Variety is the spice of life. Let’s move beyond the most basic Chinese ingredients to the ones that will really make your cooking come to life. I’d consider everything on this list essential even if you’re just starting out. My choices here pack a lot of flavor without costing a lot of money or taking up a lot of space.
Chinese home cooking is quick and economical but absolutely delicious, which makes it perfect for busy weeknights or tight budgets. These are the ingredients that will set you up for success.
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Peppers and Hot Sauce 辣椒 (là jiāo)
My dad gives the same piece of advice to every new cook, and it hasn’t failed anyone yet.
Is it cooked (safe to eat)? If not, cook it for longer. If it doesn’t taste good, add salt. If it’s too salty, add hot sauce. If it still doesn’t taste good, add more hot sauce. Either you’ll quickly learn to eat spicy food, or you’ll quickly learn to cook.— Papa Rice Lover / 彧米爸爸
I definitely ate some unplanned spicy food when I first started cooking. But regardless of your cooking skill level, you’re going to need to have some peppers in your pantry.
The two regional cuisines most associated with spicy food in China are Sìchuān (Szechuan) 四川 and Húnán 湖南. The former is famous for numbing spice 麻辣 málà, while the latter is more of a straight spice 干辣 (gān là, “dry spice”). Sichuan cuisine makes use of a lot of dried peppers and peppercorns, whereas Hunan cuisine relies more on fresh hot peppers.
We’re focusing on pantry ingredients for the essentials lists, so today’s peppers will be more conducive to Sichuan málà (alongside the Sichuan peppercorns below). However, even outside these two provinces, dried peppers are common ingredients in many other regional cuisines in smaller quantities.
The most essential Chinese pepper is the whole dried red chili 干辣椒 (gān là jiāo). There are actually two varieties of similar-looking red peppers. Both are fruity and not crazy spicy; we’re not talking about habanero or ghost pepper levels of spice here:
- 小米辣 (xiǎo mǐ là) or 满天星 (mǎn tiān xīng) Capsicum frutescens — the spicier one, close in heat to Thai bird chili
- 天津辣椒 (tiān jīn là jiāo) Tianjin/Tsien-Tsin pepper, also known as the 朝天椒 (cháo tiān jiāo) or heaven chili — the milder one, close in heat to cayenne pepper
To complicate matters, most whole red chilies at the Asian grocery are simply labeled “dried red peppers”. Look for packages that say 红辣椒 (hóng là jiāo, red peppers)，干辣椒，辣椒干. Some packaging may be in traditional characters: 紅辣椒，乾辣椒，辣椒乾. A good substitute that many spice purveyors and Latin grocers carry is chile de arbol.
Peppers vary widely in spice from batch to batch, so I’d buy whatever brand looks fresh (you want a deep red color, not dark and shriveled). The easiest way to calibrate the spice level is to try a few when you first buy them and adjust usage based on your desired heat.
The same peppers are also available in crushed pepper form (辣椒粉, là jiāo fěn) and ground powdered form 辣椒面 (là jiāo miàn). I recommend buying whole chilies because they’re more versatile. You can control the spice level with whole chilies: cut them into pieces for more spice, or leave them whole for more of the fruity notes. Whole peppers also stand up to stir frying better than crushed or powder, and they last longer in the pantry.
Hot Sauces / Chili Crisp
Put down the sriracha bottle. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of types of Chinese hot sauces 辣椒酱 (là jiāo jiàng), most of which are more similar in consistency to a Mexican salsa than Frank’s hot sauce. There are two main forms
- crushed peppers in oil, aka chili crisp = 油辣椒 (yóu là jiāo, chili in oil) or 香辣脆 (xiāng là cuì, fragrant crisp chili). By far the most popular brand here is Lǎo Gān Mā 老干妈, literally Old Godmother. Look for the logo with a picture of a woman wearing a white apron
- a chunky purée like chili garlic sauce 蒜蓉辣椒酱 (suàn róng là jiāo jiàng). Common brands are Huy Fong (makers of Sriracha) and Lee Kum Kee 李锦记 (lǐ jǐn jì)
If I were to pick only one hot sauce, it would be Lao Gan Ma, no contest. It’s delicious on eggs, in fried rice, and with dumplings, among other uses. There are many varieties, with some including peanuts, dried shrimp, or fermented black beans. The original is 油辣椒 “Fried Chili in Oil”, but I highly recommend trying several to pick your favorite!
Spices 香料 (xiāng liào)
Buying and storing spices
My favorite source for an amazing variety of spices on a budget is Grassia’s Italian Market Spice Co in Philadelphia. The great thing here is that the spices come in small quantities, starting at about $1 for 1 oz, so you can just buy more fresh spices when you run out. You can order online or email them your order, or seek out a good spice purveyor in your own city. These come in plastic bags, so I use glass spice jars (ground, seed, or peppercorn format) or 8 oz regular mouth mason jars with a one piece lid (bulky whole spices) to hold them.
If you have a good Asian grocery, they will most likely carry all of these with relatively high turnover as well (important so that the spices are fresh). I also love Penzeys Spices based in Wisconsin. They sell high quality spices in glass jars but at a higher price point (about $5 for the smallest portion of most spices). The Spice House is similarly Wisconsin-based and has a wide variety of spices.
- Black pepper 黑胡椒 (hēi hú jiāo) is the most popular spice in the world. I always recommend grinding your pepper fresh. You can buy a pepper mill and peppercorns separately, but an easier and cheaper option is Trader Joe’s whole black peppercorns in a refillable plastic grinder ($2). You can then buy fresh peppercorns and refill yourself. The plastic mill won’t last nearly as long as a high quality metal option, but they are recyclable so just replace it when worn out.
- White pepper 白胡椒 (bái hú jiāo) is brighter and less spicy than black pepper. They come from the same plant but are processed differently. In Chinese cooking, we use white pepper in congee and soups as well as veggie stir fries. Buy an extra black peppercorn grinder at Trader Joe’s (reserve the black peppercorns) and re-purpose it for your whole white peppercorns.
- Szechuan/Sichuan peppercorns 花椒 (huā jiāo) gives Sichuan cuisine its characteristic “numbing” effect, the 麻 (má) part of 麻辣 (má là). These are actually a type of citrus rather than a pepper, but they look like peppercorns. You don’t need a grinder for these; they’re added to dishes whole. They’re a key ingredient in Dry-Fried Green Beans 干煸四季豆 (gān biān sì jì dòu).
- Ground cumin 孜然粉 (zī rán fěn) is a warm, nutty spice commonly used to cook lamb in Xīnjiāng 新疆 cuisine, like the quintessential lamb skewers 羊肉串 (yáng ròu chuàn). Cumin seeds are more common for stir fries like cumin lamb 孜然羊.
- Cinnamon 桂皮 (guì pí) — although used in desserts in Western cooking — mostly stars in savory preparations for Chinese cooking. Cinnamon sticks (not ground!) are an important ingredient in braises like 红烧 (hóng shāo, red-cooked) and 卤肉 (lǔ ròu, soy-braised meat). There are two common varieties of cinnamon, cassia and Ceylon. Ceylon is milder, more nuanced, and much more expensive. Good quality cassia (i.e. anything just labeled “cinnamon”) is totally fine for our purposes. Look for sticks that are thin and tightly rolled; you don’t want the huge ones that look like tree bark.
- Star anise 八角 (bā jiǎo) is a sweet, warm, licorice-y spice also used in braises. This has a very strong flavor, so use it sparingly and avoid eating the whole spice. This is the other main spice for 红烧 red-cooked and 卤肉 soy-braised.
Sauces 酱 (jiàng)
Sesame paste 芝麻将 (zhī má jiàng) forms the base for many noodle sauces like Wuhan hot dry noodles as well as hotpot dipping sauce. Generally the sesame paste used in Chinese cooking is made from toasted, whole white sesame seeds, and is a nutty brown color in appearance. I recommend that you choose one that is made with 100% sesame seeds.
I use 六必居 Liùbìjū brand, a 老字号 (lǎo zì hào) time-honored brand founded in the 明朝 Míng dynasty with 500 years of history. It’s labeled either just 芝麻将 (sesame paste) or 纯芝麻将 (chún, pure sesame paste).
Note that many lower-grade sesame pastes may include peanuts — sometimes labeled 花生芝麻将 (huā shēng zhī má jiàng) peanut sesame paste.
Do not confuse Chinese sesame paste with tahini / tehina used in Middle Eastern cuisine (e.g. hummus, babaganoush, halva), which is made from raw, hulled sesame seeds and is generally lighter in color and thinner in consistency. Chinese sesame paste is nuttier and sweeter because the seeds are toasted. In a pinch, a mix of mild tahini (Soom, Barron’s Organic, or Trader Joe’s) + unsalted, smooth natural peanut butter + sesame oil is a reasonable substitute.
Bonus: Essential Aromatics 葱姜蒜
At its core, Chinese cooking is ingredient focused and doesn’t call for a huge collection of spices or sauces. Nearly every dish does call for aromatics, so although these don’t fall under the pantry category, I’ve included them here. Just as French cooking has mirepoix (onion, carrots, celery) and Creole cooking has the holy trinity (celery, onion, bell pepper), Chinese cooking uses three main aromatics in almost all dishes. You’ll want to keep these on hand at all times:
- Scallions 葱 (cōng) or spring onions add freshness to dishes. Generally we add them at the end of cooking, just before or after turning off the heat.
- Ginger 姜 (jiāng) is commonly used when cooking meat and seafood.
- Garlic 蒜 (suàn) is found in virtually every regional cuisine across China, especially in vegetable dishes.
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