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What are must have spices, oils, sauces to get started with Chinese cooking?


Jan Finster

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Yeah, I appreciate this is a loaded and rookie question. 

 

I do not really have a good Asian grocery store nearby, so if I were to drive to one, what should I buy?

 

I guess something like:

  • dark soy sauce
  • light soy sauce
  • sesame oil
  • rice wine
  • 5 spice powder
  • ....???

 

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Shaoxing wine, Chinkiang (Zhenjiang) vinegar, sichuan peppercorns. Actually, let me check Ching-he Huang's Chinese Food in Minutes, which is great for convincing people you learned to cook Chinese food in China, when in actual fact you ate out all the time and barely made sandwiches at home. She has a store cupboard list, this is just the stuff on it I have actually used... fermented black beans* (豆豉). Dried baby shrimp. Quality jasmine rice. Rice vinegar. There's more on the list (dried tangerine peel?), but I haven't made use of that, or only buy stuff for specific recipes rather than keep it on hand.

 

Also, have a look at the hardware - you obviously don't need the Chinese-style rice bowls and spoons, but they can be fun. You might want a bamboo steamer (personally I got rid of mine, metal three-tier one is easier for doing veg over rice, etc). And stock up on jars of spicy goodness like these, you can just stir those into rice or noodles and bang, delicious.

 

* The black bean sauce here has been a great success, don't need to use it in that specific recipe. 

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I have these in my kitchen (we're in lockdown btw):

金龙鱼非转基因黄金比例食用植物调和油

日清色拉油(非转基因大豆油)

李锦记精选生抽

李锦记锦珍老抽(上色用)

李锦记财神蚝油

李锦记蒸鱼豉油(蒸鱼专用、微甜)

海天味极鲜(凉拌用)

老恒和浙江黄酒(王致和料酒 when unavailable)

会稽山纯正绍兴酒(can drink directly)、台湾红标料理米酒(distilled liquor, not the rice wine as we know it, for a specific recipe)

红星蓝瓶二锅头(mostly as a nightcap, but occasionally useful when preparing 带鱼)

恒顺镇江香醋

古币芝麻香油(rarely used)

土豆/玉米淀粉

无碘海盐/湖盐

红梅味精(horrified? bite me)

太太乐鸡精

绵白糖

单晶冰糖

花椒

大料(aka 八角)

桂皮

香叶

干辣椒

白胡椒粉

王守义十三香(better than 五香粉)

王守义炖肉料、炖鸡料

咖喱粉、日式咖喱块(for 咖喱饭 obviously)

郫县豆瓣(川菜用)

六必居干黄酱、甜面酱(老北京炸酱面用)

阳江豆豉(only used once when I tried unsuccessfully to make 豉汁排骨)

虾皮

紫菜

干香菇

干木耳

干黄花菜

龙口粉丝等其他干货

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On 5/22/2022 at 10:26 PM, roddy said:

Also, have a look at the hardware - you obviously don't need the Chinese-style rice bowls and spoons, but they can be fun. You might want a bamboo steamer (personally I got rid of mine, metal three-tier one is easier for doing veg over rice, etc). And stock up on jars of spicy goodness like these, you can just stir those into rice or noodles and bang, delicious.

 

Thanks. 

I still have Shaoxing wine & Chinkiang (Zhenjiang) vinegar and sesame oil from my ex, but the label says they expired 2018. Do they get bad?

 

Regarding steamer, I have a Panda Rice cooker and I have not steamed anything but rice, but that must suffice for now.

 

Most imporantly, I want to get a proper wok. I have a induction cooktop, but I am not sure if straigt-bottom woks are any good (even with induction). Any experience? I also saw there are proper concave induction wok machines (https://www.webstaurantstore.com/galaxy-giwc18-stainless-steel-countertop-wok-induction-range-cooker-120v-1800w/177GIWC18.html) and I am tempted to buy one (unless you tell me a straight bottom wok on induction is doing a good job)? 

 

(I know many Chinese restaurants still use the gas F16-afterburner wok stoves, but I do not really want to go there)

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Oils certainly can go off. Vinegar I think should be fine if stored properly, although I do wonder about more complex vinegars like zhenjiang - they're not going to start growing botulism, but quality might fall off. Shaoxing wine I've had for years and it still seems fine. 

 

Give it a sniff/taste test. 

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On 5/23/2022 at 3:21 AM, Jan Finster said:

I still have Shaoxing wine & Chinkiang (Zhenjiang) vinegar and sesame oil from my ex, but the label says they expired 2018. Do they get bad?

They are probably fine. Test the sesame oil by dipping a fingertip in it and tasting it. If it has gone rancid, you will realize that right away. 

------------------------ 

Quote

>>"Regarding steamer, I have a Panda Rice cooker and I have not steamed anything but rice, but that must suffice for now."

Sure. The steamer basket that is part of your rice cooker works well and is easy to use. If you're interested, I can give you tips in another thread about how to use it to make easy and tasty one-dish meals. 

 

As far as ingredients that you will use every day, white pepper is on that very short list. For whatever reason, Chinese cooks use it a lot and very seldom use black pepper. It is 白胡椒粉。

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On 5/23/2022 at 3:21 AM, Jan Finster said:

Most importantly, I want to get a proper wok. I have a induction cooktop, but I am not sure if straigt-bottom woks are any good (even with induction). Any experience? I also saw there are proper concave induction wok machines (https://www.webstaurantstore.com/galaxy-giwc18-stainless-steel-countertop-wok-induction-range-cooker-120v-1800w/177GIWC18.html) and I am tempted to buy one (unless you tell me a straight bottom wok on induction is doing a good job)? 

------------------ 

In my last Kunming apartment, I bought a cooktop with powerful gas burners and a steel wok to take advantage of that heat source. The wok still had a flat central zone, wasn't completely convex. Worked great. I consider that setup the gold standard (for a home kitchen; not for a restaurant.) 

 

Induction cooktops differ in how much heat they put out, as a function of the size of the concealed burner and the wattage delivered. I never used one extensively. Cannot advise. Similarly, I never had a concave induction cooker with a mated round bottom wok. I have mainly seen them sold as a unit. Cannot comment on how well they work. I think it would be hard to toss things around by shaking and "wrist-flipping" the pan in one of these set ups. 

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I’m sorry for my delayed response. I only check online stuff every week or two or more. I only check more frequently, if I expect a fairly quick response to something I’m interested in. Your question is a great question that I’ve seen asked in different ways.

 

You hit the nail on the head of the top two essential ingredients: soy sauce and sesame oil.

 

When you go into an Asian grocery store, you might walk into a sea of choices and not know which ones to buy. I’m an ABC (American born Chinese), who has been cooking Chinese food for many decades, and I still get overwhelmed when I walk into any Asian grocery store.

 

Not all soy sauces and sesame oils are the same. Some of them really aren’t good. But first, let me say that for soy sauce, I don’t bother with dark soy sauce. It’s more for its dark coloring, and it’s significantly saltier. I just go with light soy sauce.

 

Kikkoman soy sauce seems to be universal in various countries. It’s been in the U. S. for I don’t know how many decades. (Too much information: Kikkoman is actually Japanese dark soy sauce that tastes like Chinese light soy sauce.) I wouldn’t go with any soy sauce that costs less than Kikkoman. They really aren’t good and can make you think a Chinese dish isn’t very good, when it would be good with good soy sauce.

 

My personal favorite Chinese light soy sauce is Kimlan soy sauce. It’s made in Taiwan. It only costs incrementally more than Kikkoman. Also, I prefer the low sodium version of any soy sauce. Then, I add salt, if necessary. I would say that it's roughly half-and-half of the time when I add salt.

 

For sesame oil, I’ve always been happy with Kadoya. It has also been in the U. S. for I don’t know how many decades. I wouldn’t go with any sesame oil that costs less than it. Similar to soy sauce, they really aren’t good and can make you think a Chinese dish isn’t very good, when it would be good with good sesame oil. Buy maybe a tenth or less of the quantity of sesame oil as soy sauce. A little sesame oil goes a long way. Stated differently, don’t overuse sesame oil, unless you really love it.

 

There are premade sauces by Lee Kum Kee that are really good and rival pretty good home cooking. I would think that the black pepper sauce is the most universally liked. The black bean garlic sauce is also really good. You only need to put a tablespoon more-or-less of a sauce into a stir fry. But, be careful which sauces you buy. Some of them aren’t for stir frys.

 

If you want to cook with five-spice powder, you’ll want to have recipes that you know you’ll cook it in. Otherwise, it’ll sit on you shelf and go to waste.

 

Shaoxing (rice) wine and chicken powder are secrets to Chinese cooking. (It has to be Shaoxing wine, not any other rice wine.) If you don’t have Shaoxing wine, you can substitute chicken powder.

 

Lee Kum Kee Panda Oyster Sauce would be next on my list. It’s hugely popular. Just throw a little of it on any vegetable stir fry. It’s so good.

 

I’m not into spicy foods. Stated differently, I’m a spice wimp. So, I don’t know what spicy stuff to recommend. Maybe Sichuan peppercorns.

 

I have never had a proper wok. I have never had the confidence to cook on high heat. Most dishes can be cooked on medium or medium-low heat. It’s much more forgiving for slower cooks. I spent my early decades cooking in non-wok-like, non-stick pans. After non-stick wok-like pans became available, I’ve cooked in those too. I think this approach is easier for any beginner.

 

Happy Chinese Cooking!

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I agree with MTH123 that you probably don't need to bother with dark soy sauce. If you're like me, who do the 红烧/黄焖 using the 炒糖色 method (with 冰糖), then you won't need it much. I run through one bottle (500 ml) of light soy sauce and cooking wine every month or two on average, but my dark soy sauce is a leftover from 2019.

 

Basically, what are must haves depends on your favorite recipes and your cooking style. I keep sesame oil around for when I want a bowl of 馄饨 or 蒸蛋羹 for midnight snack. I used to use sesame oil to make 白斩鸡 sauce, but I haven't done that for two years. So a 100 ml bottle can last me for years. But if you do a lot of 凉拌菜, which I don't, you'll surely need more sesame oil than I do.

 

I disagree with MTH123's categorization of chicken powder. Chicken powder (or granulated chicken bouillon) is a substitute for oyster sauce or MSG. Their purpose is to add 鲜味 or 'umami', the fifth category of taste, to the dish. The active ingredient is glutamate. I know there's widespread misgivings about MSG (monosodium glutamate), which is a naturally occurring substance in cheese, tomatoes, etc. It all started with a complaint letter in the 1960s about what was later to be termed the "Chinese restaurant syndrome". Today we know monosodium glutamate is no more harmful than sodium chloride (aka common salt, which can be bad for certain type of people). Those against MSG are either racist or ignorant.

 

But Shaoxing wine has other uses than adding flavor. One of them is to remove fishy or other undesirable smells from meat. Because certain molecules are more soluble in alcohol than in water. It also helps to extract, so to speak, the aroma from cooking materials/spices into the soup/marinade. Another interesting cooking tip, as abcdefg can tell you, is to add a few drops of Shaoxing wine to the water when making 鸡蛋汤, because it's believed that can help the egg to congeal faster so it won't break up into tiny particles and make the whole thing a muddy suspension. I'm not sure about the science but I do it anyway.

 

In terms of my resupplying frequency, I feel it's safe to say these should be the first order of business of any Chinese home cook:

绍兴酒/黄酒 (make sure it's made with traditional method and not 勾兑法/blending - there should be no 食用酒精 in the ingredient list)

生抽 (or simply 酱油 in the North - so you see, 老抽 isn't really necessary)

蚝油 (李锦记 is one of the two brands in mainland China that do not use preservatives)

淀粉 (not really a Chinese thing but I use it a lot)

盐 (plain table salt, not that curious American thing I recently learned called kosher salt)

鸡精 (I use granulated chicken bouillon whenever 高汤/soup stock is called for, and in cases where the dark color of oyster sauce may ruin my appetite. But I feel it's too grainy/fluffy for 蛋炒饭, so a pinch of MSG instead)

糖 (the powdery kind, not the granular kind. A tiny pinch of sugar is believe to be able to enhance the flavors of other ingredients / 提味)

香醋/米醋 (I'm not a big fan of 糖醋XX, so its use is quite limited, but there is no substitute, and it simply feels wrong to eat any kind of jiaozi without vinegar)

 

The rest is really a matter of personal preference I think.

 

If you're a salad monster you'll surely use a lot of vinegar and sesame oil and other things. Sesame seeds? Dried peanuts? I don't know.

 

Sichuan peppercorn, star anise, cassia bark, bay leaf, and ground white pepper will cover your basic needs for 烧/炖 of chicken, pork, beef (sorry I don't eat mutton). There are other more exotic spices. I just don't use them. (Yeah, we only use white pepper in normal cooking. Black pepper is for barbeque, because of its color I guess?)

 

Btw I use Sichuan peppercorn a lot for stir-frying "bland" vegetables such as 豆芽/bean sprouts or 圆白菜/cabbage. But the most copious use of it must be for 辣子鸡丁 which I like to cook from time to time. Basically half bowl of dried chili + 1/4 bowl of Sichuan peppercorn.

 

If you're into Sichuanese cuisine, then you'll probably need a lot more than Sichuan pepper, dried chili, chili bean paste. I'm too lazy, so usually I'm just content with ready-made seasoning packets, which takeaway restaurants use anyway, so why bother.

 

The five-spice powder you mentioned really belongs to my parents' generation. I don't even know what it is for. I use the more 高大上-sounding 13-spice powder lol, and for one thing only: 香菇油菜 - not related to 蓝瘦香菇, which is netspeak for 难受想哭.

 

If you like moo shu pork as much as I do, then you must have a stockpile of dried Judas's ear / Jew's ear / (politically correcter) jelly ear / wood ear, and dried daylily / golden needle / yellow flower vegetable. (Such fun finding English names for these things!)

 

Just in case you're curious, dried baby shrimp and dried nori are for the (Northern) huntun / (Southern) wonton I mentioned earlier. Nori also for whipping up a quick 紫菜蛋花汤.

 

Of course scallion, ginger, garlic, coriander/cilantro etc are not discuss because they're too perishable...

 

Hope I'm more helpful this time. And good luck in your Chinese cooking adventure! ?

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On 5/28/2022 at 10:30 AM, Publius said:

And good luck in your Chinese cooking adventure! ?

 

This is a great and helpful post! You're obviously a much more sophisticated cook than I am. One of my retirement projects is to take my cooking closer-ish to a gourmet level, because my husband and I love Chinese food so much. I have minimal talent for cooking, but I can still manage to make some really great dishes, like Lion's Head Noodle soup. The best recipes are very forgiving of not-so-talented cooks.

 

So far, I make a few dishes that are far better than the average Chinese restaurant in the U. S. Also, some great dishes like Lion's Head soup are all over Asia, but I've never seen them on a menu in Chinese restaurant in the U. S. So, there are certain great dishes that we can only eat if I make it myself.

 

Kosher salt is just table salt without the iodine. A New York Times best selling book called Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat convinced me to switch to Kosher salt and leave out the very slight iodine flavor. This book is truly amazing. Just using the right amount of salt can elevate anyone's exact same recipes. I was stunned that something so simple could be so helpful. I think everyone should check this book out.

 

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On 5/28/2022 at 10:30 AM, Publius said:

香醋/米醋 (I'm not a big fan of 糖醋XX, so its use is quite limited, but there is no substitute, and it simply feels wrong to eat any kind of jiaozi without vinegar)

 

Yes, Chinese people love, love, love their dumplings! The dipping sauce is important, and there are so very many choices of them too. I totally agree that vinegar is a key ingredient. There can be a blur of choices of vinegar in any grocery store, Asian or non-Asian. If one likes balsamic vinegar then one will probably like Chinkiang vinegar, which is incredibly popular. I've only seen Chinkiang vinegar in Asian grocery stores.

 

I don't happen to care for balsamic or Chinkiang vinegar. So, I go with plain rice vinegar, like Kikkoman's, which can be bought in both Asian and non-Asian grocery stores near me. It's perfect for me as part of a dipping sauce. (Before plain rice vinegar, which I oddly only recently discovered for a dipping sauce, I favored garlic vinegar or any regular Western vinegar.)

 

Recently, I learned about using Tamari soy sauce instead of regular light soy sauce in a dipping sauce. I learned about it in Carolyn Phillips' fantastic, award-winning book All Under Heaven. (She also has a great website with tons of awesome recipes: carolynjphillips.blogspot.com.) Tamari soy sauce is Japanese, and, to me, it is indeed a step up in a dipping sauce. I buy it in my non-Asian grocery store. I haven't seen it in the Asian grocery stores I shop at for Chinese stuff. Again, I go for the lower sodium version of any soy sauce.

 

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So many good vinegars in China! Glutinous rice 糯米 is the mother of many of them. Jiangsu 江苏 produces some of the best. Also Shanxi 陕西。

 

Once, while living in Kunming, I wanted to make a western recipe that called for apple cider vinegar. It's common in the US, but I couldn't find it on the shelves of stores I used there in Kunming. When I asked shopkeepers about it, they looked at me like I was nuts. 

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On 5/29/2022 at 8:33 PM, abcdefg said:

So many good vinegars in China!

Can you recommend any by name? I'd be interested in trying some different ones. My current one is this:

WechatIMG130.jpeg

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@suMMit-- It pains me to say this, but it has been over 2 years since I've bought a bottle of Chinese vinegar. If I were still in Kunming, I would simply go to my cupboard and take a snapshot of my favorite brands for you. Now, I can't really remember the important details, beyond favoring a couple that were from Shanxi 陕西 marked 老陈醋。

 

I seldom make Chinese food any more (living in Texas) and when I do, I use some random vinegar I picked up at the Chinese market on my last trip to Dallas or Austin, where there are decent size Chinatowns. I have no business any more commenting on Chinese cooking or trying to answer questions. 

 

Later today, I'll try to search back through old posts in this forum where I talk about my favorite brands of ingredients. Pretty sure I took some photos at the time. Some might still be useful. 

--------------------------- 

Bingo. That was easier than I thought. Here's my favorite, a 6-year old number that meets the above criteria (from Shanxi 陕西 and marked 老陈。)

 

https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/56777-crazy-for-pickles-泡黄瓜/#comment-439602 

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