(Now updated with links to pictures! 🙂 None of the pictures except the white pepper powder are my own, so I thank all of the websites and blogs for taking these pictures! I also recommend you to search the particular ingredient on Google Images for more pictures.) In the future I will add my own pictures when I have time.
Welcome to the world of Chinese cuisine! Do you like to eat Chinese food? Many non-Chinese people love eating Chinese food, and if you are on this page, I assume that you do too and that you want to try to cook some yourself! If you do, then continue reading!
Many non-Chinese people do not know where to start when cooking a foreign cuisine like Chinese. That is why I wrote this guide to help you! I hope it will be useful to you. To start cooking Chinese food, you first need all the essential ingredients and equipment. Don’t be scared! You do not need too much to start. As you become more experienced, you can start to buy more ingredients and equipment to cook more advanced dishes.
So now I will guide you through finding everything you need to start! First, you must go to a Chinese market or supermarket. Open markets are only found in places like downtown San Francisco or New York, so a supermarket is your best choice. In the LA area, I recommend the Hawaii Supermarket in San Gabriel, which has the best prices and most wide selection I have ever seen. If you do not live close enough, find the nearest supermarket to you through a search on the internet. For example, the 99 Ranch Markets are widespread throughout California. I do not recommend you to go to a Korean, Japanese, Thai, etc. other non-Chinese supermarket to buy Chinese ingredients, because you will not be able to find many of the required ingredients. In fact, the Korean supermarket I go to does not even have Chinese soy sauces. Besides, Chinese supermarkets are the most widespread out of all Asian supermarkets, so it should not be hard to find one.
Once you are at the Chinese supermarket, start with the aisles where you will buy the ingredients. All similar ingredients are found in similar places. Please buy the brands that I mention because they are the best and most trusted. Many Asian ingredient brands are copycats and less quality, so it is highly recommended to buy the brands that I mention. All of the brands I mention, if imported from China, are labeled “China Time-Honored Brand” (中华老字号). These are the highest quality brands for a certain ingredient. Of course, ingredients imported from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Thailand are not labeled “China Time-Honored Brand”, but still are good brands.
(Bold = name of ingredient)
This page contains MANY ingredients. You do not need all of them. To start cooking Chinese food, you need the ingredients in this list (note that some of them are used only for a certain regional cuisine):
(a * means that the ingredient is useful, but not completely necessary)
Light Soy Sauce
Dark Soy Sauce
Oyster Sauce (only for Cantonese Cuisine)
*Fermented Black Soybeans with Ginger
Shaoxing Hua Tiao Wine
Potato Starch or Corn Starch
Cooking Oil (either Peanut, Corn, Canola, Soybean, or Extra Light Olive. NO EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE)
Dry Facing-Heaven Chilies or Japones Chiles (For Sichuan/Hunan Cuisine)
(optionally: Crushed Red Pepper Flakes, Korean Coarse Red Pepper Powder)
Pi County Fava Bean and Chili Paste (For Sichuan Cuisine)
Whole Sichuan Peppercorns (For Sichuan Cuisine)
*Whole Star Anise
Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
*Dried Cloud Ear Mushrooms
White Pepper Powder
*Yibin Suimi Yacai AND/OR Tianjin Preserved Vegetable
*Zha Cai (“Sichuan Preserved Vegetable” in a can)
Fresh Ingredients: Ginger, Garlic, and Green Onion
Note: Sometimes, the package does not put the Chinese name that I use, because the name can be expressed in other ways. Sorry for any confusion you may have! If you have any questions, please send me a comment below! 🙂
Soy Sauces (酱油 jiang you, pronounced “dzyahng yoh”, literally “sauce oil”) are some of China’s oldest condiments. It is made from fermented soybeans and wheat in a brine. Chinese soy sauce has a very different flavor from Japanese, Korean, or other Asian, so do not use Kikkoman for Chinese cooking! Japanese soy sauce has much more wheat than the Chinese variant. There is also more than one kind, and you will need at least two, which are listed below.
*Note, if you are allergic to gluten or just avoiding it, you can use Tamari instead of either kind of soy sauce.*
Light Soy Sauce (生抽 sheng chou, “shuhng choh”, “raw extraction”) is what we know as just “soy sauce”. It is used extensively in Chinese food. Contrary to most Americans’ use of it, it is NEVER EVER EVER poured over food at the table no matter what! It is instead added to food in the wok/pan/pot while cooking to flavor the food. Chinese, unlike the Thai people, never season food at the table. You can buy the Pearl River Bridge brand (from Guangdong), which has a Superior version as well as a Golden Label Superior version. The Golden Label is better quality and costs more, but you can buy the Superior version too because it is still great quality. The Superior version is available in both a silver label and yellow label. Sometimes the price differs. You can choose the cheapest one, because all of the Pearl River Bridge ones are good. You can also buy the Koon Chun brand from Hong Kong, which has no preservatives. I warn you that the shape of the bottle makes it easy to spill at the top, but you will only understand after you try it. 🙂 They label it “Thin Soy Sauce” instead of “Light”, by the way.
Pictures: PRB Superior Light (yellow), PRB Superior Light (silver), PRB Superior Light (Gold Label), Koon Chun Superior Thin
Dark Soy Sauce (老抽 lao chou, “loll choh”, “old extraction”) contains molasses and/or caramel to give it very dark color. It is used to add color to the sauces, soups, etc. in Chinese cuisine, and is also very important. There is more than one kind (too many types of soy sauce already! try not to get confused!), including the Superior (which is the regular kind), the Mushroom Dark Soy Sauce (which contains the concentrated extract of straw mushrooms, a type of mushroom very commonly used in southern China, for a great umami flavor) sold by Pearl River Bridge, and Double Dark (aka Double Black) sold by Koon Chun. I recommend the Mushroom or the Superior (you don’t need both), because the extreme darkness of the Double Black is not necessary for home cooking.
Pictures: PRB Superior Dark, PRB Superior Dark (Mushroom), Koon Chun Black, Koon Chun Double Black
Bean Sauce (面豉 mian chi, “myehn ch”) is made from fermented crushed soybeans with salt. Buy Koon Chun brand. There is also ground bean sauce, which is ground more smooth. It can also be used, depending on preference. This ingredient is only rarely used in a few Cantonese dishes, so it is definitely not necessary for beginners.
Picture: Koon Chun Bean Sauce, Koon Chun Ground Bean
Sweet Flour Sauce (甜面酱 tian mian jiang, “tyehn myehn dzyahng”, “sweet flour sauce”) is made from wheat flour and ground soybeans, fermented into a dark, sweet paste. It is also called sweet bean sauce. It is used in northern Chinese as well as Sichuanese cooking, most notably in the northern dish, Zha Jiang Mian. It is not necessary for beginners because it is not used too often. It is quite similar to hoisin sauce, which is used in Cantonese cooking. However, hoisin sauce has different spices and seasonings. You can substitute one for the other if you have to, but I don’t recommend it if you can find the sweet flour sauce. I recommend the “葱伴侣” (Cong Ban Lv) brand which is not labeled in English. It comes in a packet, so you have to transfer the contents into a jar. It says the Chinese name “甜面酱” in large font, with “Hoisin Sauce” underneath. Don’t worry, it isn’t actually hoisin sauce. I have also seen packages with identical Chinese, but “Sweet Bean Paste” instead. Both are the same thing.
Picture: Cong Ban Lv Hoisin Sauce/Sweet Bean Paste
Fermented Black Soybeans (豆豉 dou chi, “doh ch”) add a wonderful flavor to Chinese dishes. They are made of salted and fermented black soybeans, and sometimes have ginger and/or other flavorings mixed in. Please buy the famous “Yang Jiang Preserved Black Beans with Ginger”, found in a yellow cylindrical cardboard container. I love the container!
Picture: Yang Jiang Black Beans with Ginger
Oyster Sauce (蚝油 hao you, “hall yoh”, “oyster oil”) is a necessary condiment to Cantonese cuisine, but it is not used outside of Guangdong. This condiment is actually not too old of an invention. Buy the Lee Kum Kee Premium Oyster Sauce, because it is the best quality and also the original. The person who founded Lee Kum Kee invented oyster sauce, supposedly by accident when he was stewing oysters for way too long. This sauce quickly became popular and is now an essential part of Cantonese cuisine. Lee Kum Kee also makes a somewhat cheaper “Panda Brand”, which contains less real oyster extract and is less recommended by me. If you are vegetarian, vegan, or allergic to mushrooms, there is actually vegetarian “oyster sauce” made from mushrooms that you can try! Lee Kum Kee makes a version, but I do not know which brand is the best.
Picture: Lee Kum Kee Premium Oyster Sauce, Lee Kum Kee Vegetarian Oyster Sauce
Fermented Tofu (豆腐乳 dou fu ru, “doh foo roo” with oo as in “cool”) is made from tofu cubes preserved in a brine. The texture becomes soft, and the flavor is salty and savory. This can be compared to western cuisine’s cheese. There are two kinds, white and red. Neither is necessary for beginners yet. The red kind is used more often, so I would recommend buying it. They have different flavors and colors, so don’t substitute one for the other. Don’t be scared of this ingredient! It is not stinky tofu; that is a different thing that IS really stinky. This is more savory and not stinky. Wang Zhi He also makes a famous stinky tofu. Make sure you don’t accidentally buy it, because it looks very similar to the White Fermented Tofu bottle!
White Fermented Tofu (白腐乳 bai fu ru, “bai foo roo”) is preserved in a clear brine that becomes pale yellow with fermentation. In my kitchen, it is used less often than the red kind. I recommend Wang Zhi He brand (王致和). It comes in a cubic jar.
Picture: Wang Zhi He White Fermented Tofu
Red Fermented Tofu (红腐乳 hong fu ru, “hohng foo roo”, known in Cantonese as 南乳 nan ru, “nehn roo”) is a dark red color because the brine contains crushed red yeast rice. This gives the tofu its different color and flavor. I use this more than the white kind, so I recommend you to buy this one first. I also recommend Wang Zhi He brand. It comes in a jar of the same size. There are various flavors sold, including rose. My mom likes the rose one best. I use “FERMENTED TRADITIONAL BEAN CURD (CHUNK)”, with a red and yellow label, one side English and one side Chinese. It looks very similar to the rose kind. Both are very good. Also, note that the packaging does not say “RED” anywhere. It is easy to tell it is red because of the color, so don’t look for “RED” on the label.
Picture: Wang Zhi He Red Fermented Tofu (Rose), Wang Zhi He Red Fermented Tofu (Traditional)
Vinegars (醋 cu, “tsoo” with the oo as in “cool” and no silent t) are also widely used in Chinese cuisine to add the sourness. They are made of rice in Chinese cooking, unlike western ones from wheat or Korean ones from apples. Both black and white vinegars are used. Black vinegars are sweet like Balsamic vinegar, while white vinegars are not sweet. Black vinegar is the necessary, while white vinegar is not as needed. If you already have Japanese rice vinegar, it can definitely substitute for the white kind.
Chinkiang Vinegar (镇江香醋 zhen jiang xiang cu, “djuhng dzyahng syahng tsoo”, “Zhenjiang fragrant vinegar”) AKA Zhenjiang Vinegar (Chinkiang is the old spelling, Zhenjiang is the modern official spelling) is the most famous and best kind of black vinegar in China. Buy either the JIN SHAN brand, which has vinegar from the famous Jiangsu Hengshun Vinegar Company, or the Gold Plum brand, both of which are the best vinegars found in the USA. (I do NOT recommend the Asian Taste brand because I heard it is not actually from Zhenjiang! Gasp!) Beware of the many counterfeit Gold Plum brands! To avoid them, buy the JIN SHAN vinegar because I have not seen a counterfeit one yet.
Picture: Gold Plum Chinkiang Vinegar, JIN SHAN Zhenjiang Vinegar
Starches (淀粉 dian fen, “dyehn fun”, “swamp powder”) are used to thicken sauces and make batters. In China, mung bean starch, tapioca starch, and more, are all used, but each has its own qualities. To thicken sauces, potato starch or cornstarch is very good. To make starch noodles, you need mung bean starch. Tapioca starch is used in making some sweets to give a unique texture. The only necessary starch you need is either Potato Starch or Cornstarch to thicken sauces and marinade meats.
Picture: Choripdong Mung Bean Starch (from Korea), Erawan Tapioca Starch (from Thailand)
Alcohols (酒 jiu, “dzyoh”) are also used in Chinese cuisine. I strongly recommend you to buy drinkable alcohol as opposed to “cooking wine”, which is low-quality and salty, unless you are not old enough to. There are many kinds of alcohol used in Chinese cuisine, for example yellow rice wine, white rice wine, white liquor, and rose dew liquor, but the only one necessary is yellow rice wine. The most famous and best quality is from Shaoxing.
Shaoxing Wine (绍兴酒 shao xing jiu, “sholl seeng dzyoh”, “Shaoxing alcohol”) is a type of yellow rice wine that is used all over China for cooking, and also drinking. The most variant is called Huadiao wine. I do not drink alcohol, but I heard that it tastes a lot like sherry. As a result, many Chinese used sherry for cooking Chinese food in the past. Shaoxing wine is cheaper than sherry though, and obviously gives more authentic flavors! As said above, I recommend buying alcohol for drinking instead of Shaoxing cooking wine. The only brand you should buy is the Pagoda Brand, which sells a red label and a blue label of Shaoxing Huadiao Wine. The blue label is called “Superior” so it is better quality. The red label is easier to find. You can use either one. These are found in the drinking alcohol section, and not every supermarket has one.
Picture: Pagoda Shaoxing Hua Tiao (red) on left, Pagoda Superior Shaoxing Hua Tiao (blue) on right
Oils are an important part of Chinese cuisine, not only for cooking, but also for flavoring.
Cooking Oil (油 you, “yoh”) is the most important Chinese food ingredient. Without it, there is no stir-fry, no deep-fry, no Chinese cuisine! Many cooking oils are used throughout China. Many Cantonese chefs prefer the flavor of peanut oil (花生油 hua sheng you, “hwah shuhng yoh”, “flower raw oil”), which is always used in Guangdong Province (if you are allergic to peanuts, don’t go to Guangdong!). The recommended brand is Lion and Globe brand from Hong Kong. It has the fragrance of peanuts, unlike western brands, but western brands are okay to use too. In Sichuan, rapeseed oil (菜籽油 cai zi you, “tsai dz yoh”, “vegetable seed oil”) is always used. Rapeseed oil is just unprocessed canola oil, if you were wondering. Rapeseed oil is the oldest oil used in China, used for centuries already. In other parts of the country, various oils like corn oil, soybean oil (popular in the North), cottonseed oil, etc. are used. You can use whatever oil you prefer to cook Chinese food with. However, do not use extra virgin, virgin, or regular olive oil. (In the USA, regular is virgin mixed with light.) If you love olive oil, you are only allowed to use extra light olive oil for Chinese cuisine. All other olive oils have smoke points too low for stir-frying, not to mention that their flavors are not compatible with Chinese dishes.
Picture: Lion and Globe Peanut Oil
Sesame Oil (芝麻油 zhi ma you, “djj mah yoh”, “sesame oil”) is made from toasted sesame seeds and has a strong fragrance. It is used for flavoring, not as a cooking oil. Use the Kadoya Brand, which is from Japan, and has a better quality than the other brands. Unlike Japanese soy sauce, vinegar, and alcohol, the Japanese sesame oil tastes the same as the Chinese one, so it is very good to use in Chinese cooking!
Picture: Kadoya Sesame Oil
Lastly, we will need chili oil (红油 hong you, “hohng yoh”, “red oil”). Do NOT buy the chili oil premade in bottles. Instead, make it at home because it is very easy and it seasons your wok. To make chili oil, you need a few ingredients, all listed under the chilies and spices section.
Sesame Seeds (芝麻 zhi ma, “djj mah”) are not used in Chinese cuisine as often as used in Korean or Japanese cuisines, so they are not necessary for beginners. Buy roasted white sesame seeds from Japan or Korea, sold in plastic cylinders. Black sesame seeds (黑芝麻 hei zhi ma) are rarely used, unless you want to make 芝麻糊 (thickened sesame soup).
Picture: Toasted Sesame Seeds, both black and white
Sesame Paste (芝麻酱 zhi ma jiang, pronounced “djj mah dzyahng”) is made from ground roasted sesame seeds and is darker than tahini from the Middle East or America. Tahini can be substituted, but it has a different flavor. This ingredient is not necessary for beginners. The brand is not too important. Wang Zhi He is one good brand though.
Picture: Lian How Sesame Paste (a Taiwanese brand)
Chilies (辣椒 la jiao, “lah dzyoll”, “spicy pepper”) are used in many ways in Chinese cuisine. Sichuan and Hunan cuisines use dried chilies, chili flakes, pickled chilies, chili sauce, and all kinds of other chili preperations, but not often fresh chilies. Guangdong cuisine uses small amounts of fresh tiny red Thai chilies, mainly for color, not to make food very spicy. The following are some important chili products needed.
Whole Dried Chilies (干辣椒 gan la jiao, “gehn lah dzyoll”, “dry spicy pepper”) are used in many delicious foods like REAL Kung Pao Chicken with Peanuts. You are allowed to use either of two kinds of dried chilies in Chinese cooking. The first is the Heaven-Facing Chilies AKA Chao Tian Jiao (朝天椒 chao tian jiao, “choll tyehn dzyoll”, “toward sky pepper”), named because the chilies grow up towards the sky, are the most spicy kind of chilies found in Sichuan. Thai chilies are MUCH, MUCH spicier! These chilies are used the most often in Sichuanese cuisine. If you can find them in the dry spices aisle, great! Otherwise, you can use the chilies simply labeled “dry chilies”, which I think are called chile japones in Spanish. These are the easiest to find, and are fine to use too if you cannot find the Heaven-Facing Chilies.
Picture: Heaven-Facing Dried Red Chilies
Coarse Korean Hot Pepper Powder/Flakes (Korean: 고추가루 gochugaru) is used in my mapo tofu and chili oil recipes to add a bright red color. This ingredient is used in many Korean dishes, especially kimchi! The Korean chili powder contains no seeds and is mildly spicy, but very red. Make sure you buy the COARSE kind, NOT the FINE kind. Also, you must buy the mild kind instead of the spicy kind, but the spiciness is only labeled in Korean. This ingredient is very easily found in a Korean grocery store (there’s a whole aisle dedicated to it) and less easily in a Chinese grocery. Although it is optional (see below NOTE), it is recommended for Sichuan cuisine. Also, if you are interested in Korean cuisine, it is a necessary ingredient!
Picture: Wang Mild Coarse Korean Hot Pepper Powder
To make chili oil, I combine Korean hot pepper flakes with Crushed Red Pepper Flakes that I buy at Costco. These pepper flakes contain many seeds and are very spicy, but not bright red. If you cook western cuisines, you may already have some at home. This ingredient is OPTIONAL (see below).
NOTE: Instead of the Korean hot pepper flakes and the crushed red pepper flakes, you can make chili flakes with facing-heaven chilies (using a food processor) and use these to make Sichuan chili oil!
For people who cannot eat spicy foods: use only Korean hot pepper flakes to make a very red but not-so-spicy chili oil!
Pi County Fermented Salted Fava Bean Paste with Dry Red Chilies (郫县豆瓣 pi xian dou ban, “pee syehn doh bun”, “Pi County bean segment”) is one of the most essential condiments to all Sichuanese cooking, used in mapo tofu and many other famous delicious foods. This condiment is made from fermenting salted fava bean pieces, combining them with dry red chilies (the two-golden-strips variety) and then put in barrels and fermented under the sun, being turned every day, for a long time until ready. This process occurs in the Sichuan Pi Xian Dou Ban Factory in Pi County, Chengdu, Sichuan Province. Their product is sold under the Juan Cheng Brand (鹃城牌), which can be found in Chinese grocery stores. It’s pretty hard to find, but it’s there! It is not labeled in English. This ingredient is crucial to making mapo tofu and other Sichuanese favorites.
Picture: Juan Cheng Pai Pi Xian Dou Ban (packet), Juan Cheng Pai Pi Xian Dou Ban (large packaging)
Pickled Red Chilies (泡辣椒 pao la jiao, “pall lah dzyoll”, “soak spicy pepper”) are also used in Sichuan cuisine to add both sourness and spicyness, as well as a pretty red color. They are made from putting chilies in brine and fermenting until sour (no vinegar traditionally, but you can make a shortcut version at home with a little white vinegar). Sichuan people usually make them by leaving fresh red chilies in their pickling brine jar (there is one in every household in Sichuan!) for a few days. These are quite challenging to find if you do not make them.. Do NOT buy the pickled Thai chilies, because they are extremely spicy. The Sichuanese ones are milder. They are often labeled 泡海椒 instead of 泡辣椒, the first of which is the Sichuanese dialect. They can be found in packets. Pickled chilies are optional this time, but are a needed part of authentic “fish-fragrant” dishes. I will give a recipe sometime.
Picture: Sichuan Pickled Chilies
Chopped Salted Chilies (剁辣椒 duo la jiao, “dwol lah dzyoll”) are an essential part of Hunan cuisine. They are made similarily to pickled whole red chilies. Chilies are chopped up and mixed with salt, then fermented until sour. You can actually make these yourself, and it is easier than the pickled whole red chilies to ferment without vinegar. The recipe is found in Fuchsia Dunlop’s Revolutionary Chinese Cuisine, the most authentic English book on Hunan cuisine. I will give the recipe when I introduce a recipe that uses this ingredient.
Picture: Two Different Brands of Hunan Chopped Salted Chilies
Spices (香料 xiang liao, “syahng lyoll”, “fragrant ingredients”) (excluding chilies) are not used too often in Chinese cuisine, usually used in braised dishes. An exception is Sichuan peppercorns, used very often in Sichuan cuisine.
Sichuan Peppercorns (花椒 hua jiao, “hwah dzyoll”, “flower pepper”, has a very unique flavor called “ma” in Chinese. It is unlike any other spice and cannot be substituted. Buy whole peppercorns (they look cracked, because the seeds inside are removed), not the powder! You will make the powder yourself in the recipes. I have a LOT from my trip to Sichuan. The ones in America are not as fragrant, even though they are imported from China. They are totally fine to use though, and will still add the necessary flavor.
Picture: Various Brands Sichuan Peppercorns
Star Anise (八角 ba jiao, “bah dzyoll”, “eight point”) is the most commonly used Chinese spice. Buy only whole star anise. Star anise powder is NEVER used in Chinese cuisine except when part of five-spice powder.
Cassia Bark (桂皮 gui pi, “gway pee”, “cassia skin”) is the second-most-often used spice in Chinese cuisine. Cassia bark is optional for now, but many of you may already have it! This spice is also known as cinnamon sticks. Actually, cinnamon sticks are another spice from Sri Lanka, but almost ALL “cinnamon sticks” for sale are actually cassia bark. (Cassia bark has a stronger flavor, so it isn’t too much of a bad thing.) Chinese cassia bark is not found in the curly quills, but instead in small sticks. The quills are okay to use though. Cinnamon powder is not used in Chinese cuisine except when part of five-spice powder.
Five-Spice Powder (五香粉 wu xiang fen, “woo syahng fun”, “five fragrant powder”) is used in small amounts to season meats and braised dishes. A small packet can last quite a long time. You can make your own using star anise, fennel, cloves, cassia bark, dried mandarin orange peel, Sichuan peppercorns, white peppercorns, etc. and a spice grinder. Spice grinders have a very hard time with grinding cassia bark and star anise, so be careful if you do. Recipes can be found with a Google search if you are interested.
Other spices used in Chinese cuisine (optional for now): Dried Mandarin Orange Peel 陈皮, Dried Sand Ginger 山奈, Chinese Black Cardamom 草果, Dried Chinese Licorice Root 甘草, Fennel Seeds 小茴香, Cumin Seeds 孜然, Dried Cloves 丁香, etc. There are also Chinese medicinal ingredients used in soups. I will cover the most common ones someday.
Basic Condiments like salt, pepper, and sugar are also needed to make Chinese food!
Salt (盐 yan, “yen”) is not used in large quantities in Chinese cuisine because of salty fermented sauces like soy sauce. However, it is still very necessary to make Chinese dishes. I prefer using fine salt instead of kosher salt, which many western cooks prefer, in Asian cooking. I use sea salt from Costco, but any brand is totally okay.
White Pepper Powder (胡椒粉 hu jiao fen, “hoo dzyoll fun” with oo as in cool, “foreign* pepper powder”, *胡 is an archaic word used a long time ago to refer to people who lived outside of China’s borders.) is the kind of pepper always used to season Chinese dishes. If you have a pepper grinder, you can buy whole white peppercorns and grind them finely (no cracked pepper!). Otherwise, you can buy the powder, which is not as flavorful as fresh but still good. You can substitute black pepper, but it is not the traditional flavor and will also add black specks to some dishes where they are not desired. In Chinese cuisine, black pepper is mostly used in Hong Kong to flavor black pepper beef (which is so delicious!!!). Sometimes I use black pepper in my fried rice because I like the flavor it gives in it, but it is not traditional.
Picture: White Pepper Powder (my own picture)
White Sugar (糖 tang, “tong” as in kitchen tongs) is used in small amounts in many Chinese dishes, adding a little sweetness. Shanghai cuisine uses more sugar than other regional cuisines, making dishes sweeter, while Hunan cuisine does not use sugar (or when it does, very very little). Sichuan cuisine uses a balance. Brown sugar is also used in some dishes, but not too often, and usually in the form of block sugar. Don’t worry, it isn’t a necessary ingredient for beginners.
Dry Mushrooms are used often in Chinese cooking for flavor and texture. You will need two kinds below.
Dry Shiitake Mushrooms (冬菇 dong gu, “dohng goo” with oo as in cool, “winter mushroom) are the most commonly used mushrooms in Chinese cuisine. Most Chinese people do not use fresh shiitake and instead use dry. Some people ask, why use dry if you have access to fresh? The dry shiitake have stronger flavor than the fresh, which the Chinese people prefer. To buy good shiitake, the caps of the mushrooms should have intricate patterns of white cracks. These mushrooms are called 花菇 (hua gu, “hwah goo”, “flower mushrooms”), labeled on the package. They are not found in Korean or Japanese supermarkets (at least not the ones I know). The “flower mushrooms” have better flavor and texture, and look more beautiful in the finished dish. Chinese supermarkets also usually have two sizes: the small ones and the big ones. Chinese people prefer the small ones, leaving them whole in many braised dishes. I recommend you to buy the small ones if you can find them.
Picture: Chinese Flower Shiitake Mushrooms
Dry Cloud Ear Mushrooms (云耳 yun er, “yeen urr”, “cloud ear”) are found near the dry shiitake. They sort of look ear-shaped when soaked, and they are sort of bumpy like clouds. Once soaked, they expand like crazy. Unlike shiitake, they have very little flavor (essentially no flavor), but have a crispy gelatinous texture (脆 cui, “tsway”). Don’t worry, it’s not disgusting. Also, English on the packages is terrible, are either says “FUNGUS” or very strange gibberish. These are not essential to Chinese cuisine, but are used in many stir-fries.
Dry Seafood is commonly used in Cantonese cuisine and other coastal cuisines in China. Sichuanese cuisine sometimes uses dried shrimp, probably imported from Guangdong. I don’t have any except for the dry shrimp, because they are not used too often and I don’t cook too much Cantonese cuisine (mostly Sichuan for me).
Dry Shrimp (虾米 xia mi, “syah mee”, “shrimp rice”) are the most commonly used dry seafood in Chinese cuisine, but not totally necessary for beginners. They add a savory taste to make dishes. You can find them in various sizes and different prices. There are also really tiny dried shrimp (虾皮 xia pi, “syah pee”, “shrimp skin”), which are white colored and have two little black eyes. These are just the shrimp shells, and add texture as well as savoriness. They aren’t used in my recipes though.
Dry Scallops (干贝 gan bei, “gun bay”) AKA Conpoys, are very very expensive. These are part of XO Sauce, as well as dry shrimp. I don’t have any, but they are sometimes used in Cantonese dishes.
Dry Oysters (干蚝 gan hao, “gun hall”, “dry oyster”) are used in some Cantonese dishes. They also add savoriness and texture to dishes.
Pickled Vegetables are used to season many Chinese dishes. There are many types of pickled vegetables, but the following are the most important.
Ya Cai (芽菜 ya cai, “yah tsai”, “sprout vegetable”) is a type of salted chopped up mustard green from Yibin, Sichuan Province. It is used in the famous (and extremely tasty) Dan Dan Noodles. Note that 芽菜 is also Cantonese for “bean sprouts” so don’t get confused! These are found in small packs that are labeled Yibin Suimi Yacai (宜宾碎米芽菜, “yee bean sway mee yah tsai”), found near the other pickled vegetables. It may be challenging to find. In that case, there is a substitute.
Picture: Yibin Suimi Yacai
Tianjin Preserved Vegetable (天津冬菜 tian jin dong cai, “tyen dzeen dohng tsai”, “Tianjin winter vegetable”) is made from a Tianjin variety of Chinese cabbage, cut up and mixed with salt and lots of garlic, and preserved in a jar. You can find it in a cute earthenware pot. I use the Great Wall brand, not labeled in English (you can sort of see the Great Wall in the tiny logo). The printing is in blue and red. This ingredient is more versatile than the Ya Cai because it is also used in Southeast Asian cuisines, brought by Chinese immigrants. You can use it as a substitute for ya cai, but both the flavor and color are very different. Before adding to your dish, rinse the Tianjin Preserved Vegetable in a sieve to remove excess salt.
Picture: Tianjin Preserved Vegetable
Zha Cai (榨菜 zha cai, “djah tsai”) is made from the stem of a type of mustard green called 大头菜 (da tou cai, “dah toh tsai”, “big head vegetable”, because the stem forms a “big head”). In the USA, kohlrabi is often mislabeled 大头菜 in Chinese, although it is a different vegetable that looks similar. This vegetable is sun-dried and then coated with salt and spices, then preserved in jars. Once ready, it is sold in a can labeled “Sichuen Preserved Vegetable”. The can label is red and yellow. To prepare it, open the can and rinse whatever amount you need, then cut it (usually shredding). Do not rinse what you do not need- you can store it in a container in the fridge. You can also buy already cut-up Zha Cai in the refrigerated section in packs, but these contain preservatives and MSG. They are more easy to use though.
Picture: Canned Sichuen Preserved Vegetable, Packaged Sichuan Preserved Vegetable
Pickled Mustard Greens (酸菜 suan cai, “swun tsai”, “sour vegetable”) is made by preserving mustard greens in salt water until sour (traditionally without vinegar). You can make them yourself, or buy from the store. The Vietnamese also use a similar ingredient. Pickled mustard green are used in a soup with fish and also stir-fries. They are very refreshing and tasty. It is not a necessary ingredient unless you want to make a recipe using it.
Dried Noodles! These are very handy for making quick noodle dishes whenever we have little time to cook a full meal, or when we are craving noodles. They also last forever in the cupboard. The Chinese grocery stores (and all other Asian stores) have tons of shelves of them. Of these, I almost always have more than one kind at home. First, Korean thin noodles called somyeon. Second, flat noodles called “Shandong Ramen” available in thin, medium, and wide (it’s your preference). Third, other on-sale dried noodles from the Chinese store. I also usually have rice noodles, both the thin and flat, and also starch noodles (both Chinese and Korean types). Later, I will do a post on different kinds of noodles, also including fresh noodles and definitely much more information!
XO Sauce (XO酱, XO jiang, “eks oh dzyahng”, “XO Sauce”) is a relatively new invention from Hong Kong, and it costs a lot of money. This creation is made from frying dry shrimp, dry scallops, garlic, ginger, shallots, and red chilies, all minced up, in oil until caramelized. It has a LOT of flavor. You can make it yourself, but it takes a while to make and is challenging for those not very experienced in cooking. I use the Lee Kum Kee brand from the store, sold in a tiny glass jar in a tiny box. I use a teaspoon to flavor my fried rice once in a while. It adds a lot of delicious savoriness!
Picture: Lee Kum Kee XO Sauce
Shacha Sauce (沙茶酱 sha cha jiang, “shah chah dzyahng”, “sand tea sauce”. In Hokkien [a language spoken in southern Fujian] it is pronounced sa-te instead of sha cha. This sauce is not resembling sate [AKA satay in the west] sauce of Malaysia and Indonesia, but the name may be influenced by it.) is a sauce from Fujian Province that is used in Chinese hotpot dipping sauce. Use the Bull Head Brand, found in a tin and labeled “BARBEQUE SAUCE”. It contains seafood, so a vegetarian version is also available (it is marked with a swastika, which is a symbol of peace in Buddhism, so don’t freak out).
Picture: Bull Head Shacha, Vegetarian Shacha
Fresh Ingredient “Trinity” (葱姜蒜 cong jiang suan, “tsohng dzyahng swuhn”, “green onion ginger garlic”)! In almost every Chinese dish, there is at least one of the members of this trinity: green onions, ginger, and garlic.
Green Onions (葱 cong, “tsohng”) are used for both flavor and color. The white part is usually stir-fried in oil to give flavor, and green part added towards the end of cooking for color. Don’t buy too much, because they will wilt after some time. Store in the fridge in a plastic bag.
Ginger (姜 jiang, “dzyahng”) has a strong flavor and is believed to be a “hot” ingredient. Ginger can be sliced (usually in soups), shredded, or finely minced. Dry ginger powder is not used in Chinese cuisine. If you use ginger often like me, there is no need to refrigerate. If you don’t, you can store it in the refrigerator or even the freezer.
Garlic (蒜 suan, “swun”) is the only member of the trinity commonly used in western cuisines. Garlic is usually stir-fried in oil, giving flavor to the dish. Sometimes, it is used raw in cold-mixed dishes, giving a very strong flavor. Store at room temperature.
Besides all of these ingredients, there are some specialty ingredients only used in a few dishes that will be explained when I give a recipe for them. For now, this ingredient list should be helpful. I hope you are not too overwhelmed by these ingredients! Enjoy shopping!