the chinese pantry
Ingredients used in Chinese cooking can be found in Asian markets, the international aisles of supermarkets, and increasingly online (see Resources, page 179). Below is a list of common items used in the recipes in this book.
Bamboo shoots - The tender and edible stems of the bamboo plant are called bamboo shoots. While fresh bamboo shoots are hard to find, canned bamboo shoots are available year-round in most supermarkets. You can buy them as slices or thin strips. Once the cans are open, the shoots can be stored in a water-filled container in the fridge for up to two weeks; just be sure to change the water every other day.
bean sprouts - Short for “mung bean sprouts,” bean sprouts are about three inches long with small yellow heads and are sold fresh at both Chinese and Western markets. They shouldn’t be confused with soybean sprouts, which are greenish and more curled. When buying mung bean sprouts, select the sprouts with crisp white bodies, without any browning. The Chinese usually pluck off the head (bean) and tail (root) of the sprouts for aesthetic and textural purposes, though both the head and tail are still perfectly edible. Use the sprouts on the day of purchase or store them in your fridge’s produce crisper bin in a plastic bag for up to three days.
bok choy - This member of the cabbage family is a versatile vegetable that can be used in a number of ways, from stir-frying to steaming to soups. Regular bok choy, which are almost a foot long, are also called bok choy sum, or “heart” of the bok choy. The recipes in this book, however, call for either regular small baby bok choy, about 3 inches long, with bright white stems and dark green leaves, or the slightly larger variety of baby bok choy called Shanghai bok choy, about 4 inches long, which have pale yellow stems and lighter green leaves. When shopping, look for crisp stalks and leaves that aren’t wilting.
chili peppers - In Chinese cuisine, fresh bird’s eye chilies, also called Thai chilies, are often chopped and made into chili sauce. Dried chilies, on the other hand, are stir-fried into dishes such as Kung Pao Chicken (page 65) and Dry-Fried Green Beans (page 128) to add a smoky, spicy flavor. You can keep them whole or, for a much spicier dish, split the chilies in half lengthwise to release the seeds, which contain most of the heat.
chinese broccoli - Called gai lan in Cantonese, Chinese broccoli is sold in large bunches year-round in Chinese markets. Instead of the big florets that Western broccoli has, Chinese broccoli has thick glossy leaves. It’s also slightly more bitter in its raw state than its Western counterpart. Select the bunch with dark green, crisp leaves and small closed white buds that are somewhat hidden within the leaves. Yellowing leaves and open flowers indicate the broccoli isn’t very fresh.
chinese eggplant - Unlike Western eggplant, Chinese eggplant is long and slender in appearance and less bitter in taste. Look for eggplants with smooth exteriors, a firm texture, and little to no bruising in the lavender skin.
cilantro - Also known as fresh coriander, cilantro is frequently used in Chinese cuisine to both heighten other flavors and cut the richness of a dish, for example, for Taiwanese-Style Pork Belly Buns (page 46). It is also used extensively to cook with and to garnish seafood.
ginger - One of the key ingredients in almost all Chinese dishes, ginger is part of the flavor trifecta of Chinese seasonings, along with garlic and scallions. In stir-frying, the three are often cooked first before the other ingredients, forming a strong flavor base. Ginger’s clean sharpness makes both seafood and meat taste fresher, and also cuts the richness of fatty dishes. Look for ginger that is heavy and hard; lightness in weight and wrinkled skin indicate that it’s not very fresh. Ginger should always be peeled before use (see The Flavor Trifecta: Ginger, Garlic, and Scallions, page 16).
napa cabbage - This Asian cabbage variety is more oblong than green cabbage, with white or yellow crinkly leaves. Napa cabbage is commonly used in stir-frying, braising, or as a dumpling filling because of its delicate flavor. It can be stored in the crisper bin of the refrigerator for up to a week.
shiitake mushrooms - The most commonly used mushrooms in Chinese cooking are sold both fresh and dried. Fresh shiitakes are widely available in Western markets. When preparing fresh shiitake mushrooms, be sure to wipe the caps clean with a damp towel and remove the stems. Dried shiitakes are most easily found in Asian markets. They have an earthy aroma and contribute an umami flavor that is prized in Chinese cooking. The best dried shiitakes have thick caps with white fissures on top. Both types of shiitakes are extremely versatile; they can be stir-fried, steamed, grilled, braised, or added to soups.
scallions - Also called green onions, scallions add a delicious onion flavor to dishes ranging from stir-fries to dumplings to scallion pancakes. Often, a recipe will specify white parts only, green parts only, or both white and green parts. The general rule is that white parts, which have a stronger flavor, are used at the beginning of cooking, whereas the milder green parts are used toward the end of cooking or as a garnish. The traditional way to slice scallions is at an angle to expose more of the flavorful insides. See The Flavor Trifecta on page 16
water chestnuts - Lightly sweet in flavor, water chestnuts add a refreshing crispness to many Chinese dishes. Few Asian markets have them fresh, so it’s easiest to buy them canned in supermarkets. Just drain and discard the canning liquid and chop or slice the water chestnuts before use.
tofu - Sometimes called bean curd, tofu is formed by pressing soy milk solids into blocks. It’s sold in a few different varieties. The best types of tofu to use for stir-frying and braising are firm or extra firm. Soft tofu is good for simmering in soups or adding at the end in cooking Mapo Tofu (page 123). Once a sealed package of tofu is opened, use the tofu within two to three days.
water spinach - With stalks about 1½ feet long and narrow pointed leaves, water spinach is sold in Asian markets in very large bunches. The stalks are most commonly stir-fried, with a minimal amount of seasonings. (If water spinach is unavailable, you can substitute watercress or regular spinach.) While the bunch will look enormous, it actually cooks down a lot in the wok. To use, trim the thicker bottom half of the stems, then cut the remaining top half of the stems and the leaves into 3-inch lengths.
sauces, wines, vinegars, and other condiments.
bean sauce - This staple of Sichuan and Hunan cooking, also known as yellow bean paste, is made from fermented soybeans. An opened jar with a tight-fitting lid will keep indefinitely in the back of the fridge.
chili sauce and chili garlic sauce - Chinese chili sauces make a wonderful spicy addition to stir-fries. In recipes that call for chili sauce, you can also substitute chili garlic sauces that don’t have a very pronounced garlic flavor, such as the chili garlic sauce from Huy Fong Foods. Louisiana hot sauce is also a great substitute for Asian chili sauces. If you would like to try making your own chili sauce, see Basic Chili Sauce (page 174).
chili bean sauce - This spicy bean sauce is simply bean sauce spiked with chili oil or chili paste. Some brands include other flavorings, such as garlic, sesame oil, sugar, rice wine, and salt. As a substitute you can mix equal parts bean sauce and chili sauce.
chili oil - This bright reddish-orange oil is made by flavoring vegetable oil with dried red chili flakes. You can buy it in most supermarkets, or make your own (see Homemade Chili Oil, page 175).
chinese rice wine - Recipes that call for Chinese rice wine often list the ingredient as yellow rice wine or Shaoxing rice wine. Shaoxing is the name of China’s most well-known rice wine, a bargain at three or four dollars a bottle and widely available in Asian markets. Look for the red-labeled Pagoda brand bottles; the yellow-labeled bottles are sweetened. Avoid other kinds of “Shaoxing cooking wine” from mainland China; they’re poor-quality imitators and often salted. If you can’t find Pagoda brand Shaoxing, dry sherry is a great substitute. Mirin, a Japanese rice wine, is not a recommended substitute in Chinese cooking because of its sweetness.
cooking oils - The best types of oil to use for stir-frying or deep-frying are peanut oil, vegetable oil, and canola oil because of their high smoke points. Olive oil, which has a low smoke point, is okay for cooking at medium temperatures, but it should never be used for deep-frying or stir- frying at high temperatures.
fish sauce - Although fish sauce is best known for being a Southeast Asian condiment, it is actually used a fair amount in Cantonese cooking. It’s made by fermenting fish, usually anchovies, and is extremely pungent. Use sparingly; even a few drops will provide plenty of flavor. Well- refrigerated bottles will keep for at least a year.
hoisin sauce - This versatile sweetened soybean paste is mixed with flavorings such as garlic and vinegar. You can use it as a marinade for roast pork and spareribs, as a sauce ingredient for moo shu pork and other stir-fries, or as a dip for roast duck.
oyster sauce - A staple of Cantonese cooking, oyster sauce has been used in the United States since the early days of chow mein and chop suey. This dark, viscuous sauce is made from oysters (or oyster extract), water, and salt. (Vegetarian oyster sauces are flavored with mushrooms.) Most brands nowadays also have cornstarch and caramel coloring. A recommended brand is Lee Kum Kee, which has been producing oyster sauce since the late 1800s.
plum sauce - This popular sweet-and-sour condiment is made from plums, vinegar, sugar, and a tiny bit of chili. It’s a great dip for appetizers such as spareribs, egg rolls, and fried wontons. It’s also a popular condiment for roast duck. Duck sauce is a version of plum sauce created with other fruits, such as apples and apricots, though it often contains a high percentage of additives.
sesame oil - Whether used as a sauce ingredient or drizzled on after cooking, sesame oil adds a lovely nutty aroma to Chinese dishes. For the recipes in this book, use Chinese or Japanese sesame oil, which is toasted and dark in color, instead of Middle Eastern light-colored sesame oil from raw sesame seeds. Buy sesame oil that is sold in glass bottles, because plastic makes oil become rancid more quickly.
soy sauce and dark soy sauce - Both types of soy sauce are dark, salty, and earthy, used for seasoning food while cooking or at the table. Most of the recipes in this book call for regular soy sauce. Dark soy sauce, aged longer with molasses added at the end of processing, is thicker, slightly sweeter, and a tad less salty; it adds a great deep flavor and natural deep red coloring to dishes such as Chinese Barbecued Pork (page 97) and Classic Barbecued Spareribs (page 33). Whichever brand you choose, make sure soybeans is one of the main ingredients; many brands use hydrolyzed vegetable protein to imitate a soy flavor. Low-sodium soy sauce is a good substitute if it is made with soybeans and not artificial ingredients.
chinese black vinegar - Slightly smoky with a pleasant sweet aroma, this aged dark vinegar is reminiscent of good balsamic vinegar, which can be used as a substitute. The best black vinegar to look for is Gold Plum brand Chinkiang Vinegar, available in almost all Chinese markets.
chinese white rice vinegar - This clear rice vinegar adds a sharp, acidic flavor to Chinese dishes. In a pinch, cider vinegar is a decent substitute. Don’t use distilled malt vinegar as a substitute, as the flavor is much too sharp.
crushed red pepper flakes - Packaged red pepper flakes found in supermarkets are dried chilies that have been coarsely pounded with their seeds. They’re quite powerful, so taste the dishes first with the amount suggested in the recipes before adding more.
cumin - Best known for its pervasiveness in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking, cumin is also frequently used in China in dishes that have been influenced by the Islamic Chinese. You can buy cumin preground or as whole seeds. While preground cumin is convenient, buying whole seeds, then toasting and grinding them before use, will make a dish much more fragrant.
five-spice powder - Chinese five-spice powder is a fragrant ground blend of star anise, cinnamon, cloves, Sichuan pepper, and fennel. Depending on the brand, sometimes ground ginger is also added. Chinese five-spice powder is often sold in spice bottles at Western supermarkets. If you buy larger bags at a Chinese market, transfer the contents to an airtight jar. It’s best stored in a cool, dry pantry.
sichuan pepper/sichuan peppercorns - All the recipes in this book that call for Sichuan pepper refer to the ground form of Sichuan peppercorns. Sichuan peppercorns may look like the red version of black or white peppercorns, but they are actually tiny berries. They are best known for their numbing spiciness, but they also have wonderful floral characteristics. You can find whole Sichuan peppercorns in Chinese markets; they should be dry-roasted on a skillet, then ground before use. The gourmet brand Frontier Natural Products sells very fresh-tasting Sichuan peppercorns in a grinder; the product is available at Whole Foods and other markets. You can also buy Sichuan peppercorns online at www.penzeys.com (see Resources, page 179). In a pinch, crushed red pepper flakes or cayenne pepper can be substituted, but neither really has the same floral notes and complexity that Sichuan pepper does.
star Anise - The Chinese often use whole star anise to flavor cooking liquids for meat and poultry. It has a mild licorice flavor that pairs well with cinnamon, which it is often used alongside. Star anise is also one of the spices in Chinese five-spice powder.
noodles and other dried products
bean thread noodles - Also called thin glass noodles, these translucent threadlike noodles are made from mung beans and sold dry. They look a lot like the whiter rice vermicelli noodles, but don’t confuse the two. Bean thread noodles are used more often in braises, soups, and salads rather than stir-frying.
cornstarch - In Chinese cooking cornstarch has three main roles. It’s often added to marinades, not to tenderize, but rather to form a protective seal around the meat and lock in flavor and moisture for stir-frying. Chinese cooks also use cornstarch to coat meat for deep-frying to get a light crunchy exterior. And it works wonders as a sauce thickener, giving body to a thin sauce in just seconds.
dried shrimp - Dried shrimp add a briny earthiness to anything from soup broth to stir-fried vegetables. Choose the kind that are larger and reddish orange, and avoid the tinier white opaque shrimp with visible black eyes, which can be pretty bland.
egg noodles - Chinese egg noodles, made with wheat flour and eggs, are great for stir-frying or simply mixing with a cooked sauce. Look for noodles that are pale yellow in color rather than those with a bright yellow hue, which indicates the use of food coloring.
fermented black beans - Also called Chinese dried black beans, fermented black beans are usually sold in plastic packages. Transfer the contents to an airtight storage container immediately after opening and store them in the back of the fridge, where they will keep indefinitely. Right before using, just rinse the beans under cold water to rehydrate them and remove excess grit.
Lily buds - Sometimes called golden needles because of their yellowish color and thin shape, lily buds are often used in vegetarian dishes such as Buddha’s Delight (page 126). They should be soaked before use and the strands separated.
rice vermicelli noodles - Made with rice flour, rice vermicelli noodles are white and about the diameter of angel hair pasta. Sometimes called rice stick noodles, they can be used for stir-fries as well as soups.
sesame seeds (white or black) - These tiny seeds are often used in Chinese cooking to add a nutty, sweet aroma to the finished dish. White sesame seeds are raw and can be used as is, but your dish will taste even better if the seeds are toasted briefly in a dry pan beforehand. Black sesame seeds are preroasted and often used in desserts, such as Black Sesame Ice Cream (page 168).
wheat noodles - Made with wheat flour and water, wheat noodles are traditionally used in northern China and other places where wheat is abundant. They’re wonderful in tossed noodle dishes like Dan Dan Noodles (page 137) or noodle soups like Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup (page 143), but are often too starchy for stir-frying. For stir-frying, see Egg noodles (page 13).
the flavor trifecta: ginger, garlic, and scallions
Many recipes in this book will call for ginger, garlic, and scallions. This trifecta of Chinese flavorings forms the base of much of Chinese cooking. Here is how to prepare these aromatic ingredients as called for in the recipes.
Copyright © 2012 by Diana Kuan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.