce, marinade, or a flavoring sauce in Chinese stir-fries. The complex flavor of hoisin sauce comes from the fermented soybeans, spices, dried sweet potatoes, salt, sugar, and other ingredients.

Hot Bean Sauce (Dou Ban Jiang) Hot Bean Sauce is used in Sichuan cuisine as a flavoring paste. It’s made with salted soybeans and chilies. In Chinese, it’s called dou ban jiang and it can be labeled as “hot bean paste,” “chili bean paste,” or “chili bean sauce.” Hot bean sauce is usually sold in small glass jars.

Maltose also known as malt sugar, is a sticky and sweet syrup made from malt. Maltose is the secret ingredient used in Chinese BBQ or roasted meats, such as Cantonese BBQ Pork and Peking duck. I recommend MapleWood Maltose, a product of China. Maltose keeps well in the refrigerator, but once chilled, it becomes extremely gummy and almost rock solid. Leave it out at room temperature for a few hours before attempting to extract it from the container.

Noodles There are many types of noodles used in Chinese cooking: fresh, dried, and of different shapes and forms. Here are some of the most-loved Chinese noodles that I use regularly for delicious noodle dishes. Chow Mein The best chow mein is fresh chow mein, and these are available in a clear plastic packet at Chinese or Asian markets. There are two types of fresh chow mein: steamed chow mein or panfried chow mein. For regular Homestyle Chow Mein Noodles, I prefer steamed chow mein, which is softer in texture. For Crispy Pan-fried Noodles, I use pan-fried chow mein, which is dryer and makes for easier pan-frying. If you can’t find fresh chow mein where you are, you can always use dried chow mein or egg noodles for the recipes in this cookbook. Flat rice Noodles Flat rice noodles are available fresh at Chinese or Asian stores. They are white in color, coated with oil, soft, and pliable. They keep for a good 3-4 days in the refrigerator, but once refrigerated, they will need to be warmed to room temperature before using. Flat rice noodles are usually cut ¾ inch (2 cm) wide but they also come in uncut sheets. For the recipes in this cookbook, get the pre-cut flat rice noodles. rice Sticks (Rice Vermicelli) Rice sticks or rice vermicelli are dry, thin, rice noodles made with rice flour and water. They are mostly imported from China, even though there are brands from Taiwan, which are thinner. In the United States they are often labeled as rice sticks, and some brands label it as rice vermicelli or vermicelli. When shopping for rice sticks, check the label to make sure that no starch was added. I dislike those made with starch—they tend to stick to the bottom of the wok and clump together during the cooking process. Shanghai Noodles Shanghai noodles are a variety of fresh noodles that are thicker and chewier than other noodles. It’s usually packaged in a clear plastic bag and labeled as thick noodles, plain thick noodles, or Shanghai noodles. They are available at Asian supermarkets or Chinese delis. If you can’t find this variety of noodle, you can use any noodle that is broader than regular egg noodles. If you like, you can even use udon.
Oyster Sauce Other than soy sauce, oyster sauce is another essential flavoring sauce in Chinese cooking. Made from oyster extract, oyster sauce is dark brown or caramel in color. Its salty, rich oyster flavor is used in many Chinese stir-fries. Please take note that MSG (Monosodium Glutamate) might be added to an oyster sauce as a flavor enhancer, so read the label carefully to find the one that best suits your eating habits.

Plum Sauce is made of salted plum, rice vinegar, salt, sugar, and water. It’s a wonderful flavoring sauce that is both sweet and sour. I use plum sauce to make Chinese sweet-and-sour dishes because it enhances and balances the overall taste of the final product.

Rock Sugar can be found in either yellow or white crystals, but I prefer the yellow variety. The taste is sweet yet subtle and I use it to make the Cantonese-Style Steamed Fish Sauce, which imparts a deeper flavor than regular sugar. Rock sugar keeps forever in the pantry or refrigerator. If you live in a damp and humid place, store rock sugar in the refrigerator.

Sichuan Peppercorn is a vital ingredient in Sichuan cuisine. It doesn’t taste hot like white or black pepper and it’s mostly used for its unique lemony aroma, exotic flavor, and the tingly numbing sensation it gives the mouth. When combined with chili, the duo delivers the mala flavor, which is the key characteristic of Sichuan cooking.

Sesame Oil is made from pressed and toasted sesame seeds, and it’s a very popular ingredient in Chinese cooking. The strong sesame taste and nutty fragrance makes it a great marinade for meats and seafood. It’s used primarily as flavoring oil and not as a cooking oil. When shopping for sesame oil, look for the dark-amber 100% pure sesame oil to achieve the best results.

Soy Sauce I can’t think of a Chinese pantry without soy sauce—a condiment made of fermented soybeans, salt, and water. There are many types of soy sauce in the market: light soy sauce, low-sodium soy sauce, superior soy sauce, mushroomflavored soy sauce, and the list goes on. 24 Easy Chinese Cooking Easy Chinese Recipes For the recipes in this book, I use a regular soy sauce. I recommend getting soy sauce that’s made in Taiwan or Hong Kong. Dark Soy Sauce As its name suggests, this is a darker, blacker, and thicker variety than regular soy sauce. Please take note that dark soy sauce is used for adding color to the food and not so much for its taste, so use it sparingly.

Star Anise is an 8-point star shape seed or fruit of the star anise tree. Star anise is an important spice in Chinese cooking. It’s one of the major ingredients used in Chinese five spice powder and used to infuse the Tea Leaf Eggs in this cookbook.
Sweet Bean Sauce There are many types of sweet bean sauce, but the most common ones are made of fermented soybean paste with sugar, thickened with flour. It’s the essential flavoring sauce for Sichuan Twice-Cooked Pork. Sweet bean sauce can be found at Asian supermarkets or online stores. If you can’t find it, you can replace it with hoisin sauce.

White Pepper comes from the peppercorn plant. In Chinese cooking, white pepper is definitely the preferred choice because of its milder taste. White pepper is available in both powder form and whole peppercorns. For Chinese cooking, the former is mostly used to flavor sauces, soups, or as a table condiment or marinade.

Water Chestnuts are aquatic plants that grow in marshes. It’s an important ingredient in Chinese cuisine because it adds a sweet taste and lends a nice crunch to the final product. Fresh water chestnuts are available in Chinese or Asian supermarkets, but canned water chestnuts can be found at regular food stores.

Wood Ear Mushroom refers to a tree ear fungus. It’s sometimes marketed as wood ear mushroom, or black fungus. Wood ear has a very mild flavor; it’s mostly revered for its crunchy texture, making it excellent for hot and sour soup, siu mai, water dumplings, and some stir-fry dishes.

Wood ears are always sold dried in packages, and need to be reconstituted with hot water before using. Commercially, they are available whole or shredded. I always get the whole ones because they can be easily reconstituted with water and cut into thin strips or whatever the shape called for in the recipes.

Spring Roll Wrappers Spring roll wrappers can be found in the frozen section of Chinese or Asian markets. They usually come in two sizes: 4-inch or 8-inch squares. I prefer the latter because they are easier to handle. Please take note that the best spring roll wrappers should be very thin. I don’t recommend egg roll wrappers, which are pale yellow in color and much thicker. Egg roll wrappers are used to make the American-version of egg rolls and not the traditional crispy Chinese spring rolls.

Wrappers There are a variety of dumpling wrappers available at the market: wonton, pot stickers, siu mai, jiaozi, gyoza, etc., and it can be overwhelming if you are not familiar with them. Don’t be confused by the name—they are actually quite similar except that wonton wrappers are usually yellow in color because of the addition of egg (or artificial coloring) in the ingredi ents.

Here are my simple pointers when shopping for dumpling wrappers:

  1. Pot stickers, jiaozi, and gyoza wrappers are pretty much the same product. They are usually round.
  2. Wonton wrappers and siu mai wrappers are similar to each other. They are pale yellow or yellow in color and usually come in squares.
  3. For Pork Dumpling Soup, if you can find Siu Kow (Water Dumplings) wrappers in your store, use them, but if not, wonton wrappers will work just fine.

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