Chinese Pantry Must-Haves

Craving the umami-laden flavors of Chinese cooking? The secret is having a few long-lasting key ingredients on hand.

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Photo By: Angela Carlos

Photo By: Angela Carlos

Photo By: Angela Carlos

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell

Photo By: Angela Carlos

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell

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We asked award-winning author and traveler Fuchsia Dunlop for her cooking must-haves. You'll find her "holy kitchen trinity" — scallion, ginger and garlic — at your local grocery store. For her other picks, a trip to a nearby Asian market or an order from an online retailer is worth the small effort.

By Lygeia Grace; photographs by Heather Ramsdell and Angela Carlos

Scallions and Ginger

"Sometimes these are used as flavors in their own right … almost as vegetables in stir fries," says Dunlop. "Often they are included in marinades to subdue less pleasant aspects of fish, meat and poultry," she says of the Chinese practice of adding bright flavors to take away flavors of "fishiness" or "rankness." 

Fermented Tofu

Made from tofu left to mature for a few months (aka grow mold). "It sounds funny, but think of it like Brie or another cheese,"says Dunlop. "It has a creamy consistency and gorgeous almost cheesy taste. Eat it like a salty relish. You can have it with your congee porridge and use in cookery: Mash the juices from the jar with spinach, add it to stir-fried greens and you get a delicious creamy sauce." Dunlop recommends either the white kind, which is sold in the form of white cubes in brine in a glass jar; or the so-called red kind, which sometimes comes in a clay jar and is colored a deep pink.

Dried Shrimp

Dunlop likes two kinds. "Both add salty umami to dishes, especially vegetables--like bok choy." The very tiny paper-thin (almost white) dried shrimp are called shrimp skin and don’t need to cook, says Dunlop. "You can add a pinch to wonton soup or sprinkle them on things." The larger pink and orange ones, about the size of peanuts, should be soaked in hot water for about 30 minutes (add a dash of Shaoxing wine to get rid of fishiness). "Then you can add them to a stir-fry or stew." 

Snow Vegetable

"This is simple salt-pickled greens from a certain variety of mustard greens," says Dunlop. "It has a lovely refreshing salty-sour taste. Nice with beans and fish in a stir fry." 

Star Anise and Cassia Bark

"Dozens of dried spices are common in Chinese cookery but you don't need them all," says Dunlop. Cassia and star anise are her basics. Cassia has a cinnamon-like flavor; you can use cinnamon sticks in its place. Star anise has a very strong spice aroma and is used sparingly, "so you don't overwhelm a dish."

Dried Chiles and Sichuan Peppercorns

"You don't want Chinese chiles to be aggressively hot," says Dunlop. If you can't find the Chinese variety, look for Mexican de arbol chiles (skip the very hot little Thai and Indian types). Sichuan peppercorns have a woody, citrusy aroma and can induce "a tingling sensation on the lips and tongue that can last for several minutes," she writes. Sizzle them in oil with chilies and you get ma la, "the most infamous flavor combination," says Dunlop of the addictive hot numbing feeling. "Toast them in a dry wok until your whole kitchen smells amazing," says Dunlop. She grinds them to a fine powder and passes them through a tea strainer before sprinkling them on dishes like mapo tofu. "You can also use it as a dip for deep-fried dishes," she suggests. 

Chinkiang Vinegar (Brown Rice Vinegar)

"This is one of the 7 essentials of the Chinese home," says Dunlop. "It is mellow, with layered flavor — not too sharp." In the Lower Yangtze region of China — the focus of Dunlop's book Land of Fish and Rice — the vinegar is "used for dipping fish, shrimps and crabs to subdue the flavors," she says. "It's nice with deep-fried things to lighting them. In other parts of China, it is used with dumplings."

Shaoxing Wine

"This is frequently used in small amounts with meat and fish to refine flavors," says Dunlop. "It's added to marinades to draw out impurities. It all sounds esoteric but it works." Dunlop recommends using a good Shaoxing drinking wine if you can, but the basic variety is fine if you're cooking with small amounts. Look for a Taiwanese brand if possible, she advises. 

Toasted Sesame Oil

"You want pure toasted oil, not blended," says Dunlop. "This is not a cooking oil," she explains. "It's used in tiny quantities for fragrance. You can smell its wonderful toasty aroma." The oil is typically added to cold dishes or hot dishes right at the end of cooking (heat destroys its fragrance). "Add it in small quantities — 1 teaspoon at a time. A bottle will last a long time."

Potato Starch and Cornstarch

These are different sorts of starches but they have similar applications. "In Chinese cooking, you dust things in dry starch before deep frying; it creates a bit of layering," says Dunlop. It is also used for thickening stews and sauces. "Mix a little starch with water, and then add it into a stir fry." Most famously, potato starch and corn starch are used for velveting. "When you add some to a marinade, the starch clothes the pieces of meat, making them silky in a stir fry," says Dunlop. "You can use it in a very delicate way. It makes vegetables glossy and delicious." 

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