Chinese food is one of my favorites. I cook Chinese cuisine at least a couple of times a week, and it’s what I want when I’m not feeling well and when I get back from a trip. It is comforting, feels like home, and just freakin’ tasty.
Chinese food is also often what friends request when I invite them over for a homecooked meal, because it’s not something they often make at home. Friends say they usually make the same thing (chicken with some sort of vegetable) over and over or they can’t find the ingredients. But in reality, Chinese can be really easy to make. And a lot of ingredients can be found in most grocery stores…no Asian market required! Take it from me – I grew up in a small town in Kentucky. We made and ate Chinese food all the time. If we could find the ingredients to make tasty Chinese food in Kentucky, anyone can!
I plan to share more Chinese recipes, but first I want to share a list of essential pantry ingredients for Chinese cooking. That way you’re ready to go for all the Chinese cooking you’ll be doing. Many of these ingredients you probably already have!
Here are 11 pantry essentials for Chinese cooking:
- Soy Sauce
- Sesame Oil
- Oyster Sauce
- Rice Wine / Cooking Wine
- Cooking Oil (corn, vegetable, canola, grapeseed)
- Ground White Pepper
- White Sugar
I’ll share a bit about each, how they are used in Chinese food, substitutes (if applicable), and brands I like.
11 PANTRY ESSENTIALS FOR CHINESE COOKING
Soy Sauce (jiàng yóu, 酱油)
Soy sauce is a well-known Chinese pantry essential. You probably already have some in your kitchen. Many Chinese dishes use this ingredient, so it’s a good one to have on hand for Chinese cooking.
There are many brands and variations of soy sauce – dark, light, low sodium, gluten-free. The key to a good soy sauce is to make sure it’s naturally brewed, otherwise it may be artificially-flavored or chemically formulated.
Even though there are fancier options, Kikkoman is the brand of soy sauce I use, specifically Kikkoman Low Sodium, because it is solid, available everywhere, and has a good price point (I use a lot of soy sauce).
Sesame Oil (zhī ma yóu, 芝麻油)
Sesame oil is one of the more recognizable flavors of Chinese (and Asian) cooking. Adding a little when you marinate your meat (more on this in a future post) or stir-fry dishes helps to give your dish that familiar Asian flavor.
Most of the sesame oils you see in markets are toasted so they have a dark amber color and rich aroma. If you see a clear or yellow bottle of sesame oil, it is almost certainly not toasted and likely will not have as rich a fragrance and taste.
Kadoya Pure Sesame Oil is the brand I keep on hand because like Kikkoman, it has good flavor, available at most stores, and reasonably priced.
Oyster Sauce (háoyóu, 蚝油)
Oyster sauce is one that adds flavor, particularly umami flavor, quickly to a Chinese dish. It’s a dark, syrupy sauce caramelized oyster juices (a byproduct of cooking oysters in water for a prolonged period of time), salt, and sugar that is thickened with cornstarch. One might think of it as the love child of soy sauce and barbecue sauce. It’s sweet and salty but not fishy tasting even though it’s made of oyster juices.
Most grocery stores and even stores like Target stock oyster sauce since it’s a Chinese pantry staple. If you can’t find it, you can mix soy sauce and hoisin sauce at a 1:1 ratio to get something close. If you are vegetarian there are versions made from mushrooms.
I like Lee Kum Kee Oyster Sauce. I use both Lee Kum Kee’s premium or panda versions.
Rice Wine or Cooking Wine (mǐ jiǔ, 米酒)
Chinese rice wine is used frequently in marinades and sauces. The most famous rice wine comes from the Shaoxing region in northern China. I do not recommend drinking any of the rice or cooking wines you find at the Asian grocery stores – if you do, you’ll know why I say that. While rice wine may not be pleasing to the palate, it adds excellent and crucial flavor to many Chinese dishes.
If you want Chinese rice wine, specifically Shaoxing wine, you’ll have to get it an Asian market. If you don’t have one near you or need a quick substitute, a pale, dry sherry or dry white wine. Chinese cooking wine is actually pretty affordable. You can get a bottle for $5-7.
I use Shaoxing or Michiu cooking wine that I purchase at my local Asian market.
Cooking Oil(yóu, 油)
Because Chinese cooking is usually hot, quick cooking, it’s best to use an oil that can withstand extremely high temperatures (above 400 degrees F) without burning or smoking. It’s also good to use one that doesn’t have much flavor or no flavor. This includes vegetable, corn, canola, or grapeseed oil.
I don’t recommend olive, peanut, or sesame oils for cooking Chinese. Olive oils have lower smoke points and stronger flavor. Peanut and sesame oil have strong nutty flavors.
I am not brand conscious when it comes to cooking oil. Lately I’ve been using grapeseed oil that I purchase at Costco or Asian markets.
Cornstarch is a common thickening agent used in Chinese cooking. I use it when I marinate meat to make the texture of the meat silky and juicy. I also use it thicken some of my sauces and soups (like Hot & Sour Soup).
You can buy cornstarch at any store and you probably already have some on hand. But if you don’t or run out, substitutes for cornstarch include potato starch or tapioca starch.
I am not brand loyal when it comes to cornstarch. I typically use Argo cornstarch because I like their stay-fresh container with the wide mouth for easy scooping.
Ground White Pepper (bái hú jiāo, 白胡椒)
Ground white pepper is used in Chinese (and Asian) cooking and is a must-have. It has a distinctly different taste than black pepper – spicier and fruiter. It is sharp, spicy, smoky and adds a clean and light spiciness without being overwhelming. It’s also a key ingredient for Hot & Sour Soup.
You can find white ground pepper at any grocery stores=. There is really no good substitute for it and any brand will do. I’ve used McCormick, Spice Island, as well as lesser known brands that I can’t even remember.
Garlic (dàsuàn, 大蒜)
Like so many other cuisines, Chinese food incorporates garlic. You can probably never have too much garlic in your kitchen when cooking Chinese food. So make sure to always have fresh garlic on hand.
As you know, you can find garlic at any grocery store. Fresh garlic is best. I usually am lazy and keep pre-peeled cloves on hand.
Ginger (jiāng, 姜)
Ginger has a unique flavor – a sort of tang – and is used in everything from stews to stir-fry dishes. I never make broccoli beef without it!
Ginger comes in many forms but fresh ginger is best. And it’s available at any grocery store. Don’t substitute with ground ginger.
White Sugar (táng, 糖)
White sugar is used for balancing flavors in Chinese cooking. In addition, some Chinese dishes have a sweet taste white sugar is used for creating this flavor.
Salt (yán, 盐)
Salt is the foundation of all cooking. Unless you never cook, I assume you already have salt in your pantry.
I prefer kosher salt because it has a less intense and more pure, salty taste and because it’s easier to pick up the salt crystals and toss them into the pot!
Should I buy or have other ingredients?
Of course there are so many different flavors that can be created in Chinese food, and there are thousands of ingredients that you can buy and use to create those flavors. Especially if you go to an Asian market. But these 11 ingredients are the ones that you should have on hand. You probably already have half – if not more – in your kitchen. As you cook more Chinese, you can add more to your pantry.