20 Essential Chinese Ingredients (and Where to Buy)

20 Essential Chinese Ingredients | omnivorescookbook.com

Do you often struggle with Chinese cooking because you don’t have a certain ingredient in your kitchen? Or have you discovered a delicious recipe, but couldn’t make it because the nearest Asian market was an hour away? Have you thought about making your favorite take-out dish at home but are too intimidated to start?

You’ll feel relieved after reading this post.

In fact, you only need a few basic ingredients to cook most Chinese dishes. In the list below, I’ve included two sections. The first section contains 10 must-have ingredients that might require a trip to an Asian market. The second section contains 10 ingredients that are nice to have and will expand your ability to cook even more authentic Chinese dishes. But you might not need all of them, depending on your personal cooking habits. After getting these basic items, you’ll be able to cook a wide variety of Chinese dishes by combining them with other ingredients from the average grocery store.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look.

[I have included a short introduction for each ingredient. If you want to read more about it, click on the picture or title. It will lead you to a more thorough article on use, storage, and shopping.]

10 must-have Chinese ingredients

Light Soy Sauce (or Soy Sauce)

Soy Sauce | omnivorescookbook.com

I personally keep a stock of soy sauce, light soy sauce, and Thai golden mountain sauce (a flavor-enhanced soy sauce), which I use on a daily basis.

Soy sauce is the foundation of Chinese and other Asian cooking, so you’ll really want to get the right type. Read the label before you buy any soy sauce. The main ingredients should be just soybeans, wheat, water and salt. Some of the flavor enhanced-soy sauces also contain syrup and alcohol. These should always come after the main ingredients.

Back in China, we mostly use light soy sauce, which has a lighter color than regular soy sauce and tastes saltier. We pair it with dark soy sauce, to add color to a dish, if needed. If you don’t want to have too many bottles in your pantry, you can get regular soy sauce instead. It creates very authentic tasting Chinese food. The dish might be a bit lighter colored than you hoped, but won’t taste any different.

You can buy light soy sauce here.

Shaoxing wine (or Japanese sake, or dry sherry)

Cooking Wine | omnivorescookbook.com

I have Shaoxing wine, Japanese sake, and dry sherry in the pantry. Although sometimes we run out of Shaoxing wine (We have to travel 3 hours to get a proper non-salted one).

Shaoxing wine is the only cooking wine used by most Chinese families, but the right type can be tricky to find outside of China. Read the label before you purchase any Shaoxing wine. It should NOT contain salt. The US-branded Shaoxing wine often contains a very high salt content, because that’s the only way it can be sold in a shop without liquor restrictions. Do not get this type.

Alternatively, do consider Japanese sake and dry sherry. Both do very well in Asian cooking and can result in a very similar flavor.

Generally speaking, dry sherry is closer to Shaoxing wine, only with a slight hint of sweetness. Japanese sake is more delicate and mild, and also has a sweet flavor. If you have both on hand, use dry sherry in pungent dishes (esp. spicy ones), and use sake to cook delicate dishes (such as dumpling filling, soup, etc.). We always have sake in the fridge, because we love to drink it, too!

Chinkiang vinegar (or Black vinegar)

Chinese Vinegar | omnivorescookbook.com

Although Chinese cooking uses both Chinkiang vinegar (also called Chinese black vinegar) and rice vinegar, the former is used more often in authentic Chinese cuisine. It may also be referred to, using the modern pinyin romanization, as Zhenjiang vinegar.

As its alternate name suggests, Chinkiang vinegar has a much darker color, close to that of soy sauce, due to the long aging process. It has a rich, pungent, and tart flavor, with a fermented, malty taste and woody character that distinguish it from the light colored and fruity rice vinegar.

It’s a key ingredient in cold salad, dumpling dipping sauce, sweet and sour sauce, and hot noodle sauce.

There is no substitute for Chinkiang vinegar.

You can buy Chinkiang vinegar here.

Oyster sauce

Oyster Sauce | omnivorescookbook.com

Like hoisin sauce, oyster sauce will make every dish taste better. The difference between the two sauces is that oyster sauce is much less sweet and has a richer umami flavor. If you add a drop of oyster sauce to simple fried noodles or noodle soup, it will enhance the depth of flavor and make the dish instantly taste better. It’s also a very important ingredient in marinades for roast chicken and Chinese char siu (BBQ pork).

I always use Lee Kum Kee’s oyster sauce, because they invented oyster sauce. For vegetarian dishes, use mushroom oyster sauce as an alternative.

There is no substitute for oyster sauce.

You can buy oyster sauce here.

Dried shiitake mushrooms

Dried Shiitake Mushroom | omnivorescookbook.com

This is one of the most important ingredients in Chinese cooking and is used to add umami and depth of flavor.  They have a very concentrated flavor and most of the time cannot be replaced by fresh shiitake mushrooms. Various classic dishes such as hot and sour soup, egg rolls, and potstickers use shiitake mushrooms to enhance the flavor. The mushrooms also taste wonderful in noodles, claypot rice, and braised meat dishes, in which they get infused with meat drippings.

I always prefer whole dried shiitake mushroom to sliced ones.

You can buy dried shiitake mushroom here.

Dried chili peppers

Chili Peppers | omnivorescookbook.com

The key ingredient in Sichuan cooking and an important ingredient in all sorts of Chinese dishes. To cook real, authentic Sichuan food, you ideally need several types of chili pepper that range from super spicy to super smoky. The next best thing would be Korean or Thai chili peppers, which are more common in the Asian market.

You can buy high quality Sichuan chili peppers here.

Sichuan peppercorn

Sichuan Peppercorns | omnivorescookbook.com

It is the most important ingredient in Sichuan cuisine (as crucial as chili pepper), and commonly used in all sorts of Chinese cooking. It’s the essential spice for creating pantry sauces such as chili oil and spicy garlic sauce. It’s a must in almost all Sichuan dishes, including dry fried green beans and kung pao chicken. It’s a very convenient spice to infuse in hot oil (instead of using garlic, green onion, or ginger) to create simple, delicious stir fried dishes, such as this cabbage dish or this okra dish.

It is very difficult to source good Sichuan peppercorns in the US. Because of the low turn around, they lose most of the numbing potency that creates the true essence of Sichuan cuisine and taste stale. That’s why I highly recommend the premium Sichuan peppercorns from The Mala Market. They carry the most fresh Sichuan peppercorns in the US.

You can buy premium Sichuan peppercorns here.

Doubanjiang (fermented spicy bean paste)

Fermented Bean Paste 豆瓣酱 | omnivorescookbook.com

A basic ingredient in Sichuan cuisine. Just like oyster sauce, it makes every dish taste better, but in a spicy way.

You’ll need it to cook basic dishes such as mapo tofu and Chinese beef noodles. You can also use it to create these very simple baked wings and stir fried green beans.

Try to find the brand Pi Xian Dou Ban (named after its origin and current source of production). It’s the most famous brand in China and it guarantees the best flavor. You can shop for this brand on Amazon or on The Mala Market.

Star anise

Star Anise | omnivorescookbook.com

Whole star anise pods are widely used in braised dishes, such as braised spareribs, beef stew, and braised duck. It’s also a key ingredient in beef stock and noodle soup,

Star anise pods are powerful and have a very long shelf life. So it’s always nice to have them in your pantry.

Five spice powder

Five Spice Powder | omnivorescookbook.com

This is a very powerful spice and is convenient to have around. It’s an important ingredient in marinating and braising, but you can add it to any other dish for depth of flavor. You can easily make five spice powder in your own kitchen. The fresh homemade spice mix is more fragrant. Plus you have total control of the flavor according to your preference. However I find that keeping a jar of store-bought does come in handy when I feel lazy. Just remember, a tiny amount goes a long way.

10 nice-to-have Chinese ingredients

Dark soy sauce

Soy Sauce | omnivorescookbook.com

From left: light soy sauce, regular soy sauce, dark soy sauce

Dark soy sauce is more like food coloring, as it is used to darken a dish with an appetizing color. It is usually used in combination with light soy sauce in fried rice, fried noodles and braised meat. It will last a very long time in the fridge, so it’s nice to have in your pantry. We always keep a bottle of dark soy sauce in the fridge.

On the other hand, you can use ordinary soy sauce, as it still gives the meat a nice seared color. But if you want to create beautiful chow fun, you will need dark soy sauce.

You can buy dark soy sauce here.

Hoisin sauce

Hoisin Sauce | omnivorescookbook.com

Hoisin sauce is important for cooking Chinese BBQ and as a dipping sauce when serving duck pancakes. I believe it’s a must-have seasoning for some cooks. The reason I listed it here is because you can make your own hoisin sauce quite easily.

Peanut oil

Peanut Oil | omnivorescookbook.com

A great bottle of peanut oil will make all your stir-fried dishes instantly better. Try to find an Asian brand that consists of 100% peanut oil. When you open the lid, the oil should be particularly fragrant and smell like peanut butter. It is as fragrant as toasted sesame oil, but with a higher smoke point and a much lower price (per volume, anyway). If you cook simple vegetable dishes, such as bok choy with hot garlic soy sauce or stir fried cabbage, you’ll notice a big difference when using pure peanut oil instead of regular vegetable oil.

Toasted sesame oil

Sesame Oil | omnivorescookbook.com

Another flavor enhancer in Chinese cooking that’s usually added at the end of a stir-fry, or into dumpling filling. Please note, there are a few types of sesame oil and you’ll need the toasted one for Chinese cooking. It has a transparent reddish brown or amber color.

On the other hand, if you already have a bottle of high quality pure peanut oil, you can use that as a substitute for toasted sesame oil and still get very satisfying results.

Dried wood ear mushrooms

Wood Ear | Omnivore's Cookbook

Dried wood ear mushrooms and rehydrated one

A common ingredient in hot and sour soup, moo shu stir-fry, egg rolls, noodle gravy, and many other dishes, to add texture. Fresh or rehydrated wood ear mushrooms have a crunchy texture and earthy flavor. They do not taste like much by themselves, but absorb the flavor of whatever they’re cooked with. You’ll need this ingredient in your pantry if you want to cook real-deal Chinese food.

Dried lily flowers (Lily flower buds)

Dried Lily Flowers | omnivorescookbook.com

Just like dried shiitake mushrooms, dried lily flower is another flavor enhancer used in all kinds of dishes, and especially in vegetarian dishes. Lily flower itself has a very earthy flavor. When added to a dish, it lends both a nice crunchy, chewy texture and a rich umami, almost like bamboo shoots. It’s a key ingredient in Buddha’s Delight and moo shu vegetables.

Deep fried tofu

Fried Tofu (豆泡) | omnivorescookbook.com

We have a name for this type of tofu in Chinese – vegetarian meat. Just as the name suggests, you can use it in a vegetarian dish and it will turn out as satisfying as if you had used meat. If you don’t believe me, try out this stir fried baby bok choy or this Korean stew.

You can find it in any Asian market, though it might be labeled very differently in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese markets. Look for it in the frozen aisle (and sometimes the refrigerated aisle). It comes in different shapes, but all have a golden surface and fluffy texture.

Dried shrimp

Dried Shrimp | omnivorescookbook.com

Dried shrimp is a handy ingredient to have in your pantry, to add a seafood-like flavor to soup and dumplings without adding many calories to a dish. If you generally enjoy cooking with fresh ingredients and make dishes without a pungent flavor, this will be a great one to try out. Read more about how to buy, prep, and store them in this post.

Fermented bean curd (Fermented tofu)

Fermented Tofu | omnivorescookbook.com

I call it Chinese cheese, because its production process and taste are quite similar to those of cheese. You can add it into braised meat (red-cooked) as a hidden flavor. Or you can simply serve it with porridge or noodle soup as a side. Just like you’d spread just a small chunk of bleu cheese on toasted bread, a small piece of this goes a long way. There are two types – white and red. I always prefer the red one because I’m a Northerner.

Fermented black beans

Fermented Black Beans | omnivorescookbook.com

The key ingredient in black bean sauce. The flavor is similar to that of soy sauce, just more pungent and powerful. They’re usually used in stir fried and steamed dishes, especially in southern Chinese cuisine.

You can buy them at an Asian market, on Amazon, or on The Mala Market.

Shop premium Chinese ingredients online

Visit my partner’s online store for premium Chinese ingredients by clicking the banner below. Even you live near an Asian market, I highly recommend you to check out their Sichuan peppercorns. It is truly fresh and makes your dish better immediately.

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Hi I'm Maggie Zhu! Welcome to my site about modern Chinese cooking - including street food, family recipes, and restaurant dishes. I take a less labor-intensive approach while maintaining the taste and look of the dish. I am originally from Beijing, and now cook from my Austin, Texas kitchen.

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29 thoughts on “20 Essential Chinese Ingredients (and Where to Buy)

  1. Helen @ Scrummy Lane

    I learn so much from you about Chinese cooking, Maggie – I love how you make it all so easy to understand.

    I love Chinese 5-spice powder – it makes such a huge difference to the flavour of a dish. And I just bought some Siaoxing wine to try in a receipe – it was great!

    Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      I love five spice powder too! It’s really powerful and a tiny amount makes a dish very different. I’m glad you decided to try out Shaoxing wine and able to find it! Looking forward to reading your new recipe 🙂 Have a great weekend!

      Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      Hi Nancy, you need to try out the lily flowers while you can get the good ones in China (I need to bring these to the US every time, because the local ones are not very fresh)! They taste great in stew and stir-fry. If it’s your first time to cook with them, try to add a few into a savory stew, like braised chicken (something like this: https://omnivorescookbook.com/recipes/moms-best-braised-chicken-with-mushrooms). I believe you’ll like the taste 🙂

      Reply
  2. J-Mom

    This is a great resource. I had to immediately check my soy sauce ingredients. And next time I’m getting the ‘toasted’ sesame oil.
    I do have black bean sauce. Do I also need the fermented black beans?
    Ginger: I use them up to twice a week. So I end up peeling them, cutting them into tablespoon size and freezing them, grate them frozen as needed. Is there a better way to store them?

    Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      Nope, you don’t need the fermented black beans if you already have the sauce. I actually like the sauce more, because the flavor is more balanced. I listed the black beans here, because you can use them to make the sauce in a slightly cheaper way. They also stay in your fridge slightly longer.
      As for the ginger, what I usually do is to freeze a portion of the root after purchasing, if the chunk is too big. I grate them in food processor, flatten them in a bag and freeze them. So I can break off a piece whenever I need it. For the fresh ginger root, I wrap them with several layers of paper towel and wet the towel with water. You need to wet the towel every few days, but the ginger root will stay fresh for very long time. Don’t put it into a bag. So ginger can breath and won’t rot.
      I hope this is helpful!

      Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      You probably only need one trip to the Asian market to get all of them. If you’re just starting out, the first ten ingredients are enough for you to cook many dishes. Like, most the recipes in my ebook 😉

      Reply
  3. Alice

    I have everything except the doubanjiang and the peanut oil, so I guess I’m on the right track! Love your blog- you make everything sound easy and delicious! Oh, and I just keep ginger root at room temp in a little bowl along with my fresh garlic. It stays fresh a long time, at least 2 weeks, without going rotten or moldy, without water or refrigeration. It gets dried out eventually, but I try to use it before then.

    Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      Hi Alice, yep, it seems like you’re on the right track! I’m so glad to hear you like my blog 🙂
      Thanks for sharing your tip of storing ginger! My mom used to keep them in room temperature without any problem. Next time I’ll try keep them in the room temperature with some damp paper towel wrapped around. The wet paper won’t cause rotten because it’s allow the air to flow (I discovered it by a “flood” accident). But yeah, they will eventually dry out. If I cannot use it fast enough, I’ll just freeze it.

      Reply
  4. Kevin | Keviniscooking

    Fantastic write up here Maggie and I am happy to report I have everything either in my pantry or refrigerator except for the Doubanjiang. While I do have fermented black bean paste, it’s not the red spiced one you have here. One thing though – no ginger paste? I use that non stop! If I don’t have any of the fresh ground ginger paste I always keep a frozen root in the freezer and grate it. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      Wow, it’s surprising to hear you got everything for cooking Chinese food Kevin! Sounds great 🙂
      As for the ginger, I personally always prefer the fresh ginger root. I grate them in food processor and freeze them, if I got more than I can use. But since we can easily get it at most supermarket, and I use quite a lot, I just cut the portion I need from the root. How long will the fresh ginger paste stay good in the fridge? I want to try this too so I can save prep time!

      Reply
      1. Kevin | Keviniscooking

        I usually pick it up in any Asian market and now in most food markets in the vegetable section. It’s in jars or tubes. Ginger paste lasts a bit, but I usually buy the smaller jars and use it quick. Fresh is the best!

      2. Maggie Post author

        I’ll look out for these next time. Fresh is the best, but the paste sounds so convenient when I’m in a rush. Thanks for sharing the tips Kevin 🙂

  5. ColinR

    Thanks for this article maggie; it’s just what I needed. Deciding to learn chinese cookery is a bit like deciding to learn European cookery; there’s a lot of it; it can be overwhelming. What attracted me to chinese cooking is that it respects the main ingredients. Gradually learning how these basic flavourings are used to compliment different meats and veg offers plenty to engage with.

    Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      Hi Colin, I’m so glad you found this list helpful. Yes, if you’re just starting out, the new ingredients and spices might sound a bit daunting. However, I found there are many ways to incorporate the cooking with a lot of cookware and ingredients you already have. Of course you’ll come across more than the ones listed here, but with the top 10, you already can cook most of the dishes from my ebook (it’s for free when you sign up my newsletter) 🙂 Seems like you already get the gist of Chinese cooking very well 😉
      Have a wonderful week ahead!

      Reply
  6. Zoee Tan

    Hi Maggie

    Your braised mushroom chicken is superb. My husband loves it. So does my sister. They commented that I am a good cook but I believe it’s your recipe :-).

    I have just downloaded some of your other recipes to try.

    Thank you very much for sharing.

    Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      Hi Zoee, thanks so much for leaving a comment and letting me know your cooking result! And I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed it 🙂 You just made my day!
      Happy cooking and have an awesome weekend!

      Reply
  7. Joseba

    Thanks indeed for your tips, recipes and information about oriental cooking.
    It´s so clear than push me to try your recipes. They´re easy and I get fantastic results.
    Thanks indeed !!

    Reply
  8. Thos

    I have never once seen salt-free Shaoxing wine, neither in Asian stores (understandable as they would not be selling alcohol that can be imbibed) or reasonably up-scale liquor stores. Could you tell me what town / city you have to visit to acquire this, and any suggestions you might have for finding / ordering it?

    That being said I use the salted stuff presently, and just draw back on any salting suggested in the recipe.

    Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      Sourcing salt-free Shaoxing wine is one of my biggest issue now. I got mine in 99 Ranch Market in Houston. I’m living in Austin. Our biggest Asian market just started to carry it (the bottle looks a bit suspicious though). Up-scale liquor stores usually don’t carry them. We’ve talked with Spec and seems like they do not have distributor resource to order them.
      Yes I think it’s no problem to use the salted one as long as you adjust added salt accordingly. My next best option is dry sherry. The flavor is quite similar to Shaoxing wine, just slightly sweet. I also use rice wine (it’s much easier to get Japanese sake in liquor store) when I cook seafood or poultry, whenever I don’t need a strong flavored cooking wine.

      Reply
  9. Cheryl Talbot

    Thank you Maggie! I just read your list of Asian ingredients. Such a tremendous help to and I’m sure others who love Chinese food and cooking.

    Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      I’m glad you found this list helpful Cheryl! Let me know if you have other questions about Chinese ingredients or I missed something from the list. I’d like to look into it 🙂

      Reply