Stocking Your Kitchen: Essential Ingredients for Chinese Cooking (Part I: The Basics)

last updated 21 June 2020

The world’s three great cuisines are often identified (via NPR) as French, Chinese, and Turkish. Although there’s some debate on the third (Italian, Japanese, Indian come to mind), the first two are almost universal choices. The reputation of Chinese food in America has definitely come a long way since unidentifiable deep-fried, brown-sauce-covered takeout. The ingredients in Chinese cooking may seem intimidating, but fortunately, for one of the world’s great cuisines, you need remarkably little to get started.

There is a Chinese 成语(chéng yǔ) or idiom: 油盐酱醋 (yóu yán jiàng cù), meaning oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar. The idiom means basic/ordinary/boring, but with just these four ingredients, you are well on your way to cooking a huge variety of Chinese food.

L to R: 油盐酱醋 the building blocks — oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar

I’ve added a few of my essential ingredients for Chinese cooking to expand beyond ordinary and boring. Combined with the second part of this series Spices and Sauces, you’ll be well on your way to cooking a wide variety of authentic Chinese food. My picks are based on extensive reading of taste tests and, more importantly, from trying many brands myself. All the recommendations here are what I use in my own kitchen.

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Oils 油

General Purpose Cooking Oils

For high heat cooking like Chinese stir fries, I use avocado oil. The smoke point is among the highest of all oils at 270C/520F. Avocado oil is unrefined, neutral, and high in monounsaturated fats. It’s become much easier to find and affordable over the last few years. If I were to buy only one type of cooking oil, this would be my pick. My preferred source is the Chosen Foods brand (I usually buy it at Costco in a 1L bottle), but Great Value brand is available from Walmart in smaller bottles at a reasonable unit price.

I use canola (rapeseed) oil for most of my other day-to-day cooking including frying. There’s some debate to the health aspect of canola because of GMO and high omega-6 content. But the benefits are that it’s widely available, inexpensive, low in saturated fat, neutral in flavor, and relatively high smoke point (220C/430F). My pick here is again Costco’s Kirkland Signature, but any 100% canola oil would work well.

To prevent it from going rancid, I decant my cooking oil from large bottles into a light-proof cruet. I recommend avoiding the clear glass bottles commonly sold in oil and vinegar kits unless you will be keeping your oil in a dark cabinet at all times. To read more about healthiness of various cooking oils, this article by Time is a good resource.

Flavoring and Finishing Oils

Kadoya Pure Sesame Oil
八角牌 纯净上等麻油

For Chinese cooking, toasted sesame oil 麻油/香油 (má yóu/xiāng yóu) is essential. It adds a deep nutty flavor to finish stir fries, in dipping sauces for dumplings and hotpot, and to cold dishes 凉菜 (liáng cài). A little bit goes a long way; try a few drops to amp up your fried rice. Because the sesame is already toasted, the smoke point is lower, and high heat cooking can lead to a burnt flavor in addition to the loss of the toasty, nutty nuances.

A high quality and widely available brand is Kadoya 八角 Pure Sesame Oil 上等麻油 (shàng děng má yóu). This is a Japanese brand that you can find it at your local Asian grocery or the international aisle of a well-stocked grocery store. It’s available in small glass or plastic bottles, as well as larger metal tins. I recommend buying a glass bottle to start and refilling as needed from a tin.

I also like Wei Chuan 味全 (wèi quán) brand’s 100% Pure Sesame Oil 纯麻油 (chún má yóu). It comes in a bottle or metal tin with Japanese hiragana text.


Salt 盐

I keep it simple for salt. 99.9% of my cooking is done with only coarse kosher salt. The two commonly available options are Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt (“DCK”) and Morton’s Coarse Kosher Salt. Either of these will work and should only set you back ~$3 for a 3lb box. I store it in a salt cellar, which is just a fancy name for a shallow jar with a lid. You can get a bamboo or ceramic salt cellar almost anywhere for under $10, or use a 8-oz wide mouth mason jar with a one-piece lid.

All volume measurements on the blog assume coarse kosher salt. I do not have iodized table salt or fine sea salt at home. But, salt is salt, so use what you have. To convert in my recipes, 1 tsp salt (kosher salt) = 0.75 tsp table salt = 0.75 tsp fine sea salt. Keep in mind that it’s better to sprinkle salt over the contents of the pan instead of dumping it from the spoon in one clump; it’ll distribute better so your food is evenly salted.

Soy Sauce 酱油

Pearl River Bridge light & dark soy sauces
珠江桥牌 生抽王·老抽王

Types of Soy Sauce

When you think of East Asian cooking, soy sauce 酱油 (jiàng yóu) is probably the first ingredient that comes to mind. Soy sauce is made by fermenting soy beans, wheat, and salt. In Chinese cooking, there are two major types, light soy sauce 生抽 (shēng chōu) and dark soy sauce 老抽 (lǎo chōu). Chinese light soy sauce and Japanese light soy sauce (usukuchi) are quite different; these recommendations are for Chinese cooking.

Light or all-purpose soy sauce is by far the more common option. If a recipe calls for unspecified soy sauce, you can safely assume it’s light soy sauce. Dark or aged soy sauce is fermented for a longer time and includes molasses; it is darker, sweeter, richer, and thicker than light soy sauce and gives braised dishes their classic red-brown color.

Soy Sauce Brands

Personally, I use Pearl River Bridge 珠江橋牌 (zhū jiāng qiáo pái) brand’s Superior Light Soy Sauce 生抽王 (shēng chōu wáng) and the same brand’s Superior Dark Soy Sauce 老抽王 (lǎo chōu wáng). I can’t tell the difference between the supposed premium “Golden Label” 金標 (jīn biāo) light soy sauce and the regular one, so I recommend whichever is cheaper.

Other brands that I like if Pearl River Bridge isn’t available:

  • Wan Ja Shan 萬家香 (wàn jiā xiāng)
    • light = “Soy Sauce” with the yellow and red label. It may say 純釀醬油 (chún niàng jiàng yóu, traditional characters), or it may be in English only
    • dark = “Aged Soy Sauce” 陳年醬油 (chén nián jiàng yóu) with the yellow and green label
  • Kimlan 金蘭 (jīn lán)
  • In a pinch, Kikkoman 萬 light soy sauce is widely available (including at Costco). This is a naturally brewed soy sauce by a Japanese company but brewed in Wisconsin. It has a yellow label with a blue border and simply says “Soy Sauce”, no Chinese or Japanese. I would skip the low sodium version with the green label.

Absolutely avoid any “synthetic/chemical” soy sauce like La Choy brand, found in the international aisle of your local supermarket. One or more of these superior real (“naturally brewed”) soy sauce brands should be available at any Asian grocer.

Vinegar 醋

Distilled white vinegar is really cheap and sour with no other discernible flavor profile. You can find it at any grocery store, and brand does not matter. I mainly use it for pickling, steaming eggplant, and household cleaning (descaling hard water deposits). A 1/2 gallon bottle will last for years.

Gold Plum Chinkiang Vinegar
金梅牌 镇江香醋 – 其它无需考虑
No other brand comes close

Chinese black vinegar, or Chinkiang vinegar, 镇江香醋 (zhèn jiāng xiāng cù) vinegar, is sometimes called the balsamic vinegar of Chinese cooking. Originally produced in the Zhenjiang area of Jiāngsū 江苏 province, it’s an aged vinegar 陈醋 (chén cù) that’s nuanced, aromatic, slightly sweet, and much milder than distilled vinegar. This is used to flavor 凉菜 (cold dishes) and stir fries and is also the base of dumpling dipping sauces.

As far as I’m concerned, there is only one brand of black vinegar worth using: Gold Plum 金梅 (jīn méi) in a glass bottle with a yellow Chinkiang Vinegar 镇江香醋 (zhèn jiāng xiāng cù) label. Many inferior brands try to imitate the packaging; you want the gold foil plum with a red center (the logo is in English only). This is my strongest brand recommendation in my entire pantry; I’ve never tried another black vinegar whose quality comes close.

Cooking Wine

Shaoxing rice wine

Shaoxing huadiao wine 绍兴花雕酒 (shào xīng huā diāo jiǔ) from 浙江 Zhèjiāng province is by far the most common cooking wine in Chinese cuisine. It is an amber-colored 黄酒 (huáng jiǔ), literally “yellow wine”, made from glutinous rice and fermented to 15-18% alcohol. Shaoxing is used to tenderize meat and fish in marinades, and to 去腥 (qù xīng) remove off-fishy notes in cooking. 腥 has no exact English translation, but it refers to fishy (like day-old bodega sushi), gamey, or off flavors — not actual food spoilage! Shaoxing wine helps to neutralize any unpleasant flavors when cooking.

2

A popular choice is Pagoda Brand 塔牌 (tǎ pái), which is decent quality and inexpensive (~$4 for a 750mL bottle). Look for a red label with a gold picture of a pagoda building. Depending on liquor laws in your area, your local Asian grocery may only carry cooking wines, which by US law have 1.5% salt to prevent their consumption as drinking wine. In these cases, it may be labeled as 绍兴料酒, where 料酒 (liào jiǔ) means “cooking wine”. If you can’t find Pagoda, there are many other options that will work just fine, pick one whose only ingredients are rice wine, salt, and caramel color.

Substitutions

If you can’t find Shaoxing, dry sherry is a good substitute. Inexpensive Japanese sake, a clear rice wine, is also a good choice. Generally, sake is sweeter and milder than Shaoxing, so the flavor profile of the final dish will be a bit different but still tasty. I like Gekkeikan 月桂村 as an inexpensive option at any wine/liquor store that carries sake.

Sugar

Judicious use of small amounts of sugar enhances umami, known as 提鲜 (tí xiān). Chinese and Japanese share the character 鲜, pronounced xiān in Chinese and umami in Japanese. There is no direct English translation, but “savory” is close. Alongside 酸甜苦辣 (suān tián kǔ là) sour, sweet, bitter, and spicy, umami is the fifth basic flavor around which all dishes are built. Sugar doesn’t actually increase the umami in a dish — which comes from the presence of glutamates — but it does highlight the eater’s perception of existing umami.

Any sugar will work for Chinese cooking. I prefer 100% evaporated cane juice sugar, which is naturally slightly tan because it’s less processed than regular white sugar. You can buy evaporated cane juice at many grocery stores. Trader Joe’s Organic Evaporated Cane Juice in the green bag is good, and their organic price is on-par with conventional versions elsewhere. Otherwise, Zulka Morena is a good option I’ve seen at Target and Walmart.

Starch / Thickeners

Corn starch (玉米)淀粉 (yù mǐ diàn fěn) is used to thicken sauces so that they are glossy and stick to the ingredients. You’ll see instructions to add a “slurry” — a mix of corn starch and water. I would start with 1 tsp of corn starch in 2 tsp water, and then increase as needed. Corn starch is also useful to keep meat tender 嫩 (nèn). A lot of Chinese stir fries have a step 淀粉抓匀 (diàn fěn zhuā yún), indicating that you should add a small amount of powdered corn starch and mix thoroughly to coat the meat. The corn starch forms a thin paste on the surface of the meat, which keeps it from toughening or burning when subject to high heat.

Many restaurants use way too much corn starch as a substitute for cooking time to reduce sauces. However, when used judiciously, corn starch is a key ingredient to take your Chinese food to the next level. I use Argo brand, available at every grocery store, and I recommend the plastic container with a screw top lid instead of a cardboard box. In most cases you can substitute potato starch as well.

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