I love spicy, robust flavoured foods (same with my wine!), so I tend to cook South East Asian or Chinese inspired dishes. I’ve been asked by friends which pantry ingredients are essential in Asian/Chinese cooking so here is a list of the items I use most regularly. With these on hand you can prepare a vast array of dishes from mapo tofu, to dumplings, to fried noodles.
From left to right:
1. SOY SAUCE – almost everyone with have light soya sauce in their pantry. I buy soy sauce in big bottles (1.6-1.8 litres), and refill the smaller bottle as needed. Try to look for brands without M.S.G or preservatives. Asian grocery stores will have a wide variety to choose from. I’ve been buying the brand Kim Ve Wong, which is made in Taiwan, and $5 for 1L or $8 for 1.6L.
2. TOASTED SESAME OIL – pure sesame oil is essential for adding a nutty aroma to many Chinese dishes. Make sue you buy the toasted kind, which will be dark brown in colour.
3. SHAOXING WINE – a type of rice wine made specifically for cooking and is used in dumpling fillings, stir fries and braised meat dishes. I usually buy the standard Pagoda brand, which is under $2 per bottle, but last time I bought a bottle the store only had the premium kind. I can’t tell the difference…
4. FISH SAUCE – This is probably the most common seasoning used in South East Asian dishes. Look for brands which are MSG free and made with just anchovies, salt and water. I use Megachef Premium Fish Sauce or the premium version of the “Squid” brand (gold bottle, not the green one) for cooking, which are $4-5 per bottle. I buy the extra special Red Boat brand for dipping sauces of salad dressings (approx. $12 for 500ml).
5. OYSTER SAUCE – I went a long time without oyster sauce in my fridge as most brands contained artificial flavours and I used a mix of soy sauce and fish sauce to get a similar flavour for stir fries. Then I found the Megachef brand stocked at my local Asian grocer, which is made from real teak smoked oysters without MSG, colours nor artificial flavours.
6. CHINKIANG VINEGAR – Chinese black vinegar has a complex, malty, slightly sweet taste and is worth having on hand if you love eating dumplings at home, being the key ingredient in the dumpling dipping sauce. It’s also used regularly in Chinese braised meat dishes. In a pinch, you could substitute with balsamic vinegar if it’s not the sweet concentrated kind.
7. DARK SOYA SAUCE – darker and sweeter than light soy sauce, i use dark soy regularly for soy-braised meat dishes, stir fried noodles and marinated eggs. Instead of buying sticky dark soy to cook pad see ew or char kway teow, I make my own version by mixed dark soy and dark brown sugar, plus some molasses if you have it.
Except for the cornstarch, these items aren’t critical, but useful to have for Chinese cooking, as are whole spices like cinnamon, star anise and cloves.
8. FIVE SPICE POWDER – I make my own 5-spice powder in my coffee grinder with toasted star anise, cinnamon, cloves, Sichuan peppercorns and fennel as it’s fresher and more aromatic than buying and storing a big bag of it. It’s used regularly in soy based braised dishes and meat marinades.
9. SICHUAN PEPPERCORNS – I love the tingling and numbing sensation from biting into these, and as I love spicy food, I cook Sichuan style dishes regularly so these peppercorns are essential. Did you know that they aren’t really “peppercorns”, and it’s the reddish husk that provides the flavour, not the black seed inside? The black seed is gritty and has no flavour, so I try to pick them out before grinding.
10. DOUBANJIANG – a spicy fermented broad bean paste, which can be substituted with other fermented bean bean sauces, and is a key ingredient in mapo tofu.
11. CORN STARCH – added to meat marinades to create a more velvety texture and as a thickening agent for sauces when mixed into a slurry (with cold water).
12. WHITE PEPPER – used more regularly in Asian cooking than black pepper. It still provides spicy notes without being too overpowering, so I use it regularly in chicken, seafood and fish dishes.
I will always have Asian greens (e.g. choy sum, bok choy or gai lan), coriander, spring onion, ginger, garlic and fresh chillies on hand. To prolong the life of coriander and spring onion, I wrap it in paper towel and keep it in a container in the fridge. It will normally last 2 weeks this way.
If you love stired fried noodles, grab a few packs of fresh noodles next time you’re at the Asian grocer. They keep for a few weeks but make sure you check the use-by date. I regularly buy the fresh flat rice noodles for char kway teow or pad see ew, fresh pho noodles for noodle soup, and a pack of fresh Hokkien noodles.