Basic Ingredients for Chinese Cuisine

Cooking authentic Chinese and Taiwanese cuisine can be intimidating; the first barrier to entry is the plethora of sauces and esoteric ingredients that many recipes require that the average American kitchen just does not have. For my friends who are looking to incorporate a dish or two into your cooking repertoire, I understand that you don’t want to buy an entire bottle of fish sauce or Lao Gan Ma that will just be gathering dust in the refrigerator (if there is dust in your fridge then you should probably get that checked out).

Therefore, I have grouped common ingredients by their frequency of use in the recipes that we cook on a regular basis.

  1. Level 1’s are basically mandatory, and luckily, not too exotic.
  2. Level 2’s occur frequently, are less likely to be found in the average American kitchen and grocery store, and can often be skipped in a pinch.
  3. Level 3’s are mostly specific sauces for the truly committed home-chef who wants to achieve authentic results. Although- full disclosure- we don’t cook 100% authentic. We live in America. Ingredient acquisition in rural-ish CT can be difficult, or of questionable quality. Also, my mother-in-law has a Ph.D. in chemistry (her license to be highly-experimental in the kitchen) which has heavily influenced my husband’s culinary preferences.

Whole Scallions Roots Branching

Level 1

  • Garlic
  • Ginger (fresh)
  • Scallions
  • Sesame oil
  • Soy sauce
  • White pepper-powder

Level 2

  • Fermented bean paste
  • Chinese 5-spice powder: Cinnamon, cloves, star anise, fennel.
  • Ginger (powdered)
  • Rice vinegar
  • Rice wine
  • Sesame seeds
  • Shiitake mushrooms
  • Star Anise
  • Szechuan peppercorns

Level 3

  • Hoisin Sauce
  • Fish sauce (mostly used when branching into thai cuisine)
  • Lao Gan Ma
  • Lard (the real stuff that requires refrigeration)
  • Oyster sauce
  • Shallots
  • Sriracha
  • Thai basil
Lao-Gan-Ma Spicy Chili Crisp and Taiwanese Alternative Sauce
Lao Gan Ma (pictured right) and an alternative from Taiwan (pictured left) are the first spicy things that I have ever really liked. My (white) family members-none of whom are fans of spiciness- have all been converted as well! PC: Hannah Choi Photography

These lists are based on my own personal experience and the recipes that we tend to cook at home. I am curious to know your opinion: have I made any glaring omissions? Are there any ingredients that you think I have over-valued or under-valued? Let me know in the comments.

Stay tuned for my next post (coming in just a few minutes) with a recipe for Cold Sesame Noodles, drawing mostly from Level 1 ingredients.

Also, check out one of my favorite episodes on my favorite podcast Gastropod as they explore the evolution of Americanized Chinese Takeout in The United States of Chinese Food.



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