If you’ve ever tasted authentic Chinese food, you understand the richness and layers of flavors that make it special. Salty, aromatic, and subtle sweetness infused in every bite of Chinese food makes it memorable and nearly impossible to replicate.
Not just anyone can recreate their favorite, authentic Chinese recipes without the proper tools and ingredients. Here are a few of the essential flavors, sauces, and basic pantry items you need in your kitchen to make your cuisine taste like the Chinese restaurant’s dishes down the street.
Authentic Chinese Food Flavors
When you’re thinking of Chinese food flavors like those you find in Chinese street food or at Chinese restaurants, you should be thinking of a little heat and a little sweet. These two things will serve your dishes best if you have them in your spice rack.
Five Spice Powder
You can find five-space powder in just about any grocery store. You need it especially for braising and marinating, but it also can add depth to any Chinese cuisine.
As you use five-spice powder, just remember you only need a pinch. A little bit of spice goes a long way.
Not a common ingredient in basic grocery stores, Sichuan peppercorn comes from the husks of seeds found in two different species of the prickly ash shrub. You will need it to heat up stir-fried dishes as you infuse them with hot oil before you cook. You will also use it to make sauces and dips like spicy garlic sauce or chili oil.
Sauces and Libations
Once you have your spices, you will need some bottled sauces and essential libations to bring your Chinese food to life. Begin with the basics found in every grocery store and then move on to the more complicated.
Soy sauce has become such a common staple in American kitchens that you most likely already have it. You can find it in several varieties such as dark or light. It consists of a mixture of wheat, soybeans, salt, and water.
You can find generic and inexpensive brands of soy sauce at a local grocery store, but if you want the best flavors, you should find a store that specializes in Asian groceries.
You will need the right soy sauce for dipping as well as mixing into ingredients. After all, in what sauce will you dip the best steamed dumplings you’ve ever made, if you don’t have good soy sauce?
Oyster sauce takes your basic Chinese cooking to the next level. It adds depth with a rich umami flavor. You can use it as the recipe calls for it, or you can throw a splash into simple dishes like noodle soup to add more depth.
Chinkiang Vinegar or Black Vinegar
Chinkiang is a dark vinegar comparable to dark soy sauce. A long aging process leads to the dark color of the vinegar as well as its rich, tart, and malty flavor.
The Chinkiang vinegar will take your Chinese cooking from at-home tasting to restaurant-tasting quality.
Traditionally used in Chinese cooking, Shaoxing contains no salt. As a result, it’s difficult to find traditional Shaoxing wine outside of China. Many sellers will add salt to make it easier to sell in countries with liquor restrictions.
Look for authentic Asian cuisine or a grocery store for the best Shaoxing wine.
Many common grocery stores in the United States carry this important staple of Chinese and Asian cooking in general.
When you’re looking for the best sesame oil, look for toasted sesame oil that is a dark amber color and has a rich aroma. The darker oil will give you the deep flavor you’re looking for in your Chinese food.
Sesame oil can overpower a dish quickly, so you need only use a little. A full bottle will last you quite a while.
Miscellaneous Dry Goods
In addition to seasonings, sauces, and libations, you will need a few basic dry goods to replicate the best Chinese food you’ve had. Chinese recipes will often call for these items.
Chinese cooking often requires cornstarch as a thickening agent. You can find it at any local grocery store. Often the recipe will call for a 1:1 ratio of water and cornstarch to make a good cornstarch slurry.
You will use cornstarch slurry to thicken your sauces in braises and stir-fry dishes. If you’re making soup like Egg Drop Soup or Hot and Sour soup, you’ll need a cornstarch slurry to create the thicker consistency.
To create a slurry, wait until you need the slurry. If you mix the slurry too far ahead of time, the cornstarch and water will separate. Mix the cornstarch and water vigorously and add it to the sauce and soup by drizzling it in while stirring.
If you just dump the slurry into your hot sauce, it will create unattractive lumps.
You will also use cornstarch to marinate meat and make the texture of the meat juicy and silky. You’ll need it for frying as well. Often the recipe will call for you to dredge your meat in the cornstarch before you fry it to create a light, crunchy texture.
Dried Mushrooms and Peppers
The dry goods section of your pantry should also have dried chili peppers and shiitake mushrooms.
The mushrooms stand out for their strong flavoring, which will create even more layers of flavor in your dish. Hot and sour soup and egg rolls both have shiitake mushrooms in them.
You will need dried chili peppers for your Sichuan cuisine. When you begin your search for the best chili pepper, you’ll discover a variety of them from the spicy to the smoky. Select the pepper that best compliments your personal palate, depending on whether you like spicy food or not.
Spice Up Your Cooking
With the right flavors, your at-home Chinese cuisine can taste like authentic Chinese food. You’ll need the right utensils like a good wok and a bamboo steamer. These will help you in your quest to become the neighborhood Chinese cuisine expert.
Before you know it, you’ll find yourself cooking like a professional Asian cuisine cook. Just keep trying your new staples and testing out new Chinese recipes.
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