Staple Ingredients of the Chinese Pantry

A couple of days ago, Aileen from Canada wrote to ask me what my favorite brands of some staple Chinese pantry items were.

I thought that was a fair question, and is one I have been asked often, so I figured it was high time I got around to actually writing a post listing what I thought the most necessary basic Chinese pantry items were, what to look for in them, and where to buy them. So, I dug around in my over-stuffed pantry closet and narrowed all the goodies down to fourteen simple basics, many, if not all of which are available at most large American supermarkets. With the items in this list, augmented by general pantry staples such as sugar, salt, cornstarch, peanuts, chicken broth, long grain rice, peanut or canola oil, and black pepper, one can take most fresh ingredients such as tofu, meats and vegetables, and create a plethora of dishes from every province of China. (Look for another post sometime soon on a few optional items which will extend the range of dishes that can be created if they are added to this basic Chinese pantry.)

As I said, many of the items on this list can be found increasingly in American grocery stores. You may not be able to find the specific brands that I prefer, but if you lack access to a local Asian market or prefer not to shop in one, and do not wish to order these items online, then go with the brands you can get. For those items on the basics list which cannot be found in a typical American grocery store, I will list good substitutions. Please also refer to the photographs for product identification; some of these ingredients, such as the wine and the fermented black beans, have primarily Chinese characters on the labels, so the photographs will help you figure out if it is the brand I am talking about or not.

(Important: For those of you who are wheat and gluten sensitive–many of these items contain wheat. This includes soy sauce, so please, read labels! For wheat free soy sauce–use tamari soy sauce. My favorite tamari is San J brand which can be found in health food stores, regular supermarkets and some Asian grocery stores.)

Most of these items have a long shelf life; I will give storage tips and shelf-life information where it is applicable.

Finally, what should you do if you prefer a brand of an item which your Asian market does not carry? How do you get them to order and stock what you want without struggling too much with the language barrier?

There are two simple answers to this question. The first and easiest method is to save the package, bottle, jar or can of the product you prefer, cleaning it up so it doesn’t get sticky and smelly. Then you take the cleaned up container to your friendly neighborhood Asian market where you shop and hand it to the owner while asking, “Can you order this?”

The other method involves finding a picture of the product online. Print out the photo and bring it with you to the shop, show them the picture and ask if they can order it.

If neither of those gambits work, at the end of this post I will give several tried and true online grocers you can order from.

The Basics

Light Soy Sauce: This is not “lite” soy sauce as in low-sodium soy sauce; this is your standard, basic soy sauce, which is sometimes also called on the bottles and in cookbooks, “thin” soy sauce. (For an extended discussion of the different types of soy sauce and their uses, see my post A Soy Sauce Primer.) The brands of light soy sauce I prefer are Kimlan Premium Aged and Pearl River Bridge, in that order. The thing to look for in any soy sauce you buy is that it is naturally brewed, and while I would prefer that everyone use Chinese soy sauces in Chinese cooking, if all you can get is Kikkoman’s naturally brewed at your grocery store, by all means, use that. Soy sauce keeps nearly forever and does not need to be refrigerated, though I know of quite a few people who don’t use it often who do refrigerate it.

Dark Soy Sauce: This soy sauce is basically thin soy sauce to which caramel or molasses has been added, giving it a slightly sweeter flavor, a thicker texture and a darker, more reddish color. This is the soy sauce that is used to give red-cooked (braised) dishes their lovely color, and it is widely used in beef stir fries. In cooking beef, the sweeter flavor gives a good fragrance and flavor balance to the strong taste of beef, and it gives a very good dark color to the cooked meat. Again, my favored brands are Kimlan and Pearl River Bridge. Again, look for naturally brewed dark soy sauce, and if you cannot get it at your local grocery store, I suppose one could use thin soy sauce with a small amount of Kitchen Bouquet to simulate dark soy sauce, but as I have never tried that trick, I don’t know whether the flavor would suffer as a result.

Rice Wine: I prefer Shao Hsing wine, which is not a brand, but a type of Chinese rice wine. It is amber-colored and very nutty with a slightly sweet aftertaste. The brand I prefer is unsalted–it is drinking quality, not “cooking wine”–and it comes with either a red or gold label with Chinese characters on it. The fine print in English identifies it as being made by the Zhejiang Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Company, Shaoxing Wine division. It is not very easy to find, so if you cannot get it, the best substitute that most Chinese cookbooks stipulate is a good quality dry sherry. I concur–in cooking both Chinese and European foods, I have used the two wines interchangeably with no noticeable difference. However, I have to admit that if I am sipping, I prefer Shao Hsing–the nutty flavor is just lovely and it has a distinct warming quality that for me sherry lacks. Shao Hsing does not require refrigeration and lasts forever.

Rice Vinegar: Rice vinegar has a softer flavor than either cider vinegar or distilled white vinegar. It is used both in Chinese cooking and in making uncooked sauces, dressings and dips. Be careful if you use a Japanese rice vinegar that it is unseasoned–many Japanese brands in American grocery stores are pre-seasoned for use in sushi, so they have added sugar, which would mess up the flavor balance of your dish if the vinegar is only meant to be sour, not sour and sweet. If you cannot find any rice vinegar, Australian-based Chinese chef, Kylie Kwong uses malt vinegar as a substitute. I haven’t tried it myself, but I suspect it would be very good. The brand of rice vinegar I use is Kong Yen Genuine Brewed brand with the yellow and green label. Vinegar does not require refrigeration and lasts forever.

Oyster Sauce: Oyster sauce is made from oyster extract, sugar, starch, salt and water. What you want to look for is a brand where oyster extract or oysters are the first ingredient listed. If sugar, MSG or salt is the first ingredient, put the bottle down and step slowly away. It will taste harsh and icky and will make your food taste harsh and icky. My favorite brand used to be Lee Kum Kee Premium Oyster Sauce until I found Amoy Oyster Sauce with Dried Scallop. Wow! That stuff is rich, delicious and fragrant and has kicked my Cantonese recipes up several notches. If you can find it, grab it up and try it out. I always keep oyster sauce refrigerated, and I suggest you do the same. Since the sauce is so thick, it helps to take it out a couple of hours before cooking to warm it up so you can get it out of the bottle. Alternately, you can screw the cap on tightly and store it upside down in the fridge so you can always get the sauce to come out even if it is cold.

Hoisin Sauce: Hoisin sauce is a dark, thick jam-like condiment that is made from fermented soy beans, wheat, sugar, garlic and vinegar. This salty-sweet-tangy sauce is used both at the table and in cookery. Although I have seen it kept on the table unrefrigerated in some Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, I always refrigerate mine. The brand I use comes from Koon Chun Sauce Company–it has a yellow, blue, white and red label that is fairly low key.One side of the label is written in English, and the other in Chinese, so if you can only find sauces with Chinese writing, turn them around, and you can read the other side. All of their sauces are good, though. Many American grocery stores also carry Lee Kum Kee brand, which has a more colorful label, and which is quite tasty, too.

Ground Bean Sauce or Bean Sauce: This is probably one of the most versatile ingredients in the basic Chinese pantry. (For an in depth discussion of Asian fermented soy pastes, see Soybean Pastes: A Primer.)The two medium brown fragrant products are the same, except ground bean sauce has been ground into a thick puree. Which one you choose to have around depends on whether you want your Chinese dishes to have chunky or smooth sauces. (I tend to keep the ground bean sauce around myself. And yes, I also prefer smooth peanut butter. Sans salmonella, thank you.) Made of soy beans, salt, wheat, and sugar, and unnamed spices, this sauce gives a burst of umami “oomph” to any dish with just the addition of a teaspoon or two. It is great with meat or tofu dishes. The brand I prefer is Koon Chun, but again, Lee Kum Kee’s is also good.

Fermented Black Beans: These little black, wrinkled salty wonders have become one of my favorite pantry items of all time, and I use a lot of them in my cooking. These are black soybeans which have been cooked, salted and fermented, often with slivers of ginger, and this treatment turns them into flavor powerhouses. They smell somewhat like a good aged cheese, and surprise! They are absolutely filled with natural glutamates. They make whatever they are stir fried, stewed, steamed or simmered with taste amazing. I cannot praise them highly enough. They are quite inexpensive and are easily found in Asian markets, packed either in cardboard cartons, jars or cellophane packets. I use one of the brands that comes packed in small cellophane packets–the front of which are labelled mostly in Chinese in gold, yellow and black. The packets are clear so you can see the beans, and in fine print on the back, you can read in English, “Kui Fat Food Company, Hong Kong.” The only substitute for these beauties that I can think of would be black bean and garlic sauce, which made by Lee Kum Kee, can be found in many American grocery stores. While they probably don’t need it, I store them in the refrigerator, and like most fermented products, they last for years.

Sesame Oil: When I say “sesame oil,” I am talking about the dark amber-colored, toasted sesame oil that is used in small amounts for seasoning, not the pale colored cold-pressed stuff that is used for cooking and salad dressings. Widely available both in the Asian sections of American grocery stores and Asian markets, toasted sesame oil is a necessity in the Chinese kitchen. Used at the end of stir frying or to dress steamed or braised dishes, a tiny amount of this very strong-flavored nutty oil will impart exceptional fragrance to any dish. It is also widely used in dipping sauces, cold noodle dishes and salad dressings, and is ubiquitous in many Asian cuisines. My favorite brand is Kadoya, which is Japanese, and is easily recognized because the bottle has a pinched-in “waist.” My advice is to buy the smallest bottle and keep it at room temperature in a dark, cool place. It will last for a good long time, but if it starts to smell rancid, obviously get rid of it. If you live in a very hot climate without air conditioning, go ahead and store it in the fridge, and just take it out a few hours before using it to warm it up to room temperature.

Chile Garlic Sauce: This tasty condiment is usually made of chilies, garlic, and salt, all ground together into a thick liquid. Some brands add a bit of vinegar or sugar to tweak the taste of this gloriously scarlet sauce, but most of them taste much the same. It is used to add tangy heat to cooked dishes, dipping sauces and dressings. The two brands I favor are Lee Kum Kee which is often found in American supermarkets, and Oriental Mascot, which is a bit less sweet and a bit hotter. I do store this one in the fridge, even though it likely isn’t necessary.

Dried Chilies: While my favorite dried Chinese chile peppers come from Penzey’s (Tien Tsin–these lovely little fellows are hot to trot), any dried 1-2 inch long deep red chilies you can get from the Asian market or the Asian section of your grocery store will do to make great Sichuan and Hunan favorites like Kung Pao Chicken. You can substitute red chile flakes from your grocery store, but only if they are very fresh. (They are not as versatile, in that you cannot keep the seeds out of them, as you can with whole chilies, but they also are not as hot as the Chinese or Thai chilies you get from the Asian market. I store my whole dried chilies and chile flakes in the freezer because I buy them in bulk. If you get them in smaller amounts, just keep them in an airtight container in a dark, cool cabinet. These will eventually lose potency after a year or six months, however, no matter how carefully you store them, so buy only as much as you think you will use quickly.

Dried Black Mushrooms: Also known as Chinese black mushrooms, these are nothing more than dried shiitake mushrooms. Commonly found in all Asian markets, and available in some American supermarkets, these dark brown mushrooms may not look like much, but they pack a powerhouse of flavor and texture in a small, often wizened, package. I don’t use any particular brand of them; I just look for the nicest variety I can afford. In general, what you want are plump, dark brown caps with lots of paler crackles on them such that they resemble flowers. Thinner, darker caps often have little flavor and seldom rehydrate well. One could substitute fresh shiitake mushrooms, but at a significant flavor and texture loss. When you soak the dried mushrooms in warm water, chicken broth or wine, you end up releasing the natural glutamates present in the mushroom. Then, after that soaking liquid is filtered, it can be used to add flavor to whatever you are steaming, stir-frying, simmering or braising. Also, dried mushrooms have more flavor and a chewier texture because when they are rehydrated, you never get all of the original volume of water back into the tissues, so the flavor is concentrated when compared to a fresh mushroom. I have successfully dried fresh shiitake mushrooms just by leaving them out in a dry dark place in the winter in my house, if you want to give that a try. Storage for these is simple–keep them in an airtight container somewhere cool and dark, and they last for a very long time.

Dried Rice Noodles: I am seeing these dried “rice sticks” as they are sometimes called, appearing in more and more mainstream American supermarkets, and that is all to the good. They are good in soups, or soaked and then stir fried for chow fun, though, in truth, fresh rice noodles are better for the latter dish. (Better, but much harder to find, alas.) These are inexpensive, they keep forever and a day, and they come in all sorts of sizes. I find the quarter to half inch width the most useful, but I keep a variety on hand for whenever I feel like making a cheap, tasty meal. You soak these in warm water then drain before stir frying them, or simply boil them before adding them to your soup. I have found no particular brand to be better than any other, either, so buy what you can find.

Dried or Fresh Wheat Noodles: This is a very broad category, for the Chinese love their noodles. Wheat noodles can come with or without egg, and they can come par cooked and dried, deep fried and dried, fresh and refrigerated and fresh, then frozen. I tend to keep non-egg dried wheat noodles in my pantry, as well as some fresh, frozen egg-containing lo mein noodles as well. For many applications, such as noodles in soup, or cold noodle dishes, one can substitute ramen (but leave off with the seasoning packets, and be aware that these noodles are deep fried and are thus not good for the waistline), or even Italian spaghetti. For stir fried noodles, I prefer fresh Chinese egg noodles. Some American grocery stores carry the fresh noodles in their refrigerated sections next to wonton wrappers, while other grocery stores carry dried Chinese wheat noodles in the Asian section. Look around and see what you can find. For dried noodles, I have no particular favorite, but I do like Twin Marquis brand fresh frozen lo mein noodles.

Finally, here are a couple of places online where you can order Chinese ingredients if you have no Asian market nearby and your grocery store has an inadequate Asian foods section.

The Oriental Pantry

Ethnic Grocer

28 Comments

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  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! I am just now dipping my tippy-toe into Chinese cuisine and it is great to get brand recommendations.

    My favorite oyster sauce is a Thai brand (not surprisingly, as I cook a lot of Thai) – MaeKrua with a picture of a woman cooking up a storm of Thai food on the label. It has fewer additives than many other brands and is not so salty as some. But your recommendation with dried scallop sounds awesome. I will look for it this weekend when I do my shopping run.

    Comment by Diane — February 21, 2007 #

  2. Do you have any hints on how to prepare fresh rice noodle sheets or noodles that are available at some Asian groceries? I haven’t yet managed to get them to separate in any way–they really want to stay in big layered lumps.

    Comment by Joanna — February 21, 2007 #

  3. Hi Barbara:

    Great post …really helpful. I love having all the information in one place.
    I really like the ideas to assist one in having one’s local Asian grocer order a specific brand.
    Do you have a definitive Chinese cookbook preference?

    Aileen

    Comment by Aileen — February 21, 2007 #

  4. Thanks!

    Comment by Sherri — February 22, 2007 #

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  7. Thank you so much, Barbara! On your recommendation I put Breath of A Wok on my Christmas list and my mother gave it to me. I’ve tried to put together a list of essentials from her glossary, but this is much, much better – and I’m so grateful that you’ve included info on storing the items! That’s it, I’m hitting Chinatown this weekend!!

    Comment by Meg — February 22, 2007 #

  8. Barbara -

    Thanks for much for this primer. Could you also offer some opinions on dried shrimp and shrimp pastes? Especially what to look for and storage life?

    Comment by Ann Harste — February 22, 2007 #

  9. Clear, detailed, timely, and oh so helpful. I live too close to an amazing Chinatown, so I often buy what I could make, but this tempts me and helps me – a marvellous combination. Many thanks!

    Comment by almost vegetarian — February 22, 2007 #

  10. Diane–let me know if there is anything I can do to help you dip more tippy toes into the ocean of Chinese cookery. I will be glad to help!

    Joanne–sadly, no, off the top of my head, I don’t know how to keep them from being sticky, mainly because I have only had the opportunity to cook them once. However, let me go digging in my over 100 Chinese cookbooks and see what the authors have to say on the issue for you, okay? I will see what I can come up with to help you out. (Fresh rice noodles have been hard to find around here.)

    Aileen–what about Chinese food do you want to know? A general cookbook that is heavy on technique? Something from a specific cuisine? Something that teaches both the basics and regional favorites from different cuisines? Or, should I write a post on my ten favorite Chinese cookbooks so folks can pick and choose?

    Meg and Sherri–you are welcome. Meg–I hope to see you writing about your experiments soon. And you know, if you need help, you need only ask.

    Ann–dried shrimp will come in the next “pantry” post–I consider dried shrimp and or shrimp sauce to be in the intermediate tier of the Chinese Pantry.
    So, look for that post within the next week or so….

    AV–I am always happy to hear that I have both tempted and helped someone. It pleases me immensely. ;-)

    Comment by Barbara — February 22, 2007 #

  11. Thanks for your listing. Can you post any suggestions for a chili bean paste?

    I have Lee Kum Kee, which is quite hot, but wondered about the Pixian variety that Fuchsia Dunlop recommends. Bruce Cost’s ‘Asian Ingredients’ recommends: ‘Lan Chi – Soy Bean Paste With Chilli’ (in a jar) — and — ‘Szechuan Hot Bean Sauce’ in a can.

    I guess the Pixian is made by Sichuan Pixian Douban Ltd, (http://www.pxdb.com/product-1.htm), Juancheng, and Ming Teh Food Industry Co., but have found little of which one is the best of the three. One reviewer recommended the Juancheng.

    Have you tried any of the Pixian or other brands? I can’t make it to an Asian market as often as I like….

    Comment by Steve — February 22, 2007 #

  12. Steve, the chili bean paste is going to be in my second post, along with the dried shrimp. Both of those ingredients, along with a handful of other ingredients, I consider to be “the second tier” of the Chinese pantry.

    I promise that post in the next week, okay? ;-)

    Comment by Barbara — February 22, 2007 #

  13. Could you post close-up photos of some containers? Please-please! It’s easiest to take along than trying to explain what I’m looking for at an Asian market!

    Maybe even a blurb about Sichuan Preserved vegetables???? or Tianjin Preserved vegetable? Though you might like —
    http://eatingasia.typepad.com/eatingasia/2005/12/ugly_but_tasty.html

    Thanks!

    Comment by Steve — February 23, 2007 #

  14. Steve–if you don’t stop asking questions, you are going to give away all of my upcoming post! ;-) Yes, Sichuan preserved vegetable is in my second tier post as well! (Ai ya!)

    And I will do some photos–if there are photos of any of these ingredients that anyone wants close-up, let me know, and I will add them to this post. That is why I was careful to gather as many of the ingredients together as possible, so that the full sized photo could be printed out and taken with readers to the market.

    Be at peace, Steve–I promise, promise, that there will be pictures, descriptions and serious discussion on the bean sauce with chili issue, as I have tried many brands. (It is one of my favorite ingredients….)

    Comment by Barbara — February 23, 2007 #

  15. Hi Barbara:
    I would love to read your list of must haves for Chinese Cookbooks.
    I have a few but would love some guidence from the expert!
    Thanks so much, Aileen

    Comment by Aileen — February 23, 2007 #

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  17. Very helpful — and I have all of these in my pantry!

    Comment by Lydia — February 26, 2007 #

  18. San J brand is the tamari sauce I use – it is the only one I can consistently find that is wheat-free.

    Comment by Wheat Free — February 26, 2007 #

  19. Joanna,

    While i dont proclaim to be the most seasoned chef, whenever i deal with the fresh rice noodles i blanch them in boiling water until then seperate and then proceed to cook with them however (usually in chow fun). Plenty of oil and a well seasoned wok is key to ensuring they don’t clump. Hopefully this helps!

    Nathan

    Comment by Nathan — March 6, 2007 #

  20. Is there a way to find what preserved szechwan vegetable is, and what words to look for in the packaging? I have several recipes that call for it, including a chow fun recipe, and while I can find fermented mustard, the szechwan vegetable is supposed to have a layer of chili powder on it. All the packaging is in Chinese (suprise!) so I can’t tell what I need to get. Any help would be wonderful.

    Comment by Bobbi — March 8, 2007 #

  21. Hello, Bobbi–thanks for commenting.

    There is a brand of Sichuan preserved vegetable that comes in a yellow and white can. On one side is Chinese lettering and the other is English, in red.

    When I am at the Asian market this weekend, I will pick up a can of it and photograph it for my next post on this subject–the “Intermediate” Chinese Pantry, so you can see what it looks like. I’ll go ahead and do the post next week, and give links to online sources if you need them. I hope that will help you.

    Comment by Barbara — March 8, 2007 #

  22. Thanks Barbara; turns out I had some preserved vegetable in the fridge, in heavy plastic. It doesn’t have the heavy layer of chili powder over it, it is mostly green, but it does have the chili powder and it is what I used to buy. I bought a can of the vegetable, I haven’t opened it as I still am working on my package of the knobby vegetables, mostly for my hot and sour soup lately.

    Comment by Bobbi — March 27, 2007 #

  23. Thanks Barbara for a great series of posts.

    Some other condiments handy to have in an asian/indo kitchen:

    Sambal Bajak

    I get the “mild version” and two heaped teaspoons makes an awesome Mee Goreng!

    Kecap Manis

    Indonesian sweet soy sauce. Wonderfully thick and sweet!

    Nasi Goreng Kecap

    As the name says, the secret sauce to making a good nasi-goreng.

    I’ll look for the thick soy bean paste you mentioned Barbara, to try and get that restaurant color and flavor.

    Thanks!

    Comment by Chris — September 22, 2007 #

  24. Hi Barbara, this is a great list. We’ve come to many of the same choices. One interesting question is on Chile Garlic Sauce. Like you, I keep Lee Kum Kee on hand for it’s fresh chile flavor, but I swear by Lan Chi chili garlic paste which has a richer, more cooked flavor for dishes like Ma Po Tofu where it is one of the highlight ingredients. Lan Chi has become very hard to find in retail stores in the last few years but Oriental Pantry still carries it.

    Comment by David Morandi — March 16, 2008 #

  25. Hi Barbara, this is a great list. We’ve come to many of the same choices. One interesting question is on Chile Garlic Sauce. Like you, I keep Lee Kum Kee on hand for it’s fresh chile flavor, but I swear by Lan Chi chili garlic paste which has a richer, more cooked flavor for dishes like Ma Po Tofu where it is one of the highlight ingredients. Lan Chi has become very hard to find in retail stores in the last few years but Oriental Pantry still carries it.

    Comment by David Morandi — March 16, 2008 #

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  27. hi, barbara. i have ordered from oriental pantry in the past & was very pleased that they sold lg amounts & that the prices were very reasonable. unfortunately, i just tried to get to their site, & it no longer exists, & ethnic grocer shows up but u can’t get to any product pgs, so i’m assuming they’re defunct as well. asiangrocer.com does still have a website, but they don’t have the lag sizes (e.g., 56 oz can of sesame oil) & they are more pricey by far than oriental pantry was. so-o, do u have any other suggestions? i will check back here, but i notice the last post was a year & 1/2 ago, so not too hopeful. feel free to email me, if that’s possible. fyi, oriental pantry was based in acton, ma & still appears to have a physical presence there, for those who live in that area.

    Comment by Sharon Dwinell — August 9, 2009 #

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