Essential Chinese cooking ingredients

Chef and food writer Ching-He Huang offers some tips to help you stock up on the essential pantry items for Chinese cookery.

If you're a fan of Chinese cuisine and want to explore it in your own kitchen, here's what you should buy on that first mission to the supermarket!

Groundnut oil

This pale oil is extracted from peanuts and has a subtle, nutty flavour. This oil can be heated to high temperatures without burning and is great to use in a salad dressing. As an alternative, use vegetable oil.

Shaoxing rice wine

This is a wine made from rice, millet and yeast, which has been aged for between three and five years. Rice wine takes the ‘odour’ or ‘rawness’ out of meats and fish and gives a bittersweet finish. Dry sherry makes a good substitute.

Five spice powder

This is a blend of cinnamon, cloves, Sichuan peppercorns, fennel and star anise. These five spices give the sour, bitter, pungent, sweet and salty flavours in Chinese cooking. This spice works extremely well with meat and in marinades.

Soy sauce

Light soy is used in China instead of salt. It is made from fermented soya beans and wheat. A versatile and staple ingredient, it can be used in soups, stir-fries and braised and stewed dishes. Wheat-free varieties, called tamari, are available for those with wheat intolerance, and there are also low-sodium varieties for those watching their sodium intake.

Dark soy sauce is made from wheat and fermented soya beans. Dark soy has been aged a lot longer than the light soy variety and is mellower and less salty in taste. It is used to give flavour and colour to dishes.

Chinkiang or Zhengjian vinegar

Available from Chinese supermarkets. Made from fermented rice, this earthy, strong aromatic vinegar comes from Jiangsu where it is produced in it’s capital, Nanjing. The taste is mellow and earthy and when cooked, it gives dishes a wonderful smoky flavour. Throughout China, vinegar is widely used and there are many varieties. Balsamic vinegar makes a good substitute.

Sichuan peppercorns

Known as ‘Hua jiao’ in Mandarin or ‘flower pepper’, these are the outer pod of a tiny fruit. This ingredient is widely used all over China and especially in western China. It can be wok-roasted, cooked in oil to flavour the oil, or mixed with salt as a condiment for any meat, fish or vegetable dish. It has a pungent citrussy aroma.

Dried chilli flakes

These are made from dried whole red chillies, including the seeds, which are crushed into flakes – they give a fiery heat when added to dishes.

Toasted sesame oil

Made from white pressed and toasted sesame seeds, this oil is used as a flavouring/seasoning and is not suitable for use as a cooking oil since it burns easily. The flavour is intense, so use sparingly.

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