‘It’s simple – great ingredients make great food.’
Yes, your local supermarket has a world food aisle, but you’ll never beat the variety and value of shopping at a Chinese or Oriental supermarket. Don’t be put off when confronted with brands you have never heard of. If you really want to capture the taste of your local Chinese takeaway or restaurant, you’ll need to buy authentic ingredients.
Plan your visit and make a precise list of what you are looking for. You’ll be amazed by the huge savings you’ll make when buying ingredients.
EMBRACE the ADVENTURE. Chinese cooking requires a little understanding but once you learn how to combine tastes and textures, you’re on your way to creating perfectly authentic dishes.
There are three ingredients which usually hit a hot wok before anything else. Ginger, garlic and spring onion (the ‘Holy Trinity’). They’re not always used together, but very often used in different combinations in Chinese cooking, especially Cantonese.
The ginger plant originates from southern Asia where the root is used in a variety of dishes. It was one of the first spices exported to Europe from the Far East. Ginger is used in a wide range of food products including candy, biscuits, wine, ale and tea. Always have a large thumb-sized piece of root ginger in your fridge but be sure to check for firmness before using if it’s been sitting around for longer than a week. There are other ginger varieties available and your enjoyment of food will always come down to personal taste, but root ginger is the specific variety that gives Chinese cooking its truly authentic flavor.
An everyday super-food, this little clove has a distinct pungent and spicy flavor. Native to central Asia it has long been used for seasoning and medicinal purposes, widely believed to be effective against colds, high blood pressure and cholesterol.
The variety of garlic that you choose is very much a personal preference but if using a jumbo bulb, be sure to adjust the quantities in your dish as the recipes are all based on a standard sized bulb. Always look for a firm bulb with no sprouts when shopping for garlic and store in the fridge for up to a week.
Part of the onion family, spring onions have a milder taste than other onions and are widely used across the globe. The entire plant can be used, chopped and added to salads, soups and curries. When shopping for spring onions, choose bunches of fresh un-wilted stems. These will sit happily in the fridge for up to a week but keep them away from the back of the fridge to avoid chill burn.
Dark, rich, salty and smooth, this sauce brings a depth of flavor to any dish it is added to and is very often used with vegetables. It’s made by slowly cooking oysters until caramelized into a thick, dark brown sauce. You can also buy vegetarian substitutes in most Chinese supermarkets (which may be labelled as ‘vegetarian stir-fry sauce’).
Lee Kum Kee Premium Oyster Sauce is my brand of choice and is now readily available in many large supermarkets. Store in the fridge after opening.
Fragrant, smoky and nutty, sesame oil isn’t used in the cooking process but rather to season the dish before serving. It is often used in marinades to give the ingredients a nutty note. When buying sesame oil make sure it’s pure oil and not blended.
Probably the most well-known ingredient of Chinese food. Light soy sauce is more commonly used in Chinese cooking to add flavor and saltiness. It is thinner and often used as a light seasoning or for dipping sauces. Dark soy sauce is richer and less salty and might have sugar, such as molasses, added to it. It’s often used in marinades and sauces and it adds color and a sweeter flavor to a dish. Both have a rich umami taste which has been created by the soybean fermentation process.
I prefer to use the Pearl River Bridge brand of soy sauce, both light and dark. Supermarket soy is fine but I would highly recommend going the extra mile in order to achieve that truly authentic flavor.
Rich, salty and full of flavor, fish sauce is used to replace salt and to add a unique savory taste to any dish.
Squid Brand is my ‘go to’ for fish sauce. Opened bottles should be stored in a cool, dark place, but not in the fridge.
Slightly sweeter than Western counterparts and not as acidic, rice vinegar is made by fermenting rice or rice wine in China.
Readily available is the Amoy brand which should be stored in a cool, dark but unrefrigerated place.
Chinese rice wine
An alcoholic drink made from rice, not dissimilar to sherry, rice wine has a perfumed bouquet and will give any dish it is added to a distinct Chinese flavor.
Taijade Shaohsing Wine is readily available in most large supermarkets. The average alcohol content of this type of cooking wine is 13.5% and it is not recognized as a beverage. Opened bottles should be stored in a cool, dark cupboard.
Fermented black beans
A widely used seasoning in Chinese cooking, fermented black beans are a must for the store cupboard. Soybeans are left to ferment and as they mature they create a distinct, pungent salty flavor with a rich umami taste.
These are best bought as dried, fermented beans; at your local Oriental supermarket look for the Yang Jiang preserved bean with ginger. Dried beans can be re-hydrated in warm water and crushed with the back of a spoon to release their flavor.
Chinese five spice
A blend of star anise, Szechuan peppercorns, cinnamon stick, fennel seeds and cloves. The ingredients are ground to a fine powder to produce a completely unique taste sensation that is warm, aromatic and sweet. See Five Spice Ribs for how to make your own.
It’s well worth a trip to your local Oriental supermarket for a packet of authentic Chinese five spice powder, as although you can buy a variation of this spice mix from most chain supermarkets, you won’t get the real Chinese flavor you’re looking for. Opened packets should be stored in an airtight container to maintain freshness.
White cornflour (cornstarch)
Widely used in all Asian cooking, it’s used to tenderize meats, thicken sauces and soups and coat ingredients before frying.
The Chinese use groundnut oil in their cooking as it has a very high smoke point, which means it can get to a higher temperature before it begins to smoke and before the oil starts to degrade and produce harmful compounds. Groundnut oil also has very little flavor so does not interfere with the flavors of the ingredients.
NB People with nut allergies CANNOT use this oil – any other mild-flavored oils are absolutely fine to use and will not affect your cooking, but be mindful of their lower smoke point when heating your wok or pan.
Rice and noodles
These staple ingredients are great to keep in stock and will stay fresh in airtight containers once opened. Perfect fluffy rice starts with long grain Thai fragrant rice and having dried egg noodles and dried rice vermicelli to hand makes for very quick and easy midweek dinners.
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