An Essential Guide to 9 Chinese Pantry Staples
Sauces and condiments you should know
Every time I pass by the huge queue outside of a hand-pulled noodle restaurant in Berlin, I’m blown away by the city's enthusiasm for eating Chinese food. Nowadays, you find soy sauce and more Asian ingredients popping up on the shelves of local German grocery stores. And chili crisp, black vinegar, and Sichuan pepper have become new norms in cooking glossaries, even in non-Chinese recipes.
More people are bringing this passion from their favorite eateries to their own kitchens. Just like grabbing a dictionary for a new language, stocking your pantry with new ingredients is the best way to learn a new cuisine. Even when the cuisine itself is as diverse and complicated as Chinese, it provides a solid ground on which to start from.
So what is the difference between light and dark soy sauce? Is there a substitute for Shaoxing wine and Chinkiang vinegar? Here’s a beginner’s guide to your questions on common Chinese pantry staples.
9 Chinese pantry staples you should know
If you are a complete beginner to cooking Chinese at home who wants to shop for your first pantry items, here’s your starter pack with these 5 : light soy sauce, black rice vinegar, Shaoxing wine, toasted sesame oil, and chili oil (or chili crisp). You can start cooking with these first and add more to your collection. But first, let me dive deep with each one and guide you through similarities and differences between ingredients.
Soy sauce is the cornerstone of Chinese and East Asian cuisines. It is a brown liquid made from the fermentation process of soybeans. If you ever tap into the fascinating world of soy sauce, there’s a vast selection from mass production to individually crafted soy sauce. In Chinese cooking, the two common varieties are light and dark soy sauce, the former of which is more all-purpose and accessible. Read more about different soy sauce types in Asian cuisines by Ruby.
Light soy sauce
When a Chinese recipe says “soy sauce” with no specification, it most likely refers to light soy sauce (生抽, sheng chou). As the quintessential and most versatile seasoning in Chinese cooking, light soy sauce lends salty and umami flavors to stir-fries, soups, noodles, and marinades. It can be used raw in dipping sauces or dressing for cold dishes. Though seen as “salt” in Chinese cooking, I prefer to use both soy sauce and salt to add depth as they provide different saltiness.
Chinese light soy sauce is thicker and saltier than regular Japanese soy sauce (koikuchi shoyu), so I only use them interchangeably in some cases. Since the salt level varies from brands, start with less and taste to adjust during cooking.
For beginners, your first bottle should be light soy sauce. My go-to brands are Lee Kum Kee, Pearl River, and Haitian. I often choose those labeled as premium or naturally brewed, with minor price differences but better quality. Regular soy sauce contains wheat, so look for gluten-free soy sauces or tamari (Japanese gluten-free soy sauce) if you’re intolerant.
Dark soy sauce
Compared to light soy sauce, dark soy sauce (老抽, lao chou) contains molasses, and thus is darker and more syrupy, while having a sweeter and less salty taste.
Mainly used in braised dishes and stir-fries, it adds a touch of appealing caramel color and taste, for example, in the iconic braised pork belly, beef chow fun, and chow mein. Dark soy sauce is something to step up your game with, and a small bottle lasts a long time. However, if a recipe calls for a little dark soy sauce, you can skip it or replace it with light soy sauce (adjust the amount to taste). Scallion oil noodles and our latest recipe for braised beef noodle soup is a perfect demonstration of using both types of soy sauce.
Braised beef noodle soup
Like many other cuisines, vinegar accounts for the sourness in sauce combinations in Chinese cooking, such as in the sweet and sour sauce in Kung Pao chicken, and hot and sour soup. The acidity also penetrates the dish, cuts through fat, and rounds up other flavors. For example, when making chili oil, adding a splash of vinegar will make the spicy taste more pronounced.
Black rice vinegar (Chinkiang vinegar)
Also known as dark rice vinegar or Chinkiang vinegar, black rice vinegar is made from glutinous rice, and/or with sorghum and other grains. It has an inky black color, a malty, mild sour taste followed by a slightly sweet aftertaste. Chinkiang vinegar is what we refer as “fragrant vinegar” (香醋, xiang cu) and gets its name from the city Zhenjiang/Chinkiang where it’s produced in. This has become the prevalent type of black vinegar outside of China. It is a pantry mainstay that I always have on hand, to make dressings for cold dishes, or dipping sauce for dumplings.
Chen cu (陈醋), (translates as “aged vinegar”) produced in Shanxi province with sorghum, is common in northwestern Chinese regions. It has a longer aging time, which gives a sharper and more sour note, making it great for flavorful noodle dishes like hand-pulled You Po Mian or Biang Biang Mian.
Black rice vinegar can be substituted by white rice vinegar, or as some suggest, balsamic vinegar. However, I highly recommend getting one bottle and appreciate the complexity of this condiment.
White rice vinegar
When a recipe says “rice vinegar”, it normally refers to white rice vinegar, which has a light yellow color and milder taste. Common in Japanese and Korean cooking, rice vinegar in Chinese cooking is for stir-fries and cold dishes or pickled vegetables to give them acidity but without coloring them.
Check out our detailed guide on different types of vinegars, plus our recipe for making a perfect dressing with rice vinegar to serve with this easy steamed eggplant!
Easy Chinese steamed eggplant
Chinese cooking wine (Shaoxing wine)
Now almost synonymous with Chinese cooking wine in the English context, Shaoxing wine, is a type of huang jiu (黄酒) a liquor made from fermented glutinous rice. Produced in Zhejiang province, Shaoxing wine has a high alcohol content and can be consumed directly as booze. Sometimes you will also see another type: liao jiu (料酒), which is the former seasoned with salt and spices (some even with ginger and garlic flavors). It has less alcohol content and a lower price point, thus prevailing in Chinese households. Both can be used interchangeably.
Widely used in recipes, it dispels the unpleasant smell of meat or fish and adds an underlying aroma to meat dishes, similar to cooking with wine in many other cuisines. I use it to marinate meat (such as this pork stir-fry), season fish and seafood, and cook braised dishes.
A common and proven substitute is dry sherry wine, which was already mentioned in a cookbook published in 1945: How to Cook and Eat Chinese by Buwei Yang.
Oyster sauce is a thick, red-brown colored sauce, and popular in the Cantonese region as well as in Thai cuisine. Made from oyster extracts, it actually doesn’t have a strong fishy smell.
With a flavor combined of savory, sweet, and umami, it is an all-rounder in my kitchen. Oyster sauce adds umami to stir-fries or braised dishes, especially vegetables, and gives them a glossy finish. I also add it to dumpling fillings for the same reason and even eat it raw mixed in my Sichuan-style hot pot dipping sauce.
Sharing the same Cantonese root, hoisin sauce (海鲜酱, hai xian jiang) has a similar texture but its flavor profile is sweeter and closer to barbecue sauce. It is traditionally used to cook seafood, though the sauce itself is vegan. You can use it to glaze meat or vegetables, for example to glaze broccoli steaks. Read more about hoisin sauce and how to make it at home.
Toasted sesame oil
Called “aromatic oil” (香油, xiang you) in Chinese, this nutty and rich oil is made from toasted sesame seeds. Instead of using it as a cooking fat, toasted sesame is mostly mixed in dressings, and used as a finishing touch for noodles or added to dumpling fillings. It has the same transformative magic as chili crisp - a few drops will take your dish to the next level!
Chili oil/chili crisp
Chili oil and chili crisp (chili oil with crunchy sediments) are having a moment. Originally used for cold dishes, noodles, and dumpling dipping sauce, it has been enshrined by social media and many new exciting ways of usage have spawned. Here’s a guide to how to make your own chili crisp and 3 brands I recommend. I’d go with chili crisp over chili oil because it just has more to offer.
Doubanjiang (chili bean paste)
For Sichuan recipes, doubanjiang refers to a spicy bean paste that is produced in Pixian. It is made with fermented broad beans and Sichuan-grown chilis, and has a savory taste. This, together with Sichuan peppercorns, is essential for Sichuan cuisine. You can find this spicy and tingly flavor combination in classic Sichuan dishes like mapo tofu and Shuizhu fish. I recommend getting the brand Juan Cheng, which often comes in chubby red jars. If you’re cooking these dishes, make sure you get the spicy Sichuan bean paste.
Among a handful of soy-based condiments, there’s another non-spicy variant, often called sweet bean sauce (甜面酱, tian mian jiang) that often confuses first-time users. It is made with wheat flour with or without fermented bean paste. Closer to Korean black bean paste, it is milder, sweeter and is best for making Beijing fried sauce noodles (the Chinese version of Jjajangmyeon).
Spices and Aromatics
Chinese cooking undeniably flourishes on sauces and pastes, but we use spices and aromatics no less. I always have ginger, garlic, scallion, whole dried chilis, and Sichuan peppercorns (here’s a guide on this magic spice) for various dishes.
More whole spices are used in cooking soup and stew (for example, our newest beef noodle soup), namely star anise, cinnamon stick, fennel seeds, cloves, and black cardamom. However, readymade spice mixtures are common in Chinese households, such as five-spice powder, or even thirteen-spice powder.
A side note on MSG: even in China, MSG has been defamed for a long time and my family started to cook less with it in my childhood. I rarely cook with it at home, but I’ve had countless snacks and food outside where MSG was added. I embrace it and all the efforts to fight against the stereotype of this misunderstood condiment (for example David Chang’s docuseries Ugly Delicious). Adding MSG should not be a way to label a recipe unhealthy, just as much as an unhealthy dish does not always have MSG in it. On the other hand, the inclusion of MSG does not guarantee the quality for a recipe: Chinese cooking has more layers than that.
Of course, there’s more story and knowledge in each condiment itself, not to mention more condiments in regional Chinese cooking. We hope to bring them to you in the future! If you have questions about any Chinese ingredients, let me know in the comments!
Published on November 10, 2022