-This is not by any means, a comprehensive list. I will add to it as I can!
-Dried goods: for the best taste and user experience, look for brands without sulfites (sulfites make my nose itchy when I smell them, so I would guess you could have a similar experience)
Black fungus /hei mu er / 黑木耳
Used in soups as well as stir fries, this provides a subtle bounciness and textural intrigue to any dish you add it to. Also known as wood ear mushroom, this is sold dried (more common) or fresh. Fresh is really nice, but it goes moldy/slimy quickly, so best to buy fresh only if you are going to use it soon. For dried black fungus, look for a brand without sulfites, because those have a weird smell to them.
Black vinegar / hei cu /黑醋
This is the main component of tang cu pai gu, or sweet and sour pork ribs that the Shanghainese are known for. Black vinegar is also key in some Sichuan dishes, like chili oil wontons or fish fragrance eggplant.
Coconut milk / 椰奶 / ye nai
Used solely in desserts for Chinese food (in my experience). Two popular desserts are xi mi lu and a dessert that I don’t know the name of….sweet red bean and purple sticky rice porridge with coconut milk! When possible, I look for a brand that has only coconut extract and water.
Dark soy sauce / lao chou / 老抽
I don’t remember my mom ever using or buying this, so I only know what I do from asking her about it. Dark soy sauce is not very salty, and has molassesy tones to it. Its main use is to add well, color, to your dish.
Dried beancurd Sticks / fu zhu / 腐竹
This soybean product is soo delicious- cooked more ‘al dente,’ it can be chewy in some bits, and cooked for a loong period of time, it is soft and fluttery-like (if that is a possible textural description). Ever made your own soymilk? Fu zhu is made from the filmy stuff that often forms while soymilk is being cooked.
Dried black beans
Surprisingly enough, these are not truly black beans like you might find in black bean soup or salads. Dried black beans in the world of Chinese cuisine is made of dried, fermented, and salted soybeans (Not sure of the process). I buy the kind shown in the picture, and it has done me well so far.
Dried chilies / 干辣椒 / gan la jiao
I have two types in my kitchen right now- tianjin chilies, and some chilies that I THINK are ‘heaven facing’ chilies, bird’s eye chilies, or something in between. Anyway, the ‘other’ chilies are screaming hot, and only one or two are needed to fill the room with smoke 😉
(Dried) Jujube / hong zao / 紅棗
Jujubes are Chinese dates that have an almost herbally and ‘dark’ taste to them. They go perfectly with red beans and longan. You can also toss a few into some chicken soup for some sweetness! They will obviously plump up when cooked more. Watch out for pits 🙂
Dried longan / gui yuan / 桂圓
Chinese equivalent of raisins? They taste amazing on their own as a snack, but are also often used in sweet porridge, man tou (steamed buns), and desserts with sticky rice. They sell gui yuan shelled and shell-on kind, but the shell-on kind often times have added sulfites that are kind of stinky. My gui yuan are from Taiwan, delicious, and I hoard them because I only have one box and the next time we go back is in October…Keep these in the fridge or freezer for best results! This a great add-in to red bean soup.
(Dried) shiitakes mushrooms / 香菇 / xiang gu
I love all mushrooms, and love how dried mushrooms have a really hearty and meaty texture. If you are using them in a soup, no need to soak. If not, soak these in room temperature water at least 1 hour before you use them for best results.
Five spice powder
This is really good with chicken or pork- just sprinkle a little bit of five spice powder on chicken or pork, and bake!
Grass jelly / 仙草 / xian cao
Grass jelly is made from a Chinese herb, and it has a milk herby earthy taste to it.
I like Companion brand because it uses agar as the the thickener, and has minimal ingredients. After having eaten grass jelly in Taiwan, nothing in the can will do….
Hoisin sauce / hai xian jiang / 海鮮醬
Hoi sin is Cantonese word for seafood. Though…this sauce has no seafood parts in it, and you never eat it with seafood! In Cantonese cooking, it is often used as a dipping sauce for roast pig There’s a super tasty chicken salad dressing that calls for hoisin sauce, but that’s for another day..
Jujubes / hong zao / 紅棗
Light soy sauce / sheng chou / 生抽
This is the soy sauce that you should use if there is no specific type of soy sauce called for. It is salty. Umami. Slightly sweet (barely). Soy sauce is often used in place of salt, like in hong shao rou or rou zao fan. Between light and dark soy sauces, if you are going to buy one soy sauce, buy this one, for SURE!
Mung beans / 綠豆 / lv dou
I’ve grown up eating these in mung bean soup or mung bean porridge. Some Chinese people (and Southeast Asians) use these in conjunction with pork, in zongzi, which is sticky rice stuffed in bamboo leaves then steamed. Some people also add this to soups savory soups. Yummy!
Oyster sauce / hao you / 蠔油
So, to me, this has little oyster taste to it, at least the brands that I have to choose from in the typical Asian grocery stores. To me, it first tastes sweet (sugar is usually the first ingredient, after all) but definitely adds some sort of ‘hmmm yummy’ component to foods. I remember seeing my mom use it often in tofu dishes, to spice up soft tofu. I buy the green cap one from Lee Kum Kee because it doesn’t have added MSG. Oyster sauce and blanched vegetables (especially gai lan 芥蘭 aka Chinese broccoli) are also good friends who make up a tasty side dish.
Pearled barley / 薏仁 / yi ren
This is a tasty grain that can be used in both savory and sweet soups, or added to porridge. Try adding it to your rice!
Pickled cucumbers / 醬瓜/jiang gua
2 memories of eating this- with plain, white congee, and diced into ground pork and steamed with a salted duck egg yolk on top. Recipe to come sometime!
Red beans / 紅豆 / hong dou
The chocolate of Chinese desserts, in my opinion. Red beans are so good sweetened, either in soup or red bean paste!
Rice flour / zai lai mi fen / 在來米粉
Look for the kind with the simple plastic bag packaging.
Look for rice flour on the label, not to be confused with sweet rice flour! Just like with the seemingly universal (or just in the US) color coding options of different fat %s of milk, sweet rice flour is always labeled in RED print on this packaging. (Sweet rice flour is labeled in green print). This rice flour is made from long grain (white) rice. See the entry on sweet rice flour for more information!
Rice wine / mi jiu/ 米酒 – See entry on Shaoxing wine.
Rice vinegar / mi cu / 米醋
When I think of rice vinegar, I think of liang mian, pickled cucumbers, and dumplings. We would always dip dumplings with a combination of soy sauce and (seasoned) rice vinegar. Rice vinegar and sesame paste go together like lemon juice goes with tahini. Rice vinegar is slightly tart, and its acidity brightens many “liang ban” (marinated) dishes..
Salted turnip / luo bo gan / 蘿蔔乾
These crunchy bits are great scrambled in eggs or fan tuan, or stir-fried with edamame, soybean curd, and meat. Luo bo gan goes so well in fan tuan!
Sesame oil / ma you / 麻油
Look for only sesame oil in the list of ingredients (As opposed to sesame and some sort of oil used to stretch the sesame). Sesame oil is a must-have for certain dishes, like 3 cup chicken and dumplings, and several Chinese chive dishes like chive boxes.
Sesame paste / zhi ma jiang/ 芝麻醬
Look for only sesame in the list of ingredients. Chinese sesame paste should be a very nice coffee brown color, as opposed to light/tan colored tahini. Use this in cold dishes like cold noodles and mung bean sheets!
Shaoxing wine / shaoxing (liao) jiu / 紹興(料) 酒
Sherry wine supposedly tastes similar to this? Regrettably, as a non-alcohol drinker, I’ve never had sherry…one day I’ll try some! Shaoxing wine is a type of rice wine that is from Shaoxing. I don’t know any surefire ways to tell when to use Shaoxing wine and just normal rice wine, beyond some basic principles that my mom suggested: Shaoxing can be thought of similarly to red wine, and rice wine, white wine. Shaoxing is great for hong shao and where you want the taste of the wine to come through. Rice wine is great for getting rid of the porky or fishy tastes. I have definitely used them interchangeably when I only had one on hand. Now, I have told you all I know. I never paid attention to what brands my mom bought, so I couldn’t tell you what brand to get, except that for a higher quality, look for three words- 紹興酒 instead of four- 紹興料酒
Sichuan peppercorns / hua jiao / 花椒
These numbing peppercorns are not just numbing, but also fragrant. An essential of Sichuan cuisine.
Silver ear / yin er /銀耳
Used in soups, and in my experience, mostly in sweet dessert soups. Also possibly labelled as tremella.
Soybean paste / Dou ban jiang / 豆瓣醬
Fermented soy beans make this brown paste that is related to soy sauce- soy beans + wheat. Also known as huang jiang 黃醬。An essential component of zha jiang mian.
Spicy soybean paste/ La dou ban jiang / 辣豆瓣醬 (also known just as dou ban jiang among Sichuan/spicy cuisiners)
This is made from fava beans instead of soybeans, and is also spicy.
Star anise/ba jiao / 八角
This gives a hint of licoricey taste to whatever you add it to. Don’t go overboard with this- a few stars go a long way!
Sweet rice flour /Nuo mi fen / 糯米粉
Look for the kind with the simple plastic bag packaging.
Look for sweet rice flour, glutinous rice flour, or sticky rice flour on the label; not to be confused with rice flour! Just like with the seemingly universal (or just in the US) color coding options of different fat %s of milk, sweet rice flour is always labeled in GREEN print on this packaging. (Rice flour is labeled in red print). As the name suggests, sweet rice flour is made from ground up sweet rice, also known as glutinous rice. No, there is no gluten present, but it is sticky that it almost mimics the texture of gluten. This flour is made from short grain sweet (sticky) rice.
My mom recounts how rice flour was made back in the days of her childhood..They would soak the rice grains, then take it a few doors down to a stone mill, then pour water and wet-mill the rice. Then, they would collect the ground-up rice, put it in a muslin bag, then strain the flour from the the excess water. To replicate this, you could also do the same: soak the grains, blend them in your blender, and strain. The grains will be a bit coarser, and provide even more chewy texture to whatever you make.
Sweet flour paste / Tian mian jiang / 甜麵醬
Fermented flour. The consistency is pastey and brown..Used as a condiment for Beijing duck wraps, as well as shredded pork wrapped in thin tortilla（ 京醬肉絲). Also an essential component of zha jiang mian.
Sweet potato starch / di gua fen / 地瓜粉
This is a crucial ingredient for Taiwanese popcorn chicken, known as yan su ji (make sure you get the ‘thick’ (coarse) kind)
Tangerine peel / chen pi / 陳皮
Sadly to say I’ve never really used this before, but I inherited this from my mother-in-law, and I do know it is often added to red bean soup (hong dou tang) for a citrusy note. This is what is supposed to be used in REAL Orange Chicken!
Thousand year egg / pi dan / 皮蛋
Preserved egg. So good in porridge. Also really good in liang ban dou fu.
White pepper / bai hu jiao / 白胡椒
Tim says the pre-ground stuff smells foul. I think it smells musty. Kind of like a wet basement. So…if you can, get the whole peppercorns, and grind them up yourself. Freshly ground white pepper is pleasantly tingly to the nose, and just smells good!