Straw mushrooms: Grown on straw, these tiny mushrooms are earthy and musty. They are usually available in the United States in cans, though they can be found fresh in some specialty stores.
Bean sprouts: The sprouts that spring forth from mung beans are the most popular in Chinese cooking, adding a crisp, earthy element to many dishes. They are quite perishable and should be stored refrigerated in a plastic bag or covered in water in the refrigerator. Best eaten raw, bean sprouts also do well in stir-fries after very brief cooking.
Shallots: Part of the onion family, shallots look more like garlic. Milder than an onion, shallots are used like onions in Chinese cooking. Dry shallots will keep in a cool, dry place for about a month.
Bok choy: Actually a very small cabbage, bok choy's leaves are tender and mild; its stalk is crunchy. Boy choy is used in soups, salads, stir-fries, and cooked vegetables.
Green onions: Also called scallions, green onions are indigenous to China and indispensable in Chinese cooking.
Red chiles: The Portuguese brought chile peppers to China following the age of exploration in the Americas. Today, they are an indispensable ingredient in spicy Szechuan cuisine.
Garlic: A member of the lily family (along with leeks, chives, onions and shallots), garlic is the strongest-flavored, most assertive member of the group. Look for firm dry heads of garlic. Store them whole and unbroken in a cool, dry, dark location. They'll stay for about two months. To peel garlic, place the clove under the flat side of a chef's knife and gently press down with the ball of your hand, lightly crushing the clove. The skin will split, allowing you to pull it off the clove more easily.
Cilantro: A member of the parsley family (also known as Chinese parsley), cilantro has a distinctive green, waxy flavor. Cilantro is the usual name for the leaf of the plant otherwise identified as coriander, and from which coriander seed is obtained.
Cabbages: There are many kinds of cabbage sold in Chinese markets. One of the more familiar in the United States is the Napa cabbage, a light-flavored vegetable with very pale green leaves. A very popular addition to stir-fries.