Stocking a Chinese Pantry
Although many commonplace meats, vegetables and seasonings may be uses in the preparation of Chinese food, there are dozens of other interesting ingredients that are unique to the cuisine. This list includes but is not limited to these elements common to Chinese cooking.
When stocking a Chinese pantry, at the very least, your staples should include fresh garlic, ginger root, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, cornstarch, rice, noodles, and if you like it spicy, chili sauce or chili oil. Here are some other ideas.
Amaranth - An edible plant of the genus Amaranthus, found primarily in tropical areas and often cultivated for their seeds, or for their leafy green or red foliage. Also known as Chinese spinach.
Angled Luffa - A tropical vine of the genus Luffa, with large yellow flowers and edible fruit. Luffa for cooking is harvested young, while the mature fruits produce a fibrous skeleton that may be used as a scouring device. The luffa is also known as dishwater gourd, silk squash, and Chinese okra. Its flesh is lacking in flavor and therefore absorbs the seasonings of the stir-fry dishes to which it is added.
Aubergine - Also known as eggplant, the Asian variety of this deep purple gourd is smaller and more slender than its North American cousin. Eggplant is often added to stir-fry dishes, or it may be seasoned and served on its own as a side dish.
Baby Bok Choy - A miniature variety of a leafy green vegetable with tender white stalks, also known as Shanghai cabbage. This tiny, delicate cabbage may be steamed whole, or separated into stalks and added to stir-fry dishes.
Bamboo Shoots - The tender new shoots of the Asian bamboo plant, most commonly found in cans, but also available fresh at some Asian markets. Fresh bamboo shoots must be peeled and boiled before using in a recipe, and canned bamboo shoots should be rinsed in hot water to reduce the unpleasant flavor of the can and the brine. Unused bamboo shoots may be stored in the refrigerator for several days in a jar of water, as long as the water is changed daily.
Bitter Melon - Known in Chinese as foo gwa, and sometimes called balsam pear, bitter melon is a cucumber-shaped gourd with pale flesh and rugged green skin. As its name implies, the flavor of its flesh is strong and bitter, which may be mitigated by blanching before adding to a recipe. It is best paired with other strongly flavored ingredients such as garlic, or black bean sauce, and should be peeled and seeded before use.
Bok Choy - Known by the botanical name, Brassica rapa chinensis, bok choy is a type of dark, leafy cabbage with crisp white stalks. Bok choy should be rinsed thoroughly to remove any gritty residue and may be chopped into small pieces for stir-fry or steaming. Bok choy is also available in a miniature variety.
Chinese Broccoli - Chinese broccoli is different from garden variety broccoli in both taste and appearance. Chinese broccoli has long, thin, dusky stalks, deep green leaves, tiny edible white flowers, and a slightly bitter taste. .
Chinese Celery - Chinese celery differs from the North American and European varieties, in that its stalks are hollow and thinner, color ranges from pale to dark green, and its flavor is stronger. Chinese celery is not typically eaten raw, but rather is chopped and added to stir-fry dishes.
Chinese Long Beans - A variety of Chinese green bean that is much thinner and longer than ordinary green beans. They may be chopped and added to stir-fry dishes, or steamed and served as a vegetable side dish.
Chinese White Radish - Known in Chinese as lo bak, in Japanese as daikon, and botanically as Raphanus sativus, this common Chinese vegetable is a large, white, carrot-shaped root, peeled and sliced for stir-fry dishes and soups.
Choy Sum - Also known as Chinese flowering cabbage, this cousin of bok choy has small, yellow flowers and leafy green stalks. However, choy sum is sweeter and sharper in flavor than bok choy.
Cilantro - The delicate, lacy foliage of the coriander plant, also cultivated for its seeds, cilantro is commonly known as Chinese parsley and is widely used as an herbal seasoning for stir-fry dishes, soups, and minced fillings. Its unique flavor is more distinctive than parsley, and a little goes a long way toward seasoning a recipe.
Fuzzy Melon - Known in Chinese as mo gwa, this variety of gourd looks like a fuzzy zucchini, but is actually related to the bitter melon. Mo gwa is most commonly added to stir-fry dishes, but is sometimes served steamed with a minced filling.
Garlic - Its botanical name is Allium Sativum, and along with soy sauce and ginger, is one of the most common flavoring agents used in Chinese cuisine. Garlic may also be added to certain types of oils and vinegars for pickling and preserving meats and vegetables.
Garlic Chives - A cousin of garden variety chives, there are several types of garlic chives. Green garlic chives resemble blades of grass and have a distinctive garlic flavor, yellow garlic chives are lighter and more tender with a hint of onion flavor, and flowering garlic have tiny flower buds. They may be chopped and added to recipes as a flavoring agent, or used as an attractive garnish.
Ginger - One of the most important flavoring agents in Chinese cuisine, ginger is the large, knobby root of the ginger plant, Zingiber officinale. Its peppery, perfumed pulp adds a distinctive flavor to soups, stir-fry, sauces, marinades, pickles, and minced fillings. Ginger is valued as a digestive agent and may be eaten both raw or cooked.
Lychee - A small, crimson-skinned fruit native to Asia, with creamy white, intensely perfumed flesh. These fruity delicacies may be used in sweet and sour dishes, frozen desserts, or served 'au natural' for a light dessert. Available canned, or fresh in season.
Mangosteen - A fruit of an Asian evergreen tree, the mangosteen has deep crimson skin that envelops a heart of pale, plump, segmented flesh that is sweet and slightly tart. Mangosteens are usually eaten 'au natural' as a light dessert.
Napa Cabbage - Known by the botanical name Brassica Pekinensis, Napa cabbage is a pale, elongated, densely compact variety of Chinese cabbage. Also known as Peking cabbage and celery cabbage, Napa cabbage is delicate in both texture and flavor, and is an excellent addition to raw salads, minced fillings, and stir-fry dishes.
Snow Peas - Snow peas are, bright green, crescent-shaped, crisp and flat, with edible pods. Snow peas add bright color, crunchy texture, visual variety and fresh flavor to stir-fry dishes, and may be blanched, chilled and added to salads, or steamed and served as a vegetable side dish. Their tender shoots and tendrils may also be picked young and used in similar ways.
Water Chestnuts - Although its shape and texture resembles a chestnut, the water chestnut is actually the root of a type of aquatic plant that grows in shallow marshes. Its flavor is quite delicate, but its most valued characteristic in Chinese cuisine is its unmistakable crisp, crunchy texture, which is not diminished by cooking. Water chestnuts are most commonly sold in cans, however, some Asian markets carry fresh water chestnuts, which must be peeled and sliced before adding to a recipe. Canned water chestnuts should be thoroughly rinsed to eliminate any unpleasant taste from the brine and the can.
Winter Melon - Known in Chinese as dong gua, and by its botanical name Benincasa Hispida, winter melon is similar in appearance to a watermelon, however, its flesh is pale and snowy. Its flavor is mild and sweet, and is often added to stir-fry dishes, or in soups which are sometimes served in the hollowed-out rind of the melon itself.
Cloud Ears - A type of fungus, also known as black fungus, tree ears, and jelly mushroom. Cloud ears have a crunchy texture, but very little flavor of their own, and therefore absorb the predominant seasonings of soups, and stir-fry dishes. Since they are delicate, they should be added in the last few minutes of cooking. Cloud ears are typically sold dried and packaged, and must be soaked in warm water. When placed in water, they will expand significantly, and should be trimmed and chopped before adding to a recipe.
Chinese Black Mushrooms - Comparable to Japanese shitake mushrooms, Chinese black mushrooms are usually sold dried and may range anywhere from light tan to dark brown in color. Before using in a recipe, they should be soaked in warm water, and chopped for use in soups and stir-fry dishes.
Oyster Mushrooms - A fan-shaped fungus, also called oyster caps , tree mushrooms , tree oyster mushrooms , summer oyster mushrooms , pleurotte and shimeji. They vary in color from pale to dark gray, and their flavor is mild and slightly peppery when cooked. They are available fresh or canned at Asian markets.
Straw Mushrooms - Cultivated in a bed of straw, and typically available in only in cans, straw mushrooms are meaty in texture and have a subtly sweet flavor.
Wood Ears - A darker and less delicate cousin of the Cloud Ear fungus, Wood Ears are sold dried and must be soaked in warm water, trimmed and chopped before adding to soups or stir fry dishes.
Bean Thread Noodles - Made from mung bean starch, bean thread noodles are translucent. Also known as cellophane noodles or glass noodles, they are available in various lengths and thickness. Bean thread noodles may be softened in warm water for salads and wrapped rolls, or deep fried for a crunchy texture. They can even be shaped to form a crispy nest for serving other items.
Egg Noodles - Made with wheat flour and eggs, Chinese egg noodles are available in a variety of shapes, sizes, widths and thickness, and may be used in soups or stir-fried noodle dishes.
Rice Noodles - Made with rice flour, rice noodles are sometimes called rice sticks and may be used in a variety of ways in Chinese cooking. When fresh, they are soft and flexible, when dried they are brittle and fragile. They can be soaked in warm water before adding to stir-fried noodle dishes or deep fried without soaking to form a nest or crispy bed for a creative recipe presentation.
Sauces and Condiments
Barbeque Sauce - Unlike its North American counterpart, Chinese barbecue sauce is typically composed of hoisin sauce, rice wine vinegar, and soy sauce, seasoned with various other spices such as garlic, ginger and five-spice powder.
Bean Sauce - A thick, salty fermented soybean paste, usually sold in jars or earthenware pots. Color varies from yellow, to brown, to black, and this strongly flavored condiment is often added to sauces and marinades.
Char Siu - A thick barbeque sauce made from fermented soybeans, vinegar, tomato paste, chilies, garlic, honey or sugar, and spices.
Chili Sauce - A paste of hot chili peppers sometimes seasoned with garlic, used in dipping sauces, marinades, soups, and stir-fry dishes. A little bit goes a long way.
Chili Oil - A potent mixture of soybean oil, laced with dried chili flakes, sesame oil, garlic oil, and ginger oil.
Fish Sauce - Also known as nuoc mam, nam pla or patis, Asian fish sauce is a dark brown, fermented brew made from salted anchovies. Fish sauce is most commonly found in Southeast Asian recipes, however, some Cantonese dishes call for it as well. A little goes a long way, and may be used in stir-fry dishes, marinades, dressings and dipping sauces.
Hoisin Sauce - A dark, rich Chinese condiment made from soybean paste, garlic, sugar, and spices, commonly used as a flavoring ingredient for stir-fry, marinades, barbeque, and dipping sauces.
Hot Mustard - A simple mixture of dry yellow mustard with water, and perhaps a little oil and/or vinegar. Most commonly served as a condiment for Chinese appetizers such as spring rolls and spareribs.
Kung Pao Sauce - A mixture of sesame oil, soybeans, sweet potato, red chilies, garlic, ginger and spices.
Mushroom Soy Sauce - Soy sauce infused with straw mushrooms, which add a uniquely richer flavor to ordinary soy sauce.
Oyster Sauce - Made from oysters boiled in soy sauce, commonly used as a flavoring agent in stir-fry dishes, marinades, dipping sauces and as a table condiment.
Plum Sauce - A light amber sauce made from salted plums, apricots, yams, rice vinegar and spices, often served with roast duck, as a barbeque sauce, or as a dip for fried appetizers.
Sa Cha Sauce - A combination of soybean oil, fish, shrimp, garlic, onion, chili peppers and spices, often used for seasoning stir-fry dishes, especially seafood, and hot-pot dishes.
Shrimp Sauce - A thick, salty, pungent sauce made from fermented shrimp.
Soy Sauce - The most common essential ingredient to Chinese cuisine, soy sauce is brewed from fermented soy beans, wheat flour, water, and salt. Soy sauce comes in both light and dark varieties. Light soy sauce is lighter in both color and flavor, while dark soy sauce, which has molasses added, is thicker, darker and stronger in flavor, and should only be used when specifically mentioned in a list of ingredients. There are also two other varieties, thin soy sauce, and thick sweet soy sauce. Thin soy sauce is much lighter, thinner, more salty, and does not affect the color of the recipes to which it is added. Thick sweet soy sauce is sweetened with palm sugar and spiced with garlic and star anise.
Sweet and Sour Sauce - A simple combination of vinegar and sugar, sometimes flavored with catsup, ginger and chili peppers.
Bird's Nest - Believe it or not, the famed Chinese Bird's Nest Soup is made with actual birds' nests, the nests of the Southeast Asian swift, Collocalia inexpectata, which builds its nest not with twigs, but by expectorating strands of sticky saliva that harden with exposure to air to form a nest for their young on cavern walls. These costly and unique Chinese delicacies are cleaned and simmered in a rich chicken broth.
Chinese Almonds - The pit of an apricot, available in mild Southern and bitter Northern varieties. Remarkably similar to North American almonds, they are often used in soups and confections. They must be roasted before using in a recipe.
Chinese Sausage - Known in Chinese as Lop Cheong, Chinese sausages are small, thin links filled with ground pork or liver. Their flavor is salty and sometimes mildly sweet, and they can be found in most Asian markets.
Cornstarch - A common ingredient in the cuisines of many cultures, cornstarch is used in Chinese cuisine to thicken sauces and give them their light, velvety texture. Ground from the endosperm of corn kernels, cornstarch is usually mixed with a small amount of water to form a thin paste and added in the last few minutes of cooking.
Dried Bean Curd Sticks - Made from soybean curd, which is also used to make tofu, dried bean curd sticks are a noodle-like ingredient used in soups and stir-fry dishes. They must be soaked to soften them before adding to a recipe, and may also be deep-fried to give them a crispy texture.
Dried Lily Buds - Sometimes called golden needles, dried lily buds are the young blossoms of the day lily, Hemerocallis. When added to soups or stir-fry dishes, they impart a distinctively earthy flavor. Since they are dried, they must be soaked to soften before using in a recipe, and may be added whole or sliced.
Dried Tangerine Peel - Sometimes used as a flavoring agent in braised and stir-fried dishes, as well as some soups, dried tangerine peel is available in Asian markets, or may be made at home by allowing tangerine peels to air dry until completely dehydrated and store them in an air-tight container. Dried tangerine peels must be softened in warm water before adding to a recipe.
Fish Paste - A thick paste made of pureed fish. Available at Asian markets, or may be homemade in a food processor.
Five-Spice Powder - An aromatic and intense blend of ground cinnamon, star anise, fennel, cloves, ginger, licorice, Szechuan peppercorns, and dried tangerine peel, used to flavor many Chinese dishes, from marinades to barbeque sauces, meats, and even cookies.
Ginko Nuts - The yellow-orange seeds of the ginko tree, available fresh, dried, or canned at Asian markets. Believed to have medicinal qualities, but may also be added to stir-fry dishes for their delicately sweet taste.
Ginseng - An aromatic root used mainly for medicinal purposes. Its name means 'human-shaped root', and its flavor is much like sweet licorice. The sun-dried variety is called white ginseng, and when steamed and fire-roasted it is called red ginseng. It may also be used to make soups and tea.
Peanut Oil - Sometimes referred to as Groundnut Oil, peanut oil is essential t Chinese cuisine for frying and flavoring many dishes. For frying because it has a high 'smoke point', and for flavoring because it imparts a distinctively nutty taste.
Rice - Several varieties of rice are used for Chinese cuisine. Long-grained rice is dry and fluffy when cooked, and is most often used in fried rice dishes. Short-grained glutinous rice, when cooked, becomes tender, pearly, translucent, and sticky, which is best for shaping into balls. Medium grained rice has characteristics in common with both long and short varieties, and jasmine rice is aromatic and brings its own unique flavor to any dish.
Rice Flour - Milled from glutinous rice, rice flour may be used in a variety of ways in Chinese cuisine, including noodles, wrappers, chewy boiled dumplings, crunchy deep-fried skins, steamed buns and light cakes.
Rice Pot Crust - The crust that forms at the bottom of the rice pot after cooking is sun-dried, deep fried and served with dipping sauce as a popular snack. Commercially prepared versions are available at some Asian markets.
Rice Vinegar - There are several varieties of Chinese rice vinegar, including black, red, white, and sweetened. Generally milder in flavor and acidity than white vinegar and wine vinegars, rice vinegar is used for many purposes in Chinese cuisine. White vinegar is often used for pickling, and for sweet and sour recipes; red vinegar for noodle dishes and seafood; black vinegar for dipping sauces and braised dishes.
Rice Wine - A fermented beverage made from glutinous rice, Chinese rice wine is also used in cooking, to flavor marinades, dipping sauces, broths, and stir-fry dishes. Rice wine is low in alcohol, and can be found at most Asian markets, and is sometimes referred to as Shaoxing, the province most renowned for rice wine production.
Rice Wine Lees - The by-product of rice wine, these leftover dregs are bottled for use in Chinese cooking, especially in Shanghai and the Northern regions. They lend a fragrant aroma to stir-fry dishes and desserts.
Sea Cucumber - The sea cucumber is a rubbery cucumber-shaped sea creature. When prepared fresh, it requires evisceration, washing, and repeated boiling. Some Asian markets carry prepared sea cucumber, as well as the dried variety, which must be soaked before adding to a recipe. Sea cucumber has very little flavor, but absorbs the predominant seasonings of soups, stir-fried and braised dishes.
Sesame Oil - The sesame oil used as a flavoring ingredient in Chinese cuisine is made from toasted sesame seeds, and therefore is richer in flavor than ordinary sesame oil, which is not a suitable substitute for the toasted variety. It is never used for deep-frying, but is rather added in small amounts to salad dressings, marinades, dipping sauces, and stir-fry dishes.
Soy Bean Curd - Known in Chinese as doufu, and as tofu in Japanese, bean curd is made from fermented soybeans, and is often compared to cheese, since the production process is so similar. Tofu has a neutral flavor that absorbs the seasonings of the dish, and is available in several textures from silky to extra firm. Bean curd is a common ingredient in many dishes, including soups, stir-fry dishes, sauces, and even by itself, as a grilled or deep-fried dish.
Szechuan Peppercorns - The dried berries of the prickly ash tree, these deep orange berries have an intense flavor and aroma, and are usually toasted before adding to recipes. They may be added whole, coarsely ground or finely powdered for a distinctive flavor and fragrance. Szechuan peppercorns are available whole or ground in most Asian markets.
Szechuan Preserved Vegetables - A salty-spicy medley of greens such as napa cabbage, mustard, kohlrabi, and turnip, preserved with salt, Szechuan peppercorns and chili powder. Used as a flavoring agent in many Chinese dishes.
Tapioca - A starchy ingredient made from the cassava root, in Chinese cooking, tapioca is used as a thickening agent and in the making of dough for dumplings.
Wheat Starch - Wheat flour with all gluten removed to produce a fine textured powder for dim sum dumpling dough. When steamed, the dough becomes shiny and translucent.
Wolfberries - The small, oval, sweetly spicy fruit of the medlar tree, sometimes used in Chinese recipes. Available dried at some Asian markets. Dried cranberries make a good substitute.
Egg Roll Wrappers - Thin sheets of dough made from wheat flour, eggs and water, used to roll minced fillings for deep-frying into crispy appetizers.
Pot Sticker Wrappers - Small round sheets of pasta dough made from wheat flour, eggs, and water, used to envelop minced fillings for fried or steamed potsticker dumplings.
Rice Paper Wrappers - Thin, translucent sheets made from rice flour. Round or triangular in shape and brittle until softened in water. Used for wrapping fresh spring rolls and minced fillings.
Spring Roll Wrappers - Paper-thin pancakes made from a light batter of wheat flour and water, used to make filled, deep-fried rolls with a smooth, delicate texture.
Wonton Wrappers - Smaller than egg roll wrappers, but made from the same type of wheat dough, these delicate sheets are used to make wonton dumplings. A thicker variety is available for fried wontons, while thinner ones are used in wonton soup.
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