Chinese cuisine is said to have originated as far back as the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC), so it is no surprise that the country has some of the most diverse and complex cooking traditions in the world. The complexity of the techniques and layering of ingredients can make Chinese cooking daunting for the average home cook, who hasn’t grown up being schooled in flavour and technique.
Having the right ingredients on hand in the pantry can make cooking your own Chinese dishes feel more familiar and accessible. So many Chinese staples are irreplaceable in mastering an authentic flavour. Here’s a rundown of the top ten to have ready to go on the shelf or in the fridge, making it easy to cook your way through your favourites from your local Chinese takeaway menu.
Chinese cuisine is said to have originated as far back as the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC), so it is no surprise that the country has some of the most diverse and complex cooking traditions in the world.
Soy sauce – light and dark
Most soy sauces can be categorised as either light or dark. Light soy is the standard, used in everything from stir-fries and dipping sauces to marinades and pickles. Dark soy is mixed with molasses and aged for longer than light, so it has a sweeter, more intense flavour and a rich caramel colour. Dark soy is like an umami flavour bomb and great in marinades and stocks. It’s perfect for slow-cooked dishes like in this red braised pork recipe, a masterstock, or in hot oil noodles (yo po mian), which uses both light and dark soy sauces.
This fragrant oil gives many Chinese dishes their distinctive aroma. The oil adds a rich, nutty flavour to recipes as diverse as Cantonese fried noodles, crispy eggplant with spiced red vinegar, pork and chilli dumplings and chicken with black bean sauce. You can give a little kick to a simple salad dressing by adding a few drops of sesame oil, and Hainanese chicken rice simply wouldn’t be the same without it.
Sugar – brown and white
If you can get your hands on some yellow rock sugar (also known as golden crystal rock sugar, most Asian grocers will stock it), you’ll add an authentic depth of flavour and subtle sheen to dishes. Otherwise, palm, brown or white sugar will add the necessary sweet to balance other salty, bitter or sour Chinese flavours. Brown sugar, including palm sugar, is particularly useful for achieving caramelisation on dishes like sticky ribs and braised pork belly. White sugar, like caster sugar, is essential for pickling and use in lighter fish dishes, like this salt and pepper crab.
Shaoxing (Chinese cooking wine)
Dry sherry can be substituted for Shaoxing, but it’s worth seeking out the real thing if you can get a good quality bottle (Pagoda is the brand most recommended and available in many Asian food stores and some supermarkets). Use it in marinades, sauces and stir-fries to bring a sweet layer of depth to your cooking. Shaoxing stars in this recipe for deep-fried chicken and kung pao chicken.
Vinegar – white, rice wine, malt
A wide variety of vinegars are used across Chinese cooking – vinegar provides the sour acidic element to many dishes. Try a rice vinegar in your bao dough or homemade hoisin, or black vinegar in a shredded chicken noodle salad or plate of potstickers.
All five Chinese flavours – sour, bitter, sweet, spicy and salty – are found in five-spice. You can certainly make your own – this one balances cinnamon, star anise, fennel seeds, cloves, and Sichuan peppercorns – or buy a quality version from an Asian food store. Five-spice turns up in countless dishes from every corner of China. Use it in salt and pepper dishes, like this tofu version or a classic salt and pepper squid.
Oyster sauce brings a satisfying umami flavour to dishes and is especially used in stir-fries. Steamed vegetables and rice dishes come to life with a dollop of oyster sauce added while cooking. Try it to flavour spicy pork noodles, honey-soy chicken drumsticks or add punch to wok-tossed snake beans. It’s also an essential ingredient when making XO sauce.
Hoisin is a complex sauce with a distinctive flavour: richly savoury with a touch of spicy sweetness. It was traditionally used in Cantonese seafood cooking – the word hoisin is derived from the word for seafood – but today it is used in a wide variety of dishes from the Cantonese region. It’s not difficult to make your own hoisin to use in dishes like roasted pork and san choy bow.
Douban jiang (fermented bean paste)
Douban jiang is widely used in various Chinese cuisines, though it is most well-known in Sichuan cuisine. The complex flavour is similar to a very spicy soy sauce, with clear notes of fermentation. The dark, reddish-brown paste is savoury, spicy and salty all at once. It’s an essential ingredient in dishes like Sichuan twice-cooked pork, mapo tofu, and spicy Sichuan pepper and chilli poached fish.
Though rarely found in food from other regions, star anise is a common spice in Chinese and other Asian cuisines. It’s one of the five spices in a five-spice mix (see above), but is often used alone in dishes like tea-smoked duck with tamarind and plum sauce and crispy skin chicken with masterstock. The pretty pods have a strong aniseed flavour and should be used carefully this aromatic seasoning can quickly overpower a dish.
Other Chinese pantry ingredients to stock
The above staples will make cooking Chinese cuisine feel like second nature, but these inclusions will round things out nicely: dried chilli, dried mushrooms (shiitake), cassia bark, Sichuan peppercorns, dried scallops or prawns, fermented black beans, water chestnuts, and black sesame seeds.
This is a classic Hong Kong breakfast dish, however, you can have it for lunch and dinner too. It is usually accompanied with a smooth, rice congee.
This is a modern take on the classic yum cha snack - char siu bao or barbecue pork steamed bun. This version has all the caramel, five-spice and soy sauce flavours of traditional char sui but it's served in an open steamed bun.
Send a sweet message straight from the heart in one of these special fortune cookies.
Chicken in black bean sauce is a perennial favourite at Chinese restaurants around the world. This recipe is inspired by the Shunde region, in Guangdong province.