Essential Staples for Quick & Easy Chinese Meals
By Breana Lai, M.P.H., R.D., January 27, 2016 - 12:54am
My first cooking class was with my mom at Lan’s Chinese Cooking School in Durham, North Carolina, when I was 8 years old. My mom and I were excited to learn how to make authentic Chinese food because my Hong Kong-born dad and I preferred it to all other foods. I was the youngest student to ever enroll and I had to stand on a stepstool to be tall enough to mix the ingredients in the wok. It was here I first kindled my passion for cooking. I also learned that Chinese cooking isn’t difficult as long as you have the right ingredients.
Even though I am now a professionally trained cook, to this day my friends and family request I make the Chinese food I learned to make as a kid. With just a few basic pantry staples, you too can make Chinese dishes that are quick, healthy and crowd-pleasing.
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10 Chinese Pantry Staples:
Most of these items can be found in the international or Asian section of your grocery store. While this may seem like a lot of ingredients, all are either pantry-stable or will last in the refrigerator for months to years. None of the ingredients are very expensive and their uses are broad. From stir-fries to salad dressings to marinades, I’m always finding new ways to use these ingredients. Often, I even use them in place of common American ingredients, such as rice vinegar for white-wine vinegar.
1) Soy Sauce: There are actually two different types of soy sauce, light and dark, and both are essential. Light soy sauce is what is meant when a recipe calls for soy sauce—not to be confused with “lite,” which is low-sodium. Dark soy sauce is aged longer and is typically mixed with molasses or caramel and cornstarch; it’s thicker, sweeter and less salty than light soy sauce. For most recipes, use light soy sauce; however, for a deep-dark color and slightly sweeter flavor, try dark soy sauce.
2) Oyster Sauce: Oyster sauce is made from oyster extract, soy sauce and seasonings. It is a thick, rich and salty sauce—especially delicious with Chinese vegetables, such as bok choy, choy sum or kai-lan (also known as Chinese broccoli). For a super-easy and traditional vegetable side, stir-fry a mix of Chinese vegetables and top with oyster sauce.
3) Rice Wine: There are many types of Chinese rice wine, but the best for cooking is the nutty Shao Hsing (or Shaoxing) because it is a higher-quality rice wine. Shao Hsing should be of good enough quality for you to drink. Rice wine adds acidity and flavor to marinades and sauces just as red wine adds a specific flavor to Italian cooking. If you don’t have access to Shao Hsing, dry sherry is a good substitute.
4) Rice Vinegar: There are three different types of Chinese rice vinegar: white, black and red, depending on the type of rice used to make it. I keep both white and black on hand, but if a recipe calls for rice vinegar, it means white rice vinegar. Look for unseasoned (if the bottle doesn’t say seasoned, it’s unseasoned) rice vinegar. Seasoned rice vinegar (usually seasoned with sake, sugar and salt) is Japanese and used for flavoring rice and making salad dressings.
5) Sesame Oil: Asian sesame oil is made from toasted or roasted sesame seeds and can be purchased as regular or hot. It has a relatively high smoke point, meaning it can be used for frying, but because it is so aromatic—a little bit goes a long way—it is typically used as a flavoring rather than for cooking purposes. Try drizzling just a little onto noodles or rice—or onto the Turkey Ma Po Tofu pictured above.
6) Hoisin Sauce: Hoisin sauce is made from fermented soybeans, sugar, garlic and red chiles; it’s the dominant flavoring of Chinese BBQ pork and many Chinese noodle dishes like lo mein. That’s probably because it’s so versatile! Hoisin sauce can be used as part of a marinade, stir-fry sauce, meat glaze or as an alternative dipping sauce for dumplings and spring rolls.
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7) Dried Mushrooms: Also known as Chinese black mushrooms, these mushrooms are bolder in flavor than fresh mushrooms and last in the pantry for at least a year. They are great chopped in stir-fries, fried rice, soups and noodle dishes or served whole along with vegetables. To rehydrate, place in a bowl and pour boiling water to cover. Once they are plump (20-30 minutes), discard the woody stems and use per your recipe.
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8) Five-Spice Powder: You might think that the same five spices are used, but they actually vary based on producer. Five-spice powder is usually a combination of cinnamon, aniseed or star anise, fennel seed, Szechuan peppercorns and cloves, and occasionally salt and white pepper. While you can easily buy five-spice powder, I recommend making your own in small batches because of the fresh flavor. Here’s my favorite combination: 1 1/2 teaspoons ground fennel seeds, 1 teaspoon ground star anise, 3/4 teaspoon ground Szechuan pepper, 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves, 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper. Try it on Five-Spice Tilapia, Roasted Turnips & Butternut Squash with Five-Spice Glaze or Clementine & Five-Spice Chicken.
9) Frozen Vegetables: Keeping frozen vegetables on hand, such as peas, carrots, corn and green beans, makes it easy to throw together an easy stir-fry or fried rice for a quick weeknight dinner.
10) Rice & Dried Noodles: A Chinese meal always contains either rice or noodles. Traditionally, very little meat and fish were served and rice and noodles were meant to “fill you up.” Although I grew up eating sticky white rice, my family has since transitioned to short-grain brown rice, which works just as well in Chinese recipes and provides more good-for-you fiber. Another good reason to stock up on rice: it is considered bad luck to run out of rice because it means your family will not be prosperous. If you aren’t a fan of rice, try Chinese noodles. In an Asian grocery store, dried noodles take up an entire aisle! There are endless types: rice, egg, wheat, soy, soba, instant and more. Find the type you like and keep them on hand for quick weeknight meals, such as Pork & Snap Pea Lo Mein.
What are your most essential cooking staples? Tell us what you think below.