Chinese Food Ingredients


chinese_ingredients_cChinese cooking would not be 'Chinese' without the use of a number of specialist ingredients which give Chinese foods their distinctive flavours. All the ingredients used in the recipes in this book can be obtained in this country, if not from your local supermarket then certainly from a Chinese grocer. There are now many Chinese grocers throughout the US. It is well worth the effort to find your nearest Chinese grocer and to build up a stock of the most frequently used ingredients. Many, particularly soy sauce, vary enormously in quality, but most Chinese grocers stock good authentic brands at reasonable prices.

The following is a list of the special ingredients. One ingredient commonly used in China which you will not find mentioned here is monosodium glutamate (also known as MSG, Ve Tsin, Accent, seasoning or taste powder). This is a white crystalline extract of grains and vegetables widely used to tenderise and enhance the natural flavour of certain foods, particularly meat, in Japan and China and in Western food processing. Some people have an adverse reaction to it, experiencing symptoms such as headaches, excessive thirst and palpitations. This allergic response is sometimes known as 'Chinese restaurant syndrome'. I believe that the freshest and finest ingredients need no enhancing and I therefore never use it.

Bamboo shoots

Bamboo shoots are the young edible shoots of some kinds of bamboo. Unfortunately in this country they are only available tinned. Pale yellow with a crunchy texture, they come peeled and either whole or thickly sliced. They can be bought in most supermarkets, delicatessens and in Chinese grocers. Rinse them thoroughly before use and transfer any remaining shoots to a jar, cover them with fresh water and keep in the refrigerator. If the water is changed daily they will keep for up to a week.


Beancurd is also known by its Chinese name doufu or by its Japanese name tofu. It has played an important part in Chinese cookery for over 1000 years since it is highly nutritious, being rich in protein. Beancurd has a distinctive texture but a bland taste. It is made from yellow soyabeans, which are soaked, ground, mixed with water and then cooked briefly before being solidified. In this country it is usually sold in two forms: firm cakes, or as a thickish junket, but it is also available in several dried forms and fermented. The soft junke-like variety (sometimes called silken tofu) is used for soups, while the solid type is used for stir-frying, braising and poaching. Solid beancurd 'cakes' are white in colour and are sold in Chinese grocers and in many health food shops. They are packed in water in plastic containers and may be kept in this state in the refrigerator for up to five days, providing the water is changed daily. To use solid beancurd, cut the amount required into cubes or shreds using a sharp knife. Do this with care as it is delicate. It also needs to be cooked carefully as too much stirring can cause it to disintegrate.

Black beans

These small black soya beans, also known as salted black beans, are preserved by being fermented with salt and spices. They have a distinctive, slightly salty taste and a pleasantly rich smell, and are used as a seasoning, often in conjunction with garlic or fresh ginger. They are inexpensive and can be obtained from Chinese grocers, usually in tins, as 'Black Beans in Salted Sauce' but you may also see them packed in plastic bags. Rinse them before use; I prefer to chop them slightly too. Transfer any unused beans and liquid to a sealed jar and the beans will keep indefinitely if stored in the refrigerator.


Chillis are used extensively in western China and somewhat less frequently in the south. They are the seed pods of the capsicum plant and can be obtained fresh, dried or ground.

Fresh chillis

Fresh chillis can be distinguished by their small size and elongated shape. They should look fresh and bright with no brown patches or black spots. There are several varieties. Red chillis are generally milder than green ones because they sweeten as they ripen.

To prepare fresh chillis, first rinse them in cold water. Then, using a small sharp knife, slit them lengthways. Remove and discard the seeds. Rinse the chillis well under cold running water, and then prepare them according to the instructions in the recipe. Wash your hands, knife and chopping board before preparing other foods, and be careful not to touch your eyes until you have washed your hands thoroughly with soap and water.

Dried red chillis

Dried red chillis are small, thin and about 1/2 inch (1cm) long. They are used to season oil for stir-fried dishes, sauces and for braising. They are normally left whole or cut in half lengthways and the seeds left in. The Chinese like them to blacken and be left in the dish during cooking, but as they are extremely hot and spicy you may choose to remove them after using them to flavour the cooking oil. They can be found in most supermarkets and in Chinese and Asian grocers, and will keep indefinitely in a tightly covered jar.

Chilli powder

Chilli powder is made from dried red chillis and is also known as cayenne pepper. It is pungent, aromatic, and ranges from hot to very hot; it is thus widely used in many spicy dishes. You will be able to buy it in any supermarket.

Cinnamon sticks or bark

Cinnamon sticks are curled, paper-thin pieces of the bark of the cinnamon tree. Chinese cinnamon comes as thicker sticks of this bark. It is highly aromatic and more pungent than the more common cinnamon sticks, but the latter are an adequate substitute. They add a robust taste to braised dishes and are an important ingredient of five spice powder. Store cinnamon sticks or bark in a tightly sealed jar to preserve their aroma and flavour. Ground cinnamon is not a satisfactory substitute.

Citrus peel

Dried citrus peel made from tangerines or oranges is used extensively in Chinese cookery to flavour braised and smoked dishes. It also adds an intense aroma and taste to stir-fried dishes. Drying the peel concentrates the flavour but you can use fresh peel instead. Chinese dried citrus peel can be found in Chinese grocers, usually in cellophane or plastic packets. It is, however, simple to make your own dried peel.

To make dried citrus peel

Peel the skin off a tangerine or orange, scraping away as much of the white pith as possible. Lay the peel on kitchen paper and dry it in the sun, in an airing cupboard, or in a warm but switched-off oven until it is dry and very hard. Store in a cool dry place in a well sealed container.

To use dried citrus peel

Soak the required amount of peel in warm water until it softens, then chop or slice it according to the recipe.

Coriander (Chinese parsley)

Fresh coriander is one of the relatively few herbs used in Chinese cookery. It looks like flat parsley but its pungent, musky, citrus-like flavour gives it a distinctive character which is unmistakable. Its feathery leaves are often used as a garnish or it can be chopped and then mixed into sauces and stuffings. Parsley may be used as a substitute but for an authentic Chinese flavour it is well worth trying to obtain the real thing. Many Asian and Chinese grocers stock it, as do some greengrocers and supermarkets now. When buying fresh coriander, look for deep green, fresh-looking leaves. Yellow and limp leaves indicate age and should be avoided.

To store coriander, wash it in cold water, drain it thoroughly and wrap in kitchen paper. Store it in the vegetable compartment of your refrigerator; it should keep for several days.


In China there are many flours and types of starch, such as waterchestnut powder, taro starch and arrowroot, which are used to bind and thicken sauces and to make batter. These exotic starches and flours are difficult to obtain but I have found cornflour works just as well in my recipes. As part of a marinade it helps to coat the food properly and it gives dishes a velvety texture. It also protects food during deep-frying by helping to seal in the juices, and can be used as a binder for minced stuffings. Cornflour is invariably blended with cold water until it forms a smooth paste before it is used in sauces.

Five spice powder

Five spice powder is less commonly known as five-flavoured powder or five fragrance spice powder, and is available in many supermarkets (in the spice section) and in Chinese grocers. This brownish powder is a mixture of star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, fennel, cloves and cinnamon. A good blend is pungent, fragrant, spicy and slightly sweet at the same time. The exotic fragrance it gives to a dish makes the search for a good mixture well worth the effort. It keeps indefinitely in a well sealed jar.


Garlic has been an essential seasoning in Chinese cookery for thousands of years. Chinese food would be inconceivable without the distinctive, highly aromatic smell and taste of garlic. The Chinese use it in numerous ways: whole, finely chopped, crushed and pickled. It is used to flavour oils as well as spicy sauces, and is often paired with other equally pungent ingredients such as spring onions, black beans or fresh ginger.

Select fresh garlic which is firm and preferably pinkish in colour. It should be stored in a cool, dry place but not in the refrigerator where it can easily become mildewed or begin sprouting.


Fresh root ginger is indispensable in Chinese cookery. Its pungent, spicy and fresh taste adds a subtle but distinctive flavour to soups, meats arid vegetables. It is also an important seasoning for fish and seafood since it neutralises fishy smells. Root ginger looks rather like a gnarled Jerusalem artichoke and can range in size from 3 inches (7.5cm) to 6inches (15cm) long. It has pale brown, dry skin which is usually peeled away before use. Select fresh ginger which is firm with no signs of shrivelling. It will keep in the refrigerator, well wrapped in clingfilm, for up to two weeks. Fresh ginger can now be bought at many greengrocers and supermarkets and in most Chinese and Asian grocers. Dried powdered ginger has a quite different flavour and cannot be substituted for fresh root ginger.


Chinese ham has a rich salty flavour and is used primarily as a garnish or seasoning to flavour soups, sauces, stir-fried dishes, noodles and rice. One of the most prized Chinese smoked hams comes from Zhejiang Province. Unfortunately Chinese hams are not available in this country but a good substitute is either Parma ham which can be found in delicatessens and good supermarkets, or lean English smoked bacon (with any rind or fat cut away).

Chinese mushrooms

Mushrooms are a popular ingredient in Chinese cookery. There are many varieties and they are used both fresh and dried. The most common are:

Chinese dried mushrooms

There are many varieties of these which add a particular flavour and aroma to Chinese dishes. They can be black or brown in colour. The very large ones with a lighter colour and a highly cracked surface are the best and so they are usually the most expensive. They can be bought in boxes or plastic bags from Chinese grocers, and are fairly pricey. Keep them stored in an air-tight jar.

To use Chinese dried mushrooms

Soak the required amount of dried mushrooms in hot water for about 25 minutes until they are soft. Squeeze out any excess liquid and remove the tough, inedible stem. The mushrooms are now ready for use.

Straw mushrooms

These are among the tastiest mushrooms found in China. When fresh they have deep brown caps which are moulded around the stem. In this country they are only available in tins, and can be bought in Chinese grocers and in some supermarkets and delicatessens. Drain them and rinse in cold water before use.


Oil is the most commonly used cooking medium in China. The favourite is groundnut (peanut) oil. Animals fats, usually lard and chicken fat, are also used in some areas, particularly in north China. I prefer always to use oil since I find animal fats too heavy.

Throughout this book I have indicated where oils can be re-used. Where this is possible simply cool the oil after use and filter it through cheesecloth or a fine strainer into a jar. Cover it tightly and keep in a cool, dry place. If you keep it in the refrigerator it will become cloudy but it will clarify again when the oil returns to room temperature. I find oils are best re-used just once, and this is healthier since constantly re-used oils increase in saturated fat content.

Groundnut oil

This is also known as peanut oil or arachide oil. I prefer to use this for Chinese cookery because it has a pleasant, mild taste which is unobtrusive. Although it has a higher saturated fat content than some oils, its ability to be heated to a high temperature makes it perfect for stir-frying and deep-frying. Many supermarkets stock it, but if you cannot find it, use corn oil instead.

Corn oil

Corn or maize oil is also quite suitable for Chinese cooking. It has a high heating point although I find it rather bland and it has a slightly disagreeable smell. It is high in polyunsaturates and is therefore one of the healthier oils.

Other vegetable oils

Some of the cheaper vegetable oils available include soyabean, safflower and sunflower oils. They are light in colour and taste, and can also be used in Chinese cooking.

Sesame oil

This is a thick, rich, golden brown oil made from sesame seeds, which has a distinctive, nutty flavour and aroma. It is widely used in Chinese cookery as a seasoning but is not normally used as a cooking oil because it heats rapidly and burns easily. It is often added at the last moment to finish a dish. Sold in bottles you can obtain it in many supermarkets and in Chinese grocers.


Raw peanuts are used in Chinese cooking to add flavour and a crunchy texture and are especially popular when marinaded or added to stir-fry dishes. They can be bought at health food shops, good supermarkets and Chinese grocers. The thin red skins need to be removed before you use the nuts. To do this simply immerse them in a pot of boiling water for about 2 minutes. Drain them and let them cool and the skins will come off easily.

Rice wine

This wine is used extensively for cooking and drinking throughout China, and the finest variety is believed to be that from Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province in eastern China. It is made from glutinous rice, yeast and spring water. Available from Chinese grocers, it should be kept at room temperature, tightly corked. A good quality, dry, pale sherry can be substituted but cannot equal the rich, mellow taste of Chinese rice wine.

Sauces and pastes

Chinese cookery involves a number of thick tasty sauces or pastes. They are essential to the authentic taste of Chinese cooking and it is well worth making the effort to obtain them. Most are sold in bottles or tins in Chinese grocers and some supermarkets. Tinned sauces, once opened, should be transferred to screw-top glass jars and kept in the refrigerator where they will last indefinitely.

Chilli bean sauce

This is a thick dark sauce or paste made from soyabeans, chillis and other seasonings, which is very hot and spicy. Widely used in cooking in western China, it is usually available here in jars in Chinese grocers. Be sure to seal the jar tightly after use and store in the larder or refrigerator. Do not confuse it with chilli sauce which is a hot, red, thinner sauce made without beans and used mainly as a dipping sauce for cooked dishes.

Chilli sauce

Chilli sauce is a bright red, hot sauce which is made from chillis, vinegar, sugar and salt. It is sometimes used for cooking, but it is mainly used as a dipping sauce. There are various brands available in many supermarkets and Chinese grocers and you should experiment with them until you find the one you like best. If you find it too strong, dilute it with hot water. Do not confuse this sauce with the chilli bean sauce mentioned above which is a much thicker, darker sauce used for cooking.

Hoisin sauce

This is a thick, dark, brownish red sauce which is made from soyabeans, vinegar, sugar, spices and other flavourings. It is sweet and spicy and is widely used in southern Chinese cookery. In the West it is often used as a sauce for Peking Duck instead of the traditional sweet bean sauce. Hoisin sauce is sold in tins and jars (it is sometimes also called barbecue sauce) and is available in Chinese grocers and some supermarkets. If refrigerated it should keep indefinitely.

Oyster sauce

This thick brown sauce is made from a concentrate of oysters cooked in soy sauce and brine. Despite its name, oyster sauce does not taste fishy. It has a rich flavour and is used not only in cooking but as a condiment, diluted with a little oil, for vegetables, poultry or meats. It is usually sold in bottles and can be bought in Chinese grocers and some supermarkets. I find it keeps best in the refrigerator.

Sesame paste

This rich, thick, creamy brown paste is made from sesame seeds. It is used in both hot and cold dishes, and is particularly popular in northern and western China. It is sold in jars at Chinese grocers. If you cannot obtain it, use peanut butter, which resembles it in taste and texture.

Soy sauces

Soy sauce is an essential ingredient of Chinese cooking. It is made from a mixture of soyabeans, flour and water, which is then naturally fermented and aged for some months. The liquid which is finally distilled is soy sauce. There are two main types:

Light soy sauce As the name implies this is light in colour but it is full of flavour and is the best one to use for cooking. It is saltier than dark soy sauce. It is known in Chinese grocers as Superior Soy.

Dark soy sauce This sauce is aged for much longer than light soy sauce, hence its darker, almost black colour. It is slightly thicker and stronger than light soy sauce and is more suitable for stews. I prefer it to light soy as a dipping sauce. It is known in Chinese grocers as Soy Superior Sauce.

Most soy sauces sold in supermarkets are dark soy. Chinese grocers sell both types and the quality is superior. Be sure you buy the right one as the names are very similar.

Whole yellow bean sauce

This thick, spicy, aromatic sauce is made with yellow beans, flour and salt which are fermented together. It is quite salty but adds a distinctive flavour to Chinese sauces. There are two forms: whole beans in a thick sauce; and mashed or pureed beans (sold as crushed yellow bean sauce). I prefer the whole bean variety because it is slightly less salty and has a better texture.

Chinese sausages

Chinese sausages look exactly like thin salami and are about 6 inches (15 cm) long. They are made from duck or pork liver, or from pork meat and are cured. They are dark red in colour with white flecks of fat. Their tasty flavour varies according to type but they are sweet rather than spicy. They must be cooked before they can be eaten and are most commonly used to season chicken and rice dishes. They are obtainable from Chinese grocers.


If you cannot get rice wine you can use a good quality, dry, pale sherry instead. Do not use sweet or cream sherries.

Sichuan peppercorns

Sichuan peppercorns are known throughout China as 'flower peppers' because they look like flower buds opening. They are reddish brown in colour with a strong pungent odour which distinguishes them from the hotter black peppercorns. They are actually not from peppers at all, but are the dried berries of a shrub which is a member of the citrus family. I find their smell reminds me of lavender while their taste is sharp and mildly spicy. They can be ground in a conventional peppermill and are very often roasted before they are ground to bring out their full flavour. They are sold wrapped in cellophane or plastic bags in Chinese grocers and are inexpensive. They will keep indefinitely if stored in a well sealed container.

To roast Sichuan peppercorns

Heat a wok or heavy frying-pan to a medium heat. Add the peppercorns (you can cook up to about 5oz (150g) at a time) and stir-fry them for about 5 minutes until they brown slightly and start to smoke. Remove the pan from the heat and let them cool. Grind the peppercorns in a peppermill, clean coffee grinder or with a mortar and pestle. Seal the mixture tightly in a screw-top jar until you need. Alternatively keep the whole roasted peppercorns in a well sealed container and grind them when required.

Sichuan preserved vegetable

There are many types of Chinese pickled vegetables. One of the most popular is Sichuan preserved vegetable, a speciality of Sichuan Province. This is the root of the mustard green which is pickled in salt and hot chillis. It is sold in tins in Chinese grocers, and gives a pleasantly crunchy texture and spicy taste to dishes. Before using it, rinse in cold water and then slice or chop as required. Any unused vegetable should be transferred to a tightly covered jar and stored in the refrigerator where it will keep indefinitely.

Spring roll skins

These are the paper-thin pastry wrappers which are filled with bean sprouts and other vegetables to make spring rolls. They are about 6inches (15cm) square, white in colour, and are made from a soft flour and water dough. They are very thin and probably too tricky to make at home, so I suggest you buy them frozen in packets of 20 from Chinese grocers. Keep them in the freezer well wrapped in clingfilm.

Star anise

The star anise is a hard, star-shaped spice and is the seed-pod of the anise bush. (It is also known as Chinese anise or whole anise.) It is similar in flavour and fragrance to common aniseed but is more robust and liquorice-like. Star anise is an essential ingredient of five spice powder and is widely used in braised dishes to which it imparts a rich taste and fragrance. It is sold in plastic packs by Chinese grocers, and should be stored in a tightly covered jar in a cool, dry place.

Sugar has been used in the cooking of savoury dishes in China for a thousand years. Properly employed it helps balance the various flavours of sauces and other dishes. Chinese sugar comes in several forms: as rock or yellow lump sugar, as brown sugar slabs, and as maltose or malt sugar. I particularly like to use rock sugar which is rich and has a more subtle flavour than that of refined granulated sugar. It also gives a good lustre or glaze to braised dishes and sauces. You can buy it in Chinese grocers where it is usually sold in packets. You may need to break the lumps into smaller pieces with a wooden mallet or tolling pin. If you cannot find it use white sugar or coffee sugar crystals (the amber, chunky kind) instead.

Chinese black tea

Chinese black tea is a full-bodied, fragrant and smooth tea with a rich aroma and a superb bouquet. There are various kinds of which Keemun is one of the most well known. Tea is used in smoked dishes or for simmering, as in the Marbled Tea Eggs. You can purchase Chinese black teas in Chinese grocers, delicatessens and in many supermarkets. I prefer to store tea in tins since these keep the tea in the freshest possible condition.


Vinegars are widely used in Chinese cooking. Unlike Western vinegars they are usually made from rice and there are many varieties, ranging in flavour from the spicy and slightly tart to the sweet and pungent.

White rice vinegar

White rice vinegar is clear and mild in flavour. It has a faint taste of glutinous rice and is used for sweet and sour dishes.

Black rice vinegar

Black rice vinegar is very dark in colour and rich though mild in taste. It is used for braised dishes, sauces, and sometimes as a dipping sauce for crab.

Red rice vinegar

Red rice vinegar is sweet and spicy in taste and is usually used as a dipping sauce for seafood.

All these vinegars can be bought from Chinese grocers. They are sold in bottles and will keep indefinitely. If you cannot get Chinese vinegars I suggest you use cider vinegar instead. Malt vinegar can be used but its taste is stronger and more acidic.


Waterchestnuts do not actually belong to the chestnut family at all, but are a sweet root vegetable or bulb about the size of a walnut. They are white and crunchy. In China they are eaten as a snack, having first been boiled in their skins, or peeled and simmered in rock sugar. They are also used in cooked dishes, especially in southern China.

Here, fresh waterchestnuts can some times be obtained from Chinese grocers or good supermarkets. They are tastier thantinned ones and will keep, unpeeled, in a paper bag in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Peel them before use and if you have any left over, put them back in the refrigerator covered with cold water. Tinned waterchestnuts are sold in many supermarkets and Chinese grocers. They have a good texture but little taste. Rinse them well in cold water before you use them, and store any unused ones in a j ar of cold water. They will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator if you change the water daily.

Wuntun skins

Wuntun skins are made from egg and flour and can be bought fresh or frozen from Chinese grocers. They are thin pastry-like wrappings which can be stuffed with minced meat and fried, steamed or used in soups. They are sold in little piles of 3 1/4 inch (8 cm) yellowish squares, wrapped in plastic. The number of squares or skins in a packet varies from about 30 to 36, depending upon the supplier. Fresh wuntun skins will keep for about 5 days if stored in clingfilm or a plastic bag in the refrigerator. If you are using frozen wuntun skins, just peel off the number you require and thaw them thoroughly before you use them.

Dipping sauces and mixtures

Many Chinese dishes and snacks are dipped into a variety of dipping sauces before being eaten. The most popular of these are chilli sauce, which can be bought ready-made, and Chilli Oil, which can easily be made at home. Soy sauce and red and black Chinese rice vinegars are also widely used as dips. The recipes on the following pages are some of my favourite dipping sauces, most of which, once made, will keep for several months.

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