We occasionally get emails from overseas readers asking for advice on what essentials to buy from Chinese supermarkets.
They explain that they don’t live in big metropolitan cities, so visiting 99 Ranch, Tang Frères or whichever Chinese market is in their state or country is something they can do only a few times a year, so they want to know what staples to keep in their home pantry.
Of course, it depends on the type of Chinese cooking you do. If you make a lot of Sichuan food, you’ll need a few more ingredients in addition to the Sichuan peppercorns listed here.
Some of these ingredients are obvious; others may be more unusual.
RiceRice is the staple grain for Chinese people in southern China (in the north, grains such as wheat and millet are consumed). Chinese people tend to eat long-grain rice, which cooks up into light, separate grains. Jasmine rice from Thailand is a popular variety, even though it's usually more expensive than rice from China. Hong Kong produces a small amount of long-grain rice, but not enough to export. The difference in quality is most obvious when the rice is simply cooked - not just steamed in the rice cooker, but in easy dishes such as clay pot rice with sausage and mushrooms and shrimp and vegetable fried rice.You might also want to buy a small bag of glutinous rice, also called sticky rice. It has short, fat grains, but it's not the same thing as the short-grain rice eaten for daily meals in Japan and Korea. True to its names, this rice has a glutinous, sticky texture. It's the type used for the bamboo leaf-wrapped rice dumplings made for the dragon boat festival. It's also good in rib-sticking dishes of sticky rice with wind-dried meats and steamed sticky rice with crab and sakura shrimp.
Dried noodlesChinese people are big on noodles. Fresh noodles are delicious, but dried noodles keep for longer. A well-stocked Chinese supermarket will have many types of noodles: thick and thin, flat or round, and made of wheat, rice, mung beans or other grains and legumes.Wheat noodles can be extruded, rolled or knife-sliced, and flavoured with everything from dried seafood (scallops, shrimp roe and abalone) to spinach and even beets (that’s fairly new). Egg noodles – a variation on wheat-based noodles – don't necessarily contain egg: sometimes, they get the yellow colour from alkaline (there's nothing wrong with that - it's what gives Japanese ramen noodles their texture).If you have a limited amount of pantry space, the most basic types to keep on hand are wheat/egg noodles and rice noodles – both thick and thin.How to use:
Simply boil until done. Rice noodles take very little time to boil, so check frequently to make sure they don't get overcooked.Recipes to try:
Pancit - Filipino rice noodles with squid, pork belly and cabbage
Vegetarian cold and spicy wheat noodles with bean curd
Asian carbonara with braised pork belly on egg noodles
Chinese fish ball noodle soup
Pad thaiBut mung bean noodles - which range from very thin vermicelli to large sheets that you cut into your desired thickness - are also delicious, and there's no subsitute for their slippery, bouncy texture. The thin version - called mung bean vermicelli or glass noodles - can be found in small bundles of between 30-50 grams, and also in larger amounts. The smaller amounts are easier to use because if you try to break apart a large bundle to get what you need for a recipe, the brittle noodles will go flying all over the place. If you have only large bundles, I suggest putting it in a bag big enough so you can insert your hands, and breaking up the noodles in there - the bag will contain the mess.How to use:
Soak them in hot water to soften them, before draining them and proceeding with the recipe - no need to boil first. With soups, they can be put directly into the broth, without soaking. For stir-fries they're put into the wok right after soaking and draining, so they soak up the flavours of the other ingredients, without becoming mushy.
Soy sauceSoy sauce – made of soybeans, salt, some type of mould (for fermentation) and, often, wheat – can be confusing because the brewing techniques and the names vary from producer to producer.In a Hong Kong supermarket, I found thin, light, superior, premium, traditional, dark and others, with prices ranging from HK$15 (US$1.90) for a 500ml bottle of “premium” to HK$209 (US$26.00) for a 125ml bottle of “royal”. The price difference comes from whether they are mass-produced with a short (or non-existent) fermentation period and a large amount of wheat, or brewed from soybeans in small batches, with a long, slow fermentation.Good soy sauce shouldn’t taste just of salt; it should have complex, fermented flavours. The price is often an indication of quality.If I had to limit myself to just one soy sauce, it would be light, although it might not be called that on the bottle. It has nothing to do with being low in salt or calories – light soy sauce is sometimes called “first extract” because that’s what it is: the first batch of liquid drawn from the fermented and aged ingredients.Light soy sauce is thin and relatively pale in colour, with a salty, balanced flavour. It’s the one I use most for cooking and dipping sauces.Dark soy sauce has added sugar, making it darker, sweeter and thicker. It’s often combined with light soy sauce to make complexly flavoured slow-cooked dishes, such as braised or poached meats.It's a good idea to buy both. Light and dark soy sauces can go by different names, so check the ingredients label.If you have the space in your pantry, buy three soy sauces. The most expensive types, such as Yuan’s (the producer of the expensive royal soy sauce mentioned above – made in Hong Kong and aged for up to two years), are used just for finishing a dish, or to drizzle over food just before it’s served, so you can best appreciate its flavour.
Fermented black beansThese beans are not pretty – they’re shrivelled, small and black. However, they pack a lot of flavour: an intense salty and umami richness. They give a unique flavour to whatever they’re cooked with and can add a good background note to other dishes where they feature less prominently.Dried black beans sold in bags are a lot more versatile (and more economical) than pre-made black bean sauce sold in jars.How to use:
Rinse them briefly, then put them in a small bowl and add just enough rice wine or warm water to cover them. Leave to soak for about 15 minutes, or until softened, then use whole, chopped or roughly mashed, according to the recipe.
Oyster sauceAs with soy sauce, oyster sauce varies greatly in quality and price. It can be confusing because both cheap and expensive bottles contain almost the same ingredients: oyster extract, starch (cornflour or wheat flour) and sugar. The more expensive brands tend to be flavoured with soy sauce, rather than salt.A good oyster sauce should taste complexly oyster-y (it seems obvious but not all of them do) and shouldn’t be too thick (which indicates too much starch). And as with soy sauce, price often indicates quality.How to use:
Because it has a strong flavour, oyster sauce is usually used in fairly small quantities, or it can be too strong. If it's overwhelmingly the first thing you taste when you've cooked a dish, you've used too much.
Dried mushroomsAlthough many varieties of dried mushrooms are produced in China, if a Chinese recipe calls simply for “dried mushroom” without specifying the type, it will always mean the one known as shiitake. These mushrooms are light in weight and have a black/brown and off-white cracked pattern on the surface.The most expensive are known as flower mushrooms because of the pattern on the cap. There’s no need to buy these unless you’re cooking them whole, where you can see the pattern. Look for mushrooms with thick caps.How to use:
These mushrooms should be rinsed briefly, then put in a bowl and covered with cool/tepid water to rehydrate them. This can take several hours, depending on the thickness of the cap. It's tempting to hurry the hydration process by using warm or hot water, but much of the flavour will leech into the soaking liquid.The mushroom stems are often discarded, but can be simmered in water with other vegetables to make a meat-free broth. The water used to soak the mushrooms can be strained (to remove any sediment) then used in place of plain water in the recipe (if it calls for water) or as the base for a vegetable broth.
Dried shrimp and scallopsThese can be expensive – especially the scallops – but they’re a good staple to have on hand to add flavour to many types of dishes. With dried shrimp, look for a clean, bright colour – they shouldn’t look dull or dusty, and they should be slightly pliable.Dried scallops, on the other hand, should be very hard, with an even tan colour.With both, the larger ones are usually more expensive than the smaller pieces. The small dried scallops (about 1cm or less) can be very tough, so try to avoid using them. Buy the largest ones you're willing to pay for. If you're not using the dried scallops whole, where appearance matters, you can buy broken pieces of large scallops - they're not perfect discs - because they are slightly cheaper. I buy these when making XO sauce, because they're going to be shredded anyway.While dried scallops keep at room temperature for a long time, you should store the dried shrimp in your fridge or freezer, or they could go mouldy.How to use:
Dried shrimp and dried scallops are usually soaked in water to hydrate them; as with dried mushrooms, use cool water, not warm or hot. Even when using cool water, some of the flavour will leech out into the liquid. The soaking liquid can be used in dishes, in place of plain water. For dishes where it's important to maintain as much flavour as possible (as with XO sauce), you can steam dried scallops or cook them with a small amount of water in a pressure cooker, before shredding them.
Chilli saucesThere’s an enormous variety of Chinese chilli sauces and many are made only in specific regions of China. If you're travelling there and taste something you like, it's best to buy it there, rather than trying to search for it when you get back home.If you’re a chilli-fiend looking only for spiciness of extremely high Scoville ratings, you might be disappointed. Chinese chilli sauces, even the ones made in Hunan and Sichuan, are usually not just fiery – they’re balanced with other flavours. But of course, check the label - if it's made with just chillies and oil, these should be used with care, in small quantities. Chilli sauces with lots of other ingredients, and chilli bean pastes, based on soybeans or broad beans, are more muted.
XO sauceXO sauce is the most luxurious of Chinese condiments. In Hong Kong, it’s usually served with dim sum, and many high-end restaurants produce their own.Originally, it was made primarily of dried scallops (along with shallots, garlic, chillies and oil) and lesser amounts of other dried seafood. Now, though, you can find XO sauce made without any dried scallops and, of course, these are less expensive.How to use:
With abandon! It's good with dim sum, noodles, plain rice - as a condiment with almost anything where you'd want a hint of chilli (a good one has some chilli spice, but the heat shouldn't overwhelm).
Sichuan pepperThis fragrant spice, also called prickly ash, is used most often in Sichuan cuisine, but its unique tongue-numbing quality can also be added to dishes from other parts of China, including soy sauce chicken and red-cooked meats. The peppercorns are the "má" (numbing) part of the popular Sichuan combination of "málà" (numbing and spicy) dishes.Sichuan pepper comes in red and green, but the latter is harder to find. If a recipe calls for Sichuan peppercorns without specifying the colour, use the red ones.Sichuan pepper should be very fragrant, with a bright colour. Because the pepper belongs to the citrus family and could potentially carry a disease called citrus canker, they’re not allowed into the United States and some other countries unless they’ve been treated.How to use:
Toast them in an unoiled skillet and shake the pan almost constantly, because they burn easily. Remove the shiny black/dark brown seed and use just the husk. The peppercorns are often ground after being toasted. They can also be lightly fried in oil, to flavour chilli pastes.
Sharp-eyed cooks might see some essential pantry items missing from this list – namely, rice wine and sesame oil. That’s because I buy rice wine from the Japanese supermarkets, and sesame oil from Korean ones – read about them in upcoming columns.