The Global Pantry: China Article -
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The Global Pantry: China

With interest in international cuisine exploding, many home cooks are branching out and experimenting with the new, exotic ingredients they're finding in the supermarket.

Twenty-five Tastes

Creating your own take on international cuisines is easy once you've learned a few things about the core ingredients that build the dominant flavors in these diverse global cuisines.

To help spark your creativity in the kitchen, we've created some handy lists of the 25 most common ingredients you'll find in the pantries of home cooks from all over the world.

The Chinese Pantry

An ancient tradition that spans the millennia, Chinese cuisine is defined by carefully balanced flavors and time-tested techniques that call for maximal preparation before minimal cooking.

Soy sauce: An incredibly versatile ingredient in Chinese cooking, soy sauce is used to flavor sauces, stews, marinades and meat, fish and vegetable dishes. Chinese soy sauce is generally saltier and not as sweet as Japanese. 

Plum sauce: A traditional sauce for duck and pork recipes, plum sauce is a thick, sweet-and-sour sauce. It is made with plums, apricots and seasonings and sometimes goes by the name "duck sauce."

Black bean sauce: A sauce made from fermented soybeans, ginger and orange peel.

Hoisin sauce: Sweet and spicy, hoisin sauce is primarily a table condiment made with soybeans (or wheat), garlic, chile pepper, and other spices. It is almost jam-like in consistency and is frequently used to flavor meat, poultry and seafood dishes.

Peanut oil: A flavorful oil with a high smoking point excellent for stir-frying. Chinese peanut oil has a pronounced peanut flavor often missing in American versions.

Sesame oil: Dark and flavorful, sesame oil accentuates many Chinese dishes and is meant to be used sparingly. Store sesame oil in a cool, dry place.

Rice wine: Somewhat sweet and low in alcohol, rice wine is made from fermenting steamed glutinous rice.

Chinese red and black vinegars: If you cannot find these vinegars, try substituting balsamic vinegar.

Chili paste: An important ingredient in Chinese cooking, chili paste is made from fermented fava beans, red chiles, flour, and garlic.

Five-spice powder: A pungent mix of Szechuan peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, fennel seed, and star anise, five-spice powder is used extensively in Chinese cooking. It is not always limited to just five ingredients, however.

Sesame seeds: Mild and nut-like, sesame seeds are used to add texture and flavor to a variety of Chinese dishes. Their flavor intensifies when toasted.

Ginger: Spicy, pungent, peppery and somewhat sweet, fresh ginger adds big flavor to Chinese dishes, whether grated, ground, slivered or minced.

Pork: The most important meat in Chinese cooking, pork is highly versatile, found in everything from dumplings to soups, stir-fries to spare ribs.

Tofu: A versatile ingredient, tofu is enjoyed in stir-fries, soups, casseroles, salads, sauces, and sandwiches. It is high in protein and an excellent meat substitute. Tofu is made by pressing curdled soy milk in a process similar to cheese making. Smooth and creamy, the firmness of tofu varies. Tofu is perishable and should be refrigerated and eaten within a week of purchase.

Rice: One of the most important ingredients in Chinese cuisine, particularly in the south, rice is indigenous to China and has been cultivated there for thousands of years. Many kinds of rice are used in Chinese cooking of various sizes, shapes, and colors.

Wonton or spring roll wrappers: Look for these paper-thin sheets prepackaged in many supermarkets.

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.

Aug. 19, 2009 11:09 pm
Aug. 19, 2009 11:50 pm
very interesting . i really like chinese food and really interested in chinese cooking. thanks for all of these
Aug. 21, 2009 6:45 am
It is so exciting to find this pantry listing. It gives so much information about differenc cuisines.
Aug. 21, 2009 7:02 am
This is a great list. Thank you very much, everything is in one place. Pops
Jan. 24, 2010 6:28 am
This was just the list I needed. I would just go shopping and pickup somethings I would see , but never had a check list to go by now I do . Thank you very muchDonna
Jun. 8, 2010 2:57 am
Chinese food is the best cuisine and rated so. The information provided would indeed add in to our cooking expertise. Thanks indeed.
Amy H 
Oct. 26, 2010 6:34 pm
thank you so much my husband loves this type of food its really cool so thanks so much
Nov. 6, 2010 11:45 am
i would like to know how to make egg foo young. i have tried to make it and it doesn`t quite come out the same as take out.
Jan. 4, 2011 6:35 pm
Neat! Thanks so much.
Mar. 18, 2011 5:03 am
Interesting to look at this list while living in China... highly accurate to the most common ingredients used in Chinese cooking.
Apr. 27, 2011 3:07 am
I wish more Chinese people would submit authentic recipes. I love the ingredient descriptions. My sister in law is Chinese and she is a wonderful cook and has taught me a lot.
Jan. 23, 2012 1:54 pm
Thank you for this Pantry List, with all this information. I agree with Jean, I too wish more Chinese people would share their authentic recipes with us.
Mar. 21, 2012 9:26 am
Jean, Lasha--obviously, traditional Chinese cooks probably don't look to AllRecipes much and there'll probably be an issue w/ regional cooking (what's made one way in the north is probably made very differently in Hong Kong, even though the dish has the same name). What kind of recipes are you looking for?
Apr. 20, 2012 11:30 am
Very informative!
Michael Case 
Aug. 16, 2012 10:34 am
Does anyone happen to know how to Make fermented Black Beans???
Sep. 5, 2012 5:45 pm
How do you make the chicken smooth like in the restaurants? It is sliced thin and looks like it would cook fast. I don't like cooking chicken and then chopping it up. Not the same taste.
Oct. 30, 2012 2:53 pm
Thank you! now to make some dumplings.
Mar. 31, 2014 9:04 am
Excellent list. I suggest the lists separate fresh foods (bok choy, cabbage)from stored items (hoisin sauce, soy sauce)
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