10 Essential Chinese Cooking Ingredients

Soy sauce is a must (both light and dark), but you’ll need these other sauces and spices to get your wok on, anytime.

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These five spices make up the often-used Chinese five-spice powder.

Photo by: Penny De Los Santos ©2011, Penny De Los Santos

Penny De Los Santos, 2011, Penny De Los Santos

These five spices make up the often-used Chinese five-spice powder.

Bamboo Shoots (tinned)
Drained tinned bamboo shoots provide texture and flavor. Use them in stir-fries and soups. They are rarely available to buy fresh.

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.

Chile Sauce 
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.

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.

Egg Noodles (fresh/dried)
The most-common type of noodle, egg noodles are made from egg yolk, wheat flour and salt. They can be found in different shapes and thickness. Some are thin, others are rounded like spaghetti; some are flat, and some coiled in a ball/nest. These are available dried and fresh. Store the fresh variety in the fridge for up to five days. Use egg noodles in soups, lo mein and chow mein dishes.

Five-Spice Powder 
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.

Glutinous Rice
Grown throughout Southern China and Southeast Asia, this is a variety of short-grain rice that is especially sticky (therefore “glutinous”) when cooked. It does not contain any gluten. The word "glutinous" is used to describe its sticky nature. Use it to make sticky rice desserts and savory rice dumplings.

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.

Jasmine Rice
This long-grain white and silky rice originates from Thailand. The rice has a nutty jasmine scent and makes a great accompaniment to most dishes. As with most rice, rinse it until the water runs clear to get rid of any excess starch before cooking. When cooked, the rice is soft, white and fluffy.

Rice Vinegar 
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. In fact, "Chinkiang" is the old name for "Zhenjiang" (known as a distributary of the Yangtze River that runs through the city of Zhenjiang). Therefore, this vinegar should be known as Zhenjiang black rice vinegar. The taste is mellow and earthy. When cooked, it gives dishes a wonderful smoky flavor. Substitute: balsamic vinegar

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.

Shiitake Mushrooms (fresh and dried)
These large dark-brown mushrooms are prized for their culinary and medicinal qualities. They can be found fresh or dried, adding a good texture to dishes. They impart an earthy fragrant umami flavor to soups, stir-fries and braised dishes. They are a staple in China, Japan and most parts of Asia. 

Sichuan Peppercorns 
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.

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." 

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.

Water Chestnuts (tinned)
These are the roots of an aquatic plant found growing in freshwater ponds, lakes and slow-moving rivers and streams. When unpeeled, they resemble a chestnut in shape and coloring. They have a firm, crunchy texture that's great in salads, soups and stir-fries. They can sometimes be found in vacuum packs but are mostly sold in tins.

Where to Find: 
Check the international aisle of your local grocery store for these ingredients.

You can also shop online for more hard-to-find foods: 

For the best selection and a cultural experience, search out a Chinese market in your area.

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