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 fill their home pantry with.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.
Rice 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 – usually from Thailand – is also a popular variety, while others prefer basmati, from India.
A well-stocked Chinese supermarket will have many types of noodles. Photo: SCMP
Chinese 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 or other grains.
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 – another wheat-based noodle – aren’t necessarily made of egg: they sometimes get the yellow colour from alkaline, so be sure to check the list of ingredients.
If you have a limited amount of pantry space, the most basic types to keep on hand are egg noodles and rice noodles – both thick and thin, if possible.
Soy sauce and oyster sauce. Good soy sauce shouldn’t taste just of salt; it should have complex, fermented flavours. Photo: SCMP
Soy 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 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 paler 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.
If you have the space in your pantry, buy both. 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 and is drizzled over food just before it’s served.
Fermented black beans. Photo: SCMP
Fermented black beans
These beans are not pretty – they’re shrivelled, small and black. However, they pack a lot of flavour: an intense salty and umami richness. When rehydrated (soaked in anything from water to rice wine to broth) then mashed or chopped, 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.
As 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.
Dry mushrooms. Photo: SCMP
Although many varieties of dried mushrooms are produced in China, if a Chinese recipe calls just 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.
Buy mushrooms with thick caps. They need to be soaked and fully hydrated before being cooked, preferably in cool/tepid water, which can take several hours.
Using hot water is faster, 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.
Dried scallops (left) and dried shrimp. Photo: SCMP
Dried shrimp and scallops
These 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 shrimp, look for a clean, bright colour – they shouldn’t look dull or dusty, and they should be slightly pliable.
The scallops, on the other hand, should be very hard, with an even tan colour. Both are soaked in water to hydrate them; as with dried mushrooms, use cool water, not hot.
While dried scallops keep at room temperature for a long time, you should store the dried shrimp in your fridge or freezer if it’s warm and humid in your pantry.
Chilli sauces. Photo: SCMP
There’s an enormous variety of Chinese chilli sauces and many are made only in specific regions of China. If you’re a chilli-fiend looking only for spiciness of extremely high Scoville ratings, you’ll probably be disappointed.
Chinese chilli sauces, even the ones made in Hunan and Sichuan, are very rarely just fiery – they’re balanced with other flavours. If you’re travelling to different regions of China, look out for locally produced chilli sauces.
XO sauce is usually served with dim sum in Hong Kong. Photo: SCMP
XO 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.
Sichuan pepper. Photo: SCMP
This 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. Sichuan pepper comes in red and green, but the latter is harder to find.
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.
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.