Know your Chinese pantry
Chinese is one of the world’s great cuisines and the ingredients are available just about everywhere. Even mainstream supermarkets have an Asian section.
The products never seem to be expensive and, interestingly, are the same the world over. I have been to Chinese shops in Rome that stock the same products we have here.
When experimenting with new ingredients, start with a traditional recipe: centuries of culinary experimentation by the locals has found the best way to showcase an ingredient.
If you are of the free-form or experimental persuasion, don’t mix too many flavours together as the overall flavour will be muddy and indistinct.
Soy sauce is perhaps the most distinguishing flavour in Chinese cooking and is the liquid extracted from fermented and salted soy beans. There are two types, light and dark. Light is like extra virgin olive oil from the first pressing of the soy beans and is lighter in colour and more delicate in flavour. Dark is made from a mix of subsequent pressings and has a longer period of fermentation.
Use light soy sauce for seafood, white meat and vegetables. Dark soy sauce is best for red meat, roasting, braising and marinating.
Buy soy sauce that says “naturally fermented” and “store in the refrigerator after opening” on the label as this indicates the sauce is made traditionally from real ingredients. There are brands masquerading as soy sauce that are made of synthetic ingredients.
The fresh rhizome of Zingiber officinale. Introduced to China from tropical Asia, ginger became highly valued in Chinese cooking for its aromatic flavour which complements and masks when necessary, the strong flavours of meat and fish. It also works as a flavour base. Buy smooth, firm ginger roots and avoid dry or wrinkled specimens.
Known since ancient times, this oil is the major use of sesame seeds in Chinese cooking. Extracted from roasted sesame seeds, it is dark golden and very aromatic. It is sometimes used for frying but it burns easily, so it is generally used to give flavour and aroma. A small amount sprinkled over food just before serving gives an intense fragrance. Sesame oil, like all oils, can go rancid, so store in a cool dark place and keep the mouth of the bottle clean so any oxidised oil on the outside of the bottle doesn’t find its way back in and turn the oil rancid.
In Chinese cooking there are two basic sorts of vinegar, red or black fermented rice vinegar or clear distilled grain vinegar called, “white”. The white variety is the stronger and used in dips and for pickling. Black is fruitier and aromatic. Black Gold Plum brand chinkiang vinegar is readily available here and it keeps well, some say improving with age. It is used as a dip for dumplings as well as in sweet and sour and sweet and hot dishes.
This is a Cantonese speciality and is a soy sauce-based sauce flavoured with oyster extract, starch, salt, sugar and caramel. It is glossy, smooth and brown. Keep it in the fridge and use it to add umami to almost everything but be sparing with it as it can dominate, and add at the last minute.
Another Cantonese speciality, this sauce is made from yellow beans, sugar, salt, vinegar, garlic, chilli, sesame oil and colouring. It has a sweet flavour and is fragrant. It is used in marinades, and as a dip.
Chinese five spice
This powdered spice mixture may have been based on the five basic flavours of Chinese food, sweet, salty, sour, bitter and hot, with the five spices representing them. The main spices are star anise, cinnamon or cassia bark, fennel seeds, Sichuan peppercorns and cloves. Often a few other spices, such as dried orange peel, coriander seeds and cardamom, are also added. Star anise dominates in the mix. Five spice is strong so it is used sparingly and in long cooked dishes, marinades, barbecues, roasts and deep fried dishes.
These are the dried berries of a spiny shrub sometimes called mountain pepper and are a small purplish red husk with shiny black seeds. They can have a numbing effect on the mouth and lips and a pungent flavour. Heat them in a dry wok over moderate heat (they burn easily) to toast before using, until just darkening in colour and fragrant. This improves the flavour. Store in an airtight container in a cool dark place. Used in all sorts of Chinese dishes not just in Sichuan.
Like cinnamon, this is a member of the laurel family. It looks like coarse cinnamon bark. Cassia tastes like cinnamon but is less pungent and more woody. It is often used with star anise and is one of the spices in Chinese five spice powder.
Dried star anise pods are like polished mahogany and have eight canoe-shaped petals each with a shiny seed inside it. Star anise is very fragrant and has an intensely sweet aniseed flavour. It is used to scent dishes, but is not eaten. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
Used all over the world, this herb is also important in Chinese cooking. Mostly the leaves and stalks are used, seldom the seeds. Leaves are often used as a garnish. Has a sweet but pungent, slightly bitter flavour and smell.
Chinese rice wine, shaoxing wine
This is a rice wine made for cooking. Although there are many finer examples of shaoxing wine for drinking, it is the cooking wine that interests the cook. It is readily available in Asian shops and is used extensively in Chinese food.The Shanghai dish of drunken chicken — cold chicken marinated in rice wine — is a good example.
Salted black beans
These are used as a seasoning in Chinese food and are fermented, salted black soy beans. They become a glossy black when cooked, have a savoury flavour and are aromatic. They can be used crushed or whole depending on the dish. They are used with steamed fish, pork spare ribs and meat stir-fries. Commercial black bean sauce is thought to be a modern invention and sometimes includes ginger, orange peel, chillies or garlic.
There are two sorts, entire tiny dried shrimps, which include the heads, and larger headless ones. Before using, rinse well in cold water and pick out any detritus. Then soak in cold water or rice wine to soften for an hour. Reserve the soaking liquid and use to flavour the dish. The shrimps will keep for months in an airtight container and they have a strong seafood flavour and aroma.
This is a commercial sauce, possibly another modern invention, probably from Hong Kong but very handy in the Chinese kitchen. It is a smooth golden sauce and there are many brands. It is sweet and tangy and technically made from semi-ripe plums pickled with a solution of salt and sugar, then pressed and the liquid combined with water salt, sugar, vinegar and starch. Read the label for ingredients and pick the best quality. Good as a dip for spare ribs or roast duck.
These are fresh black mushrooms that have been dried and they are made all over southern China. There are different qualities available — the ones with the thicker caps are more expensive.
Dried mushrooms are available whole and need soaking in cold water, the longer the better. Overnight is good — with a minimum of two hours — or for a quick soak, submerge them in hot water for 30 minutes.
Sliced mushrooms are also available and these take little time to soak and soften. The soaking liquid becomes an aromatic mushroom stock so after careful straining for grit, this “stock” can be used in the dish or reserved forlater use. The mushrooms are great in all sorts of dishes including stir-fries, soups and in steamed and braised dishes with fish, chicken or meat.
The Chinese have a dimension to their food that other cuisines don’t, and that is texture. There are some ingredients that have little flavour but provide a particular texture. Black fungus is such an ingredient. It provides an appetising crunchy texture but its flavour can only be described as subtle. It comes as a mass of dried, dull black shrivelled fungus.
Prepare it by rinsing well in cold water and cut out any hard, thick pieces. Soaking in cold water makes it expand a lot so you don’t need much. Dried, it keeps for months in an airtight container. Soaked, it will keep for a few days in the soaking water.
The only straw mushrooms many of us are familiar with come in a can, but many recipes call for them. They are the small golden coloured mushrooms that have a cap which encloses the end of the stalk. They have a slippery but firm texture (they look better and it is easier to eat them with chopsticks if they are halved lengthways). They have a light sweet flavour. Drain and rinse before use. Good in soups and stir-fries.
Tofu (also called bean curd)
This is a hard one for many Europeans but I got to understand it and like it when I treated it almost like a savoury custard or like scrambled eggs. Tofu is a great carrier of other flavours, highly nutritious (full of protein, vitamins and amino acids) and easy to digest.
It is made by soaking dried soy beans, crushing them with water, straining and boiling, then curdling the mixture to form the white mass of protein we know as tofu. Buy it as fresh as possible.
It is used extensively in Chinese food, but not just as a vegetarian ingredient. Many dishes use tofu flavoured with meat or seafood. One of my favourite is the Sichuan dish mapo tofu, which is a spicy dish including tofu, pork mince and mushrooms.
Unusual to see them other than in cans here, they are another ingredient prized for their texture. The flesh is white and crunchy with a subtle sweetish flavour. They are used a lot in vegetarian dishes but the crunchy texture is good with strongly flavoured food such as offal and seafood and also in stuffings.
There are more than 100 types of bamboo grown in China and the young shoots are what we are talking about here. I have seen them for sale fresh in New Zealand markets and frozen in Asian shops, as well as in cans. They have a tender, creamy texture without a strong flavour.
Mung bean sprouts
It is hard to imagine Chinese cooking without bean sprouts — mung bean sprouts, to be precise. They are easy to grow at home, which is probably why they are such an important ingredient in Chinese household cookery. They are nutritious, as sprouting changes the starch to vitamins and natural sugar.
To sprout, just soak the dried beans in water overnight, rinse well, then put them in a container with a lid with holes to let the air in. Rinse and drain the beans a couple of times on the first day then store the container in a warm dark place and wait a few days for them to sprout. Rinse in cold water before using.
Always use very fresh bean sprouts: as they get older they turn brown and take on an unpleasant smell reminiscent of compost. When buying them look for very white sprouts and store in the vegetable compartment of your fridge. They don’t last long.
These are the thin red sausages that look are like dried salami. The filling is quite chunky and has a pleasant meaty flavour and fragrance. The sausages keep for months in the fridge. They are always cooked, never eaten raw. One favourite dish is chicken and sausages cooked in a claypot with rice.