Soy Sauce (Light and Dark)
One of the most familiar of Chinese staple ingredients, soy sauce is made from fermented soybeans and wheat flour. Although most Western supermarkets carry the condiment labeled "soy sauce," there are actually many types of soy sauce used in China and Japan, generally divided into light and dark varieties.
- Light soy sauce is thinner and saltier than dark. It's used in China instead of salt, often in soups, stir-fries, braises and stews. Look for the labels "pure bean," "light" or "thin."
- Dark soy sauce has been aged longer than light, and has a mellower, less salty flavor along with a darker color and thicker texture. It's used to give flavor and color to Chinese dishes. On the labels, look for the words "dark" or "black."
Shaoxing Rice Wine
This staple Chinese spirit is made from a mixture of sticky rice, millet and yeast, which has been aged for three to five years. Rice wine takes the "odor" or "rawness" out of meats and fish and adds a bittersweet finish. Try to avoid Shaoxing "cooking wines" which have added salt. Dry sherry makes a good substitute.
Groundnut Oil (Peanut Oil)
This pale oil is extracted from peanuts and has a subtle, nutty flavor. This oil can be heated to high temperatures without burning and is great to use in a salad dressing. As an alternative, use vegetable oil.
A blend of cinnamon, cloves, Sichuan peppercorns, fennel and star anise, these five spices give the sour, bitter, pungent, sweet and salty flavors found in Chinese cooking. This spice works extremely well with meats and in marinades.
Throughout China, vinegar is widely used and there are many varieties. Rice vinegar is made from fermented rice and there are two main types, plain and black.
- Plain Rice Vinegar is clear and is more commonly used than black rice vinegar. Use it in dressings and for pickling. Substitute: Cider Vinegar
- Chinkiang Black Rice Vinegar comes from Jiangsu where it is produced in its capital, Nanjing. The taste is mellow and earthy and when cooked, it gives dishes a wonderful smoky flavor. Substitute: Balsamic Vinegar
Known as "hua jiao" in Mandarin, or "flower pepper," these are not actually peppercorns, but the outer pod of a tiny fruit. This ingredient is widely used all over China and especially in western China. It can be wok-roasted, cooked in oil to flavor the oil or mixed with salt as a condiment for any meat, fish or vegetable dish. It has a pungent citrusy aroma.
Toasted Sesame Oil
Made from white pressed and toasted sesame seeds, this oil is used as a flavoring and is not suitable for use as a cooking oil since it burns easily. The flavor is intense, so use sparingly.
Dried Chile Flakes
These are made from dried whole red chiles, including the seeds, which are crushed into flakes. They give a fiery heat when added to dishes.
Chile Bean Paste
Mostly used in Sichuan cooking, this spicy, salty paste is made from fermented soybeans, dried chiles and other spices. Use with caution, as some varieties are extremely hot.
A spicy condiment, chile sauce is a blend of chiles, sometimes mixed with garlic and vinegar. It's used as a dipping sauce as well as in cooking.
Where to Find:
Check the international aisle of your local grocery store for these ingredients.
For the best selection and a cultural experience, search out a Chinese market in your area.