Essential Chinese store cupboard ingredients

Essential Chinese store cupboard ingredients

by Tom Wildman 20 May 2016

Authentic Chinese food doesn’t have to be expensive to make at home. Chef Jeremy Pang lists his top twelve Chinese store cupboard essentials.

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A Cordon Bleu graduate from Tante Marie Culinary Academy, Tom shares his food passions both in the kitchen and by writing about his favourite dishes.

Although a history graduate, Tom soon realised his call for the culinary arts and trained for a Cordon Bleu qualification at Tante Marie Culinary Academy. He loves sharing his equal passions for food and travel, with Mexican and Vietnamese foods being top of his hit list. When not in the kitchen, he can be found out on a foraging trip or perhaps playing ultimate frisbee.

A well-stocked store cupboard makes all the difference when it comes to cooking Chinese dishes. While it’s sometimes tempting to substitute ingredients for easier to source alternatives, for truly authentic Chinese cuisine there can be no shortcuts. Of course, the differences between regional Chinese cuisines are huge, but there are some ingredients which are found in most parts of the country.

Classic Chinese food achieves its legendary status by striking the perfect balance between hot, sour, sweet and savoury flavours, so when you start substituting core ingredients you run the risk of disturbing this delicate balance. All the ingredients on this list will pop up again and again in Chinese recipes, so they are well worth stocking up on.

1. Light soy sauce

Soy sauce is probably the first ingredient most people think of when it comes to Chinese food. However, there is often confusion over the difference between light and dark soy sauce. Light soy sauce is thinner and saltier than the dark soy variety and is typically used in small quantities as a light seasoning or dipping sauce. As with all world cuisines, it is always worth seeking out authentic brands; for instance, Japanese and Korean soy sauce has a noticeably different flavour to the Chinese variety, and isn’t always suitable.

2. Dark soy sauce

Dark soy sauce is aged over a longer period of time than light soy sauce, leading to a richer, more robust flavour, with hints of molasses and caramel. Chinese chefs generally use dark soy sauce when cooking, as the application of heat helps to bring out the sauce’s intense natural aroma. It is typically used in marinades and stir-fries or to add colour and flavour to rice dishes.

3. Oyster sauce

Oyster sauce adds a distinct savoury flavour to many meat and vegetable dishes. Made from a mixture of cornstarch, salt, sugar and oyster essence, recipes can vary a great deal, with Jeremy preferring the Lee Kum Kee brand. Like other famous foods such as Worcestershire sauce and chocolate chip cookies, oyster sauce was originally made by accident. The story goes that in 1888 the owner of a small restaurant in Southern China was making a traditional oyster broth and accidently left it simmering for several hours. Upon his return he was astonished to find that the oyster juices had caramelized into a syrupy sauce with a rich, umami flavour.

4. Dried mushrooms

Dried mushrooms are a store cupboard must in Chinese cooking. When carefully stored in an airtight container in a cool room or in the fridge, they last for many months, even years. Cheaper and easier to buy than fresh mushrooms, they also have the benefit of leaving you with a flavoursome mushroom-infused liquid upon rehydration. Use them to add depth to broths or try Jeremy’s delicious Chive dumplings with dried shiitake mushrooms.

5. Sichuan peppercorns

Although they look similar to black peppercorns, Sichuan peppercorns are in fact a berry. They are sold either whole or powdered, but always buy whole whenever possible to maximise their wonderful aroma and unique mouth-tingling sensation. When combined with chilli, they’re the most important and well-known aspect of Sichuanese cuisine.

6. Sesame oil

The wonderful nutty taste of sesame oil is one of the most distinctive flavours in Chinese cooking. Sesame seeds are believed to be one the earliest crops used for oil production, dating back at least 5,000 years. This highly versatile oil is used for salad dressings, dips and stir-fries and is the cooking oil of choice in much-loved Chinese dishes such as Chicken chow mein.

7. Chinese five spice

This all-purpose seasoning has many different ingredient formulas but is most commonly a mix of star anise, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, Sichuan pepper and fennel seeds. Designed to be a perfect balance of hot, sweet, sour and savoury, Chinese five-spice makes a perfect dry rub for fatty meats such as pork and beef. Mark Dodson creates a simple marinade by combining five spice, soy sauce, sesame oil and honey for his mouth-watering Sticky chicken wings recipe. For best results try buying whole spices and grinding your own five spice powder.

8. Chilli bean sauce

Similar to gochujang (Korean chilli paste), chilli bean sauce or toban djan is a thick chilli paste made from a combination of hot chilies and fermented beans. It is typically used for dipping sauces or to add a spicy kick to dishes, particularly in Sichuan cooking (southwestern China), which is known for its liberal use of hot chillies and other punchy flavours.

9. White rice vinegar

Like soy sauce, white rice vinegar is different across Asia, with China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan all producing their own distinct variety. Chinese rice vinegar is more mild than European vinegars, but is not as sweet as Japanese vinegar. In southern China, black rice vinegar is also popular, where its subtle smoky flavour and striking dark brown colour is highly regarded. Jeremy Pang combines black rice vinegar, soy sauce and ginger to make a quick, fragrant dipping sauce.

10. Shaoxing rice wine

In many parts of China Shaoxing rice wine is drunk as a beverage, but it is more commonly known as a core ingredient in cooking. Shaoxing rice wine has an amber colour and wonderfully nutty, floral flavour. It is well worth investing in a bottle, as a little goes a long way.

11. Dried chillies

The process of drying Chinese chillies helps to develop their fruity flavour and distinctive aroma. Dried chillies are a key ingredient in all sorts of Chinese dishes and, unlike Latin American cooking, don’t need to be soaked, as the high heat used in wok cooking is enough to soften their texture.

12. Fermented black beans

Also known as preserved black beans, these are a staple Chinese ingredient and the main ingredient in black bean sauce. They are a variety of soya bean and are not to be confused with the black turtle bean, which is used in Latin American cooking. Chefs mainly use these fermented beans as a seasoning, to add a little burst of salty, bitter flavour.

Honorable mentions

Vegetable oil

Vegetable oil has a high smoke point like sesame oil, but is far cheaper to produce, making it ideal for deep-frying. It has a comparatively bland, neutral flavour, so is also used in dishes where the strong flavour of sesame is unsuitable.


Cornflour or cornstarch is a tasteless white powder made from milled maize. Primarily used to thicken sauces or soups, it is also used for ‘velveting’ chicken, a Chinese cooking technique used to give stir-fried chicken a smooth, silky texture.

Dried egg or vermicelli noodles

Noodles form the foundation of many Chinese diets. Dried egg noodles are pre-cooked before being packaged so only require a few minutes of soaking. Unlike pasta they are salted during their production, so don’t need any additional salt when cooking.

Jasmine rice

This fragrant rice has a subtle sweet flavour and a soft, delicate texture when cooked. Steamed jasmine rice is perfect for stir-fries or as an accompaniment to meat, fish and vegetables.

List provided by Jeremy Pang, author of Chinese Unchopped (Quadrille, £20) and founder of School of Wok, Europe’s only award-winning Asian cookery school.