It’s a fact that Americans love eating Chinese food. There are over 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S.; there are more Chinese restaurants than McDonald’s. You can probably name a favorite Chinese restaurant and a dish or two you love. It is also a fact that many cooks feel intimidated cooking Chinese food at home. What do you buy? How do you tell different ingredients apart? How do you use all of this stuff?
Shopping for ingredients is one of the most daunting parts of learning to cook any cuisine. This guide is to help demystify some of the essentials of the Chinese kitchen.
The beauty of Chinese cooking is that it requires so few tools. Unlike the batterie de cuisine of a formal French kitchen, which can mean dozens of pots, pans, and utensils, the only special equipment a well-stocked Chinese kitchen needs is a wok and a Chinese-style cleaver.
The wok (guo, say it like “khwoh”) is the essential piece of Chinese cookware. Cooks use it to stir-fry, deep fry, braise, boil, steam, poach, and everything else. It truly does it all. A good wok is inexpensive. While high-end cast iron pots and pans start in the triple digits, a great wok can be had for around $30.
Most Chinese home cooks use carbon steel woks. Like cast iron, carbon steel needs to be seasoned before use. Once it has built up a dark patina, it will naturally become non-stick. Non-stick woks are not recommended because they can’t stand up to the high heat of Chinese cooking.
Style matters with a wok. Woks can come in either a flat bottom or round bottom shape. Traditional woks have a round bottom, meant for cooking over gas stoves. In home kitchens with gas stoves, be sure to buy a ring adaptor from a good restaurant supply store or an Asian grocer with a cookware section to support your wok so it sits above the hot flames. For electric or induction stoves, a flat-bottomed wok works best.
There are also two styles of wok handles. Pow woks have a stick handle, which allows the cook to toss and flip food easily (giving it some “pow” action). Others have two handle loops, which make the wok easier for braises, stews, and soups. Most home cooks prefer the stick handle for convenience.
Like the wok, the cai dao (say it like chai-dow) is an all-purpose multitasker. While cai dao literally translates to vegetable knife, it can be used to cut through hard vegetables, debone a chicken, or fillet a fish. It can’t, however, cut through heavy bones. Save that for a special bone cleaver. The handle can even be used to smash and grind spices and aromatics. A good cleaver starts at around $20 to $30.
Most people associate Chinese food with rice. That’s because the most widely available style of Chinese food is based on Cantonese cuisine, a regional style from southern China where rice dominates. Both rice and wheat are major staples. Rice is the dominant staple in southern China. Wheat is the mainstay in the north—think steamed buns, dumplings, noodles, and pancakes.
Rice (mi, say it like “mee”) was first cultivated in southern China around the Yangzi River delta around 10,000 years ago. While rice is eaten everywhere in the country, it is a staple in southern China. Look for it on classic Cantonese, spicy-tingly Sichuanese, and fiery Hunanese menus. Fragrant jasmine rice (xiang mi, say it like “shang mee”) or another medium grain rice is a favorite that works well for most dishes, especially fried rice. Glutinous rice (nuo mi, say it like “nwoh-mee”) is used for sticky rice dishes and desserts.
Wheat (xiao mai, say it like “sh-oww my”) is indigenous to the present-day Middle East in what is now Iraq and Iran. Wheat was first cultivated around the river valleys of the. Wheat arrived in China around 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. Like rice, wheat products are eaten throughout the country. Wheat rules in northern and central Chinese cuisines. Dried wheat noodles (mian tiao, say it like “mee-ann tow”), dumpling wrappers (jiao zi pi, say it like “jow zhu pee”), and steamed buns (mantou, say it like “muh-on tow”) are pantry essentials to keep on hand.
Condiments & Seasonings
In Chinese cooking, sauces and seasonings are the foundation of flavor. They are used to give life to dishes. When we think of sauces and seasonings in mainstream American food, we think of things to apply after a meal is cooked. We dip fries in ketchup or spread mustard and mayo on a sandwich. Soy sauce and other sauces are the key seasonings of a dish and not accents. Imagine making an Italian red sauce without tomato paste—it just doesn’t work.
There are many types of soy sauces (jiang you, say it like “zh-ang yo”). The two main types are light soy sauce and dark soy sauce. Light soy sauce (sheng chou, say it like “shung ch-oh”) is what gives Chinese food its umami, or savory, taste. Dark soy sauce (lao chou, say it like “la-ow ch-ou”), which is deep mahogany in color, gives color.
Soy sauce is used in many Asian, and even non-Asian, cuisines. Where possible, be sure to buy sauces made for Chinese cooking. Soy sauces produced in different countries have different flavors suited their cuisines. Check the label to see if they’re made in China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan—these are best for Chinese cooking.
Some soy sauces contain wheat and gluten. Be sure to check the label before buying. Japanese-style tamari, a thicker wheat-free soy sauce, is usually a safe alternative for wheat- and gluten-free diets.
There are also many low sodium soy sauces (di yan sheng chou, say it like “dee yan shung ch-oh”) on the market today. Because soy sauce is used for a kick of umami, or savoriness, and not just saltiness, low sodium soy sauces are a way to give your dishes depth while limiting your sodium intake. Try different brands to see which suit your palate.
Cooking wine (liao jiu, say it like “luh-ow zh-eww”) is what gives Chinese food its unique taste. This wine is made with fermented rice and a tiny bit of wheat. There are different types and grades of cooking wine. Liao jiu is the generic term. Many Chinese recipes call for Shaoxing wine (say it like “sh-ow shing”), which refers to cooking wine made in the city of Shaoxing, which is known for its excellent drinking wines and cooking wines. Dry sherry is an acceptable substitute in a pinch. People on wheat- or gluten-free diets should skip the cooking wine or try dry sherry instead.
Sesame oil (ma you, say it like “mah yo!”) can be used as an accent or as the main star of dishes. Drizzle a little on top of noodles or fried rice for a hint of nutty flavor. Use it in a dipping sauce for dumplings or toss it in a salad dressing. If you’re a fan of the stuff, try your hand at making a dish like sesame chicken. Use sesame oil sparingly—a little goes a long way. If you have a sesame allergy, try a nut flavored oil like walnut oil or skip it altogether.
Oyster sauce (hao you, say it like “how yo!”) is popular in southern Chinese cooking. It is a thick, savory-sweet sauce with a strong umami kick. Use it in marinades or as a dipping sauce for meats. Steamed, boiled, or stir-fried vegetables also taste delicious with a generous glug of oyster sauce.
Fermented Black Beans
Fermented black beans (dou chi, say it like “d’oh ch-uh”) are salty and savory pops of flavor. Only a little bit is needed for flavor. Mix with soy sauce to create a black bean sauce or buy jars of pre-mixed black bean sauce. Pre-mixed sauces may contain wheat, so check the label.
Chili Bean Paste
Chili bean paste (douban jiang, say it like “d’oh bhan zh-ang”) is the key ingredient in Sichuanese dishes. It likes a savory-spicy flavor to dishes. Chili paste alone can be used in a pinch, but it’s not a true substitute, so try to find the real stuff.
Laoganma Chili Crisp
Laoganma chili crisp (say it like “luh-ow! ghan ma) hit the world by storm. Everyone loves this stuff. If you haven’t yet, try it. Grab a jar and add it to noodles, stir-fries, dumplings, and more. Try it on non-Chinese dishes, like scrambled eggs or roast chicken.
If three is a magic number, then garlic, ginger, and scallions (or green onions) are the charmed trio in Chinese cooking. These aromatics are the backbone of Chinese cooking.
Garlic (suan, say it like “sh-whan”). Whole, unpeeled garlic is best, but you can substitute it with packaged peeled garlic, minced garlic in a jar, or even minced frozen garlic. Just keep in mind these products won’t be as punchy. Avoid garlic powder because it just doesn’t lend the same kick.
Ginger (jiang, say it like “zh-ang”). Dishes calling for ginger rely on fresh ginger. Preserved and pickled ginger, as well as ground ginger powder are used in some dishes, but keep a knob of the fresh stuff around. Unpeeled ginger placed in a paper bag can be stored for about a week in the refrigerator. Ginger can also be stored frozen. Just peel, prep, and put in a freezer safe container or bag. By the way, the easiest way to peel ginger is to scrape the brown skin off with the back of a metal spoon.
Scallions or green onions (cong, say it like “ch-oong”). Look for scallions that are bright green with perky leaves. Roll them in a damp paper towel, place into a plastic bag with the top loosely sealed to create humidity, and store them in the crisper drawer in the refrigerator.
As you build your Chinese pantry, give yourself permission to experiment and try different brands. Over time you’ll find that there are ingredients that you like better or work better for the dish you’re making. Don’t forget that an expensive price tag doesn’t always mean it’s a better product. Learn to trust your taste buds and your gut. Now let’s get shopping and cooking.
Dr. Willa Zhen is a professor of liberal arts and food studies at our New York campus, where she teaches courses on food and culture in the Applied Food Studies program. Willa Zhen holds a PhD in anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the University of London. Her research interests include Chinese cuisine, culinary training, and wine and class. She is the author of Food Studies: A Hands-on Guide (Bloomsbury, 2019). In addition to her academic interests in food, she also grew up in the restaurant industry and trained as a chef.