How to Stock a Chinese Pantry: Essential Staples to Keep on Hand

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Over the last several decades, Americans have been discovering that there's more to Chinese food than the Cantonese flavors, both traditional and bastardized, that were brought over by the first wave of Chinese immigrants. With 1.3 billion people, 23 provinces, and a geography that covers mountains, grassland, deserts, lakes, and oceans, there's more than a little variety in China—and, by extension, its regional cuisines. Besides that, given that cooking was considered an art form in China as early as the Chou dynasty (1122–242 BCE), the country easily has one of the most complex and storied cooking traditions in the world.

In the south, rice is the staple grain, as the warm, rainy climate produces the crop in abundance, while northerners turn to foods like pancakes and noodles made from wheat, which is better suited to their long winters and low rainfall. The north encompasses Beijing, known for its imperial cuisine and dim sum; Inner Mongolia, where dairy, infrequently used elsewhere in Asia, is common; and Shandong, where fresh seafood is often the focus. Eastern China is home to Cantonese cooking, one of the country's most celebrated regional cuisines (and the one most familiar to Americans), known for its emphasis on the fresh, natural flavors of ingredients and its use of sweetness. Central China is renowned for the spicy cuisines of Sichuan and Hunan provinces. In western China, you can find halal cooking in both Xinjiang, where the Uyghur Muslim minority group predominates, and in Tibet, whose cuisine blends the flavors of neighboring India, Nepal, and Sichuan province and notably makes use of yak meat and dairy. Meanwhile, in southern provinces such as Yunnan, crisp-fried insects are a delicacy, and the sour flavors of preserved foods are found in many local dishes.

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But that's not to say that regional cuisines don't share some themes. Stir-frying in a wok is a fundamental technique across the country. Likewise, steaming, simmering, deep-frying, and red-cooking are all commonly used cooking methods. Soy sauce—a Chinese invention, after all—is a key feature of cooking in China, as it is throughout East and Southeast Asia. So, too, is the idea of harmonizing different flavors.

Below, you'll find a short list of staple Chinese pantry ingredients (excluding rice, which is a given). We focused solely on items with a long shelf life; fresher ingredients, like aromatics, tofu, and so on, are another vast realm unto themselves. To help us narrow down our recommendations, we turned to two experts on Chinese food, Grace Young and Jonathan Wu. Young has written three acclaimed Chinese cookbooks, including Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge. Wu, a Bronx-born Per Se alum, is chef-owner of the contemporary-Chinese restaurant Fung Tu. Here are their picks for building out the basics.

Soy Sauce

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The most essential of essential Chinese pantry items is soy sauce. Funnily enough, the requisite dining-table fixture of East Asia started out as a by-product: the liquid runoff of boiled soybeans, fermented with brine, wheat flour, and mold. In Chinese, the characters for jiang you roughly translate to "liquid extracted from soybeans." Once upon a time, there were stores in China that were totally devoted to soy sauce, where shoppers could choose from a range of grades. There are still specialty varieties, like mushroom soy (seasoned with dried black mushrooms) or the sweeter black soy, but most soy sauces can be categorized as either light or dark.

The lighter variety is your standard soy sauce, and it's used in all sorts of preparations, including dipping sauces, like the one for our Extra-Flaky Scallion Pancakes, and clear soups. The darker variety is richer and more viscous, ideal for slow-cooked dishes like these soy-braised mushrooms. Though Chinese light soy sauces tend to be a bit darker and more intense than Japan's wheat-heavy varieties, Young recommends Kikkoman organic, which eliminates the need to stock different kinds of soy sauce for Japanese and Chinese dishes. For finishing dishes or recipes that call for a couple tablespoons, she also likes the artisanal American brand Bluegrass. "They use non-GMO Kentucky soybeans," she says. "It has a bit of smokiness, and the flavor is really just exceptional." Among dark soy sauces, both Wu and Young like the Pearl River Bridge brand. "I like it because it's what my mom used," Wu says. "It's salty, it's an umami bomb. We use it to braise short ribs or for red-cooking." No matter what you buy, Young says that the bottle should read "naturally brewed," which indicates that no synthetic accelerators were used in production and that the soy sauce was fermented properly.

Shaoxing Wine

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Rice wines have been produced in Shaoxing, a city on the Hangzhou Bay in eastern China, for at least 2,000 years. Traditionally, they're made with glutinous rice, steamed and fermented with lake water; the resulting liquid is stored in clay jars to mature. These wines have a sherry-esque flavor, which Wu describes as "nutty, oxidized, and saline," and, like their Spanish cousins, their sweetness level varies. Better-quality Shaoxing wine is drunk, either at room temperature or slightly warmed, while the cheaper varieties are used primarily in marinades and cooked dishes. "There's incredible Shaoxing in China, aged for eight or 30 years," says Wu. "But I haven't found the good stuff here."

The best brand available in the US, according to Young, is Pagoda, but it can be difficult to find at your local Asian grocery. "Bad rice wine is exactly like bad cooking wine," warns Young. "There's a lot of garbage out there. If you buy a really crummy bottle of rice wine, it's just like salted wine. Dry sherry is an excellent substitute, and it's better than having rice wine that is of poor quality for the sake of rice wine." Wu often uses sherry in place of rice wine for steaming clams and sauces at his restaurant.

Sichuan Peppercorns

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A hallmark of Sichuan cuisine, the famous spice may be the only ingredient less known for its flavor than for the sensation it produces; the active ingredient in Sichuan peppercorns actually stimulates touch receptors, like vibrations, at a frequency of 50 hertz. That accounts for the first half of the Chinese portmanteau ma lama means "tingling," and la means "spice"—that describes much of the region's food. Though they're called peppercorns in English, they're actually the dried berries of the prickly ash tree. Most of the Sichuan peppercorns you find in stores here aren't great, perhaps because the ingredient was banned by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from 1968 to 2005 due to concerns over a plant-affecting bacterial disease called citrus canker. (Imported peppercorns are now heated to kill any bacteria.) Poor-quality Sichuan peppercorns are bitter, lack that characteristic numbing ability, and just don't have the same intensity as the good stuff. But "it's very easy to tell if they're high-quality," says Wu. "They have super-brilliant colors, the aroma is complex and citrusy, and they totally have that dank-weed smell." Wu and Young get theirs at The Mala Market, an online store that specializes in Sichuan ingredients and offers both the more recognizable red variety and the more citrusy, piney green one. The spice is featured in traditional Chinese dishes, like dan dan noodles and mapo tofu. But Wu also uses them in vinaigrettes at his restaurant, and we've worked them into more novel preparations, like this Sichuan roast leg of lamb with a celery-mint salad.

Black Rice Vinegar (Chinkiang Vinegar)

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A wide variety of vinegars, typically made by fermenting rice, are used in a lot of Chinese cooking. While dark in color, black rice vinegar has a mellow acidity and sweetness. "Gold Plum is the only brand to go for," says Young. "It has the perfect balance of acidic vinegar tang and a caramelized sweetness that doesn't overwhelm. Inferior brands are sometimes too sweet." Wu also prefers the brand for the "nice malty thing it has going on." He uses it in stir-fries and dipping sauces, or to enhance the flavor of a dish. We like how it cuts through the heavier, saltier flavors in dishes like our Sichuan-style hot and sour eggplant, and brightens lighter dishes, such as smashed cucumbers and steamed crab.

Toasted Sesame Oil

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Made by pressing lightly toasted sesame seeds, this rich, nutty oil loses its fragrance when heated. For that reason, it's typically used in cold dishes, such as steamed eggplant, and as an accent flavor in dipping sauces or as a finishing seasoning, like in Stir-Fried Choy Sum With Minced Garlic. Young prefers the Japanese brand Kadoya. "For sesame oil, the most important thing is [that] it is 100% pure, because there are some that are cut with vegetable oil," she says. "When you're at a market, just go by the price and get the most expensive one. It's still not very expensive." Sesame oil can go rancid, so it's best to store it in a cool, dark place, like the refrigerator.

Hoisin Sauce

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Like its Southern cousin barbecue sauce, hoisin can vary in ingredients and is similarly complex in flavor: rich, deeply savory, a little spicy, and a touch sweet. It was traditionally used for seafood in Cantonese cooking—the word hoisin is derived from the word for "seafood"—but has come to be a multipurpose sauce. You can certainly make homemade hoisin sauce by simmering black bean paste, soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame paste, chili sauce, and Chinese five-spice powder. But having a store-bought jar of it on hand can make things a little easier, whether you're making these simple, six-ingredient char siu spareribs or tackling kung pao chicken at home. "To me, it's like Chinese mole, so complex and wonderful," says Young. "No other brand is in the same league as Koon Chun. The flavor is so rich and has such depth. I have friends in Europe who can't find it there, so whenever they come to the US, they load up on it."

Fermented Bean Pastes

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Fermented chili broad bean paste is an umami-rich ingredient that's essential to Sichuan cooking. "The Pixian brand is really legit," says Wu—it's nutty and slightly sweet, with an earthy spiciness. Young agrees. "It has this richness and layers of flavor that bring it together," she says. "All you need to do is add a small spoonful of it, and it will bring your dish alive." Mixed with minced pork, it makes a spicy topping that Wu calls a "Chinese Bolognese," used in classic dishes like dan dan mian and mapo tofu.

Another popular fermented-bean product is fermented black beans, also called salted soy beans or preserved beans. The intensely flavored beans, which are both a little bitter and a little sweet, are often paired with seafood, as in this recipe for Steamed Whole Fish With Fermented Black Beans and Garlic. "The philosophy in Chinese cooking is about dispelling fishy flavors," says Wu. "Strong ingredients like ginger, scallion, Shaoxing wine, and fermented black beans are often deployed." So, when a dish like Braised Eggplant With Pickled Chilies and Garlic is described as "fish-fragrant" despite containing no seafood, the reference is to flavorings typically used in fish dishes, not fish itself. Young prefers the Yang Jiang brand of fermented beans for its consistent flavor, which sometimes comes with a little ginger and is interchangeable with the classic version.

Oyster Sauce

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Like so many iconic foods, oyster sauce's creation story is that of a happy accident: In 1888, Lee Kum Sheung, a restaurant owner in Guangdong province, where Cantonese cooking originated, forgot about an oyster soup that was simmering away, and it boiled down into a delicious gravy. Today, oyster sauce is made with oyster extract instead of actual oysters, but the maker is still the same: Lee Kum Kee was founded by Sheung and is still the preferred producer of oyster sauce today. "They have many grades," says Young. "And Panda is really mediocre." What you want is the Premium oyster-flavored sauce. "The flavor is much more rounded," she says. "It just has more complexity." That deep flavor is a boon to stir-fried dishes, like beef with snap peas and velveted chicken with mushrooms. Once opened, a jar should be stored in the refrigerator, where it will keep for a very long time.

Dried Chilies

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Fresh chilies are more common in certain regions, such as Hunan province, but Sichuan food in particular tends to rely on the heat of dried chilies in dishes like dry-fried green beans. You can certainly find them in other dishes, though, such as General Tso's chicken. "I like to add them to the oil right before a stir-fry—it makes the oil bloom with the heat," she says. "And it's essential to buy fresh [dried] chilies. If you've had them for more than four or five months, they're just dead and lifeless." So look for a store that has good turnover. Young buys both Thai dried chilies and chiles de árbol ("a good all-purpose chili"), which have a great mild heat and flavor that punch up a dish.

Dried Mushrooms

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In China, sun-dried products are sometimes preferred to the fresh versions for their ultra-concentrated flavors. When Young was growing up and her parents talked about going on the run during the war, she always thought that if she had to go on the run, she would bring dried scallops because of the way they elevate and enrich anything they're added to. If you've ever been in an Asian grocery, you've likely seen a dizzying array of dried fruits, leaves, eggs, meats, seafood, and mushrooms stored away in bins and glass jars.

The best gateway Chinese dried product might be the easiest to find: dried shiitake mushrooms, which are often found in familiar classics, like Stir-Fried Lo Mein With Charred Cabbage and Brown Rice Congee With Beef. "I rely on them as a staple," says Young. "Shiitake mushrooms just add so much umami and texture and richness to a dish. You can have them around all the time, and they just add so much flavor to everything you're cooking." At Chinese specialty food shops, you'll find that the best ones are very thick, with deep crevices and cracks, and can cost anywhere from $50 to $100 per pound. That might sound steep. But you need only a few to add a ton of flavor to a recipe, and they keep well in sealed containers in a cool, dark place. "The more money you spend, the more concentrated the flavors," says Young, who typically buys them in the mid-price range. "Chinese cuisine is so clever in taking a range of ingredients and drying them," she adds. "You can pull them out of a hat; they're magical."