Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Chinese Pantry Part I: What You Need to Cook Your Food

Before we get into the recipes, let’s do an introduction to the Chinese pantry. What is a well stocked Chinese pantry? At first, all the ingredients sound so foreign and unusual so let's break it up into two parts: "what you need to cook your food" (flavorings, condiments, and sauces) and "what to cook". The challenging part is all the stuff under the what to cook category, since many of those ingredients (tree ear anyone?) are pretty darn weird. We'll start with something a little more manageable, what you need to cook Chinese food.

If I asked you to pick one vinegar or one wine to cook with, what would you pick? For my parents, that would be an easy question. My parents didn't keep cider, red wine, white wine, or balsamic vinegars in their pantry, only Zhejiang black vinegar. Nor did they didn't keep any Merlot, Chardonnay, sherry, or Marsala because all they used was Shao Hsing rice wine. There was no need for a spice rack if you only have star anise. My parents kept a fairly minimal sauce/condiment cupboard but that's because you just need the basic ingredients to make delicious Chinese food. Of course, as you expand your ingredients, you'll expand your culinary repertoire and vary the taste of your dishes.

Some of these items are absolute necessary like soy sauce and rice wine for authentic Chinese cooking. Although many sources say you can substitute sherry for the rice wine, I do not recommend it. Rice wine and soy sauce make up the pillars of my Chinese cooking so I think Shao Hsing rice wine is essential. However, with ingredients that may be harder to find or ones that you may not use as frequently, it's okay to make substitutions like using a different vinegar for black vinegar or granulated sugar for rock sugar, but your dishes won't be truly authentic. Not many spices or aromatics are used in Chinese cooking but the few that are used like ginger, green onion, star anise, and white pepper, are used very often and should be kept in your pantry. Some essential ingredients differ between regions since there's huge regional variation in Chinese cuisine. For example, Sichuan peppercorns are used heavily in Sichuan cuisine but almost never in Cantonese cuisine.

So without much further ado, here's a peek into my pantry.

The Sauce Cupboard
Chinese Pantry

The sauce cupboard, usually the cupboard next to the stove, is the place where you keep the ingredients you use most so it's within arms reach whenever you need it. These are the ingredients that I keep in my sauce cupboard since they are the ingredients that I use most often and do not require refrigeration.

Soy Sauce
Soy sauce is a good example of something I have strong opinions about. Soy sauce should always be naturally brewed and never artificially flavored. The only ingredients should be soy beans, wheat, and salt; preservatives are acceptable but artificial flavor and color (like weird vegetable protein, corn syrup, and caramel) should never be in there. There are two types of soy sauce- light and dark. Light soy sauce is not only lighter in color, but it's also lighter in soy flavor. It's thinner and saltier than its dark counter part. It's used for all purpose cooking, marinating, and dipping. My preferred brand is Pearl River Bridge Superior Light because this is the brand my parents always bought and now this is the only brand I use (oh and lots of Chinese cookbooks recommend this brand too). I have used Kikkoman in the past but found it way too salty and the flavor too one-dimensional. When Cook's Illustrated held their soy sauce taste test, some testers described Pearl River Bridge as beefy, salty, and smoky while others found it lacking depth and complexity. Usually I go with whatever Cook's Illustrated recommends but not for soy sauce. This time, I completely disregarded their recommendations. In fact, I was irritated that my favorite soy sauce didn't place in the top (how can random taste testers know more about soy sauce than my parents right?). Even though the bottle says to refrigerate after opening, I’ve never refrigerated soy sauce.

Dark Soy Sauce
Dark soy is thicker, a little less salty, a little sweeter, and has a more robust soy flavor and aroma. Because of the stronger flavor, I use this very sparingly, rarely for all purpose cooking (occasionally a little bit in a meaty stir fry) and never for dipping. It's primarily used for braises like red cooking or tea eggs. I'm not as adamant about dark soy as I am with light soy but I would still stick with Pearl River Bridge.

Shao Hsing/Xing Rice Wine
This is China's most famous rice wine, named after the city that produces it. There's the good stuff that's made for drinking and the cooking variety that's commonly available at the Asian grocery store. This is one case when you can actually cook with the "cooking" wine (though I bet food will taste even better if you cook with the high quality drinking stuff). It's used for general all purpose cooking like marinating meats before stir frying, braising, and adding to fish before steaming to help get rid of any fishy odor. It is also the main ingredient for drunken dishes, where meats are soaked in a mixture of wine and soy sauce.

Rice Vinegar
This is a relative newcomer to my pantry. I purchased this after I learned how to make liang ban (Chinese salads) from Steven's mom. Clear rice vinegar is used when you don't want the black vinegar to darken your vegetables. It can also be mixed with soy sauce for a dipping sauce for potstickers. Make sure to get pure rice vinegar and not sushi rice vinegar which has added salt and sugar.

Zhejiang/Chinkiang Black Rice Vinegar
The best black vinegar comes from the Zhejiang/Chinkiang area. It is used in hot and sour soup, tang cu (sweet and sour) dishes, and used for dipping Shanghai's famous xiao long bao (little soup buns).

(Toasted) Sesame Oil
Ever since I was little, I’ve loved drizzling this on my food. Just smell this stuff! It smells so good! It's used for finishing dishes, mixing into noodles, drizzling on soups, adding to dumpling/wonton fillings, adding to Chinese salad. Never use this to cook because it scorches too easily and will taste bitter and burnt. Kadoya is the brand I grew up and like my Pearl River soy sauce, I never buy anything else. The color of the oil should be a rich brown, not a pale yellow like the sesame oil pressed from untoasted seeds. Store it away from light and heat. I keep mine in the sauce cupboard and have not had any problems.

Rock Sugar
For the most authentic braises like red cooking, use this type of sugar. For all purpose cooking and marinating meat I use granulated sugar (chicken and seafood) and sometimes brown sugar (beef sometimes pork). It comes in pretty big chunks so you'll need to use a hammer or meat mallet to break it up into smaller usable pieces.

Cornstarch (not pictured)
Another essential ingredient is cornstarch/corn flour. It's used to thicken sauces but don't abuse it like many bad Chinese take out places or you'll end up with booger-like sauces. It is also added to meats before stir frying to protect them from drying out in the wok.

Peanut Oil (not pictured)
For truly authentic Chinese dishes, you need to use peanut oil. This oil is excellent for deep frying and stir frying because it has a high smoke point so it can stand up to the heat of the wok. But peanut oil can be expensive and since I don't deep fry at home, I just use vegetable oil for my stir fries.

The Fridge
Chinese Pantry

Oyster Sauce
Oyster sauce is a relatively newcomer to Chinese cuisine (created in 1888 rather than thousands of years ago). Originating in the province of Guangdong, it's very popular in Cantonese cuisine. It was created by Lee Kam Sheung and his company Lee Kum Kee still makes oyster sauce and a variety of other sauces to this day. Oyster sauce can be used in stir fries to add the xian (umami) flavor to your dishes. It is a popular sauce for cooking jie lan/gai lan (Chinese broccoli). I like to use it for fried rice and fried noodles.

Hoisin Sauce (Hai Xian Jiang)
Hoisin sauce is mainly used as a dipping sauce, not cooking. It is traditionally served with Peking duck. It can also be used in the marinade for cha shao rou (Chinese BBQ pork).

Chili peanut sauce/oil (jar on the left)
My favorite brand for spicy products is Lao Gan Ma (both the chili peanut oil and soybean oil are this brand). This is good for mixing into your food, whether it's when you're cooking and you don't have chili pepprs or at the table if you want something a little spicy. It's also good mixed into dipping sauces for potstickers. Steven likes to mix this into his fried noodles.

Chili bean paste (picture needs updating)
This is made from fermented broad beans or soy beans, chilies, and oil so it's great for making mapo tofu.

The Aromatics
Chinese Pantry

There aren't very many spices used in Chinese cuisine but there are a few commonly used aromatics and spices.

White pepper
White pepper is used in stir fries, dumpling fillings, sprinkled on soups.

Ginger is commonly used in stir fries, braises, dumpling fillings, soups, almost everything. Most of the time, ginger is cut into slices, which can be added to hot oil to flavor the oil before stir fry, or added to soups as it simmer. It can be cut into strips or slices to put in a fish cavity as it steams to help get rid of any fishy odor along with the rice wine. Or it can be minced and added to dumpling fillings.

Green Onion
Green onions are indispensable in Chinese cooking. They are added to stir fries, steamed dishes, braises, soups, savory pastries, again almost everything. When it’s added to hot oil, the heat blooms and mellows the flavor of the green onion and turns it into something amazingly fragrant. This oil can be used for stir fries or as a finishing oil and poured onto dishes like steamed fish.

Star Anise
This spice is primarily used for braises and simmering meats like red cooking or tea eggs.

Sichuan/Szechuan Peppercorns
This is actually a berry, not a true peppercorn. It is used heavily in the region's cuisine to impart a ma la, a numbing spicy sensation to dishes like mapo tofu or kung pao shrimp.

More spices and aromatics (not pictured)
Cilantro also called Chinese Parsley or Coriander
This is a popular garnish on noodle soups. However, Steven can't stand it (he's one of those people with that weird genetic trait thing makes cilantro taste soapy) so I rarely have it in the fridge.

Garlic is sometimes added when stir frying vegetables. It can also be used to flavor oil, like ginger, by cooking slices of garlic briefly in hot oil until the pieces are golden. Sometimes the fried garlic pieces are used as a topping on dishes like crab or deep fried foods.

Five spice
Is a spice blend of star anise, cassia (Chinese cinnamon), fennel, clove, sichuan pepper. It is not used very often and not commonly found in the home kitchen. It can be used to flavor roast ducks and Chinese BBQ pork.

The bark of cassia or Chinese cinnamon is sometimes added to braises.

Stay Tuned:
The Chinese Pantry Part 2: What to cook


Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Fabulous! I have many of the same ingredients (some of the same brands, but we all have our favorites) in my own pantry. This is going to be a great series. Thanks, Amy!

Finla said...

I love cookiçng chinese food. I have all the things you've written except brown vinegar and the sugar

Anonymous said...

what a great post! i have some of these things but not others, and it's great to have recommended brands. i'm new to chinese cooking so this is really helpful -- thanks!

test it comm said...

Great post! It reminds me that I still need to find some black vinegar and Shao Hsing.

Sig said...

Wow thanks for this Amy... Even though I don't cook real Chinese food at home (I do kind of Indo-Chinese version), I have most of these ingredients!! I better start now.... Looking forward to this series.. Belated Happy New Year to you..

Amy said...

Your pantry is way awesome, mine is tiny in comparison. :)

Happy cook,
Your pantry sounds very well stocked. :)

Us. vs. food.
Hopefully the rest of the series will be helpful as well.

They should be easy to find in Asian grocery stores.

Thank you!

Andrea said...

What a great post! Thanks for sharing your cooking secrets!!

Anonymous said...

This is a fantastic, very informative post! Ta!

Anita said...

the pantry looks very well stocked. i am from india i want to know what i should tell my sister to get me to stock a chinese pantry from hongkong. she is comming very soon to india.

Anita said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anita said...

can you tell what my sister should bring for me from hongkong for chinese pantry when she comes to visit me in INdia.


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