These Chinese spices and pantry staples are essential ingredients you’ll need to make mouthwatering authentic Chinese recipes at home!
When you’re new to Chinese cuisine and you find a recipe that you want to make, it can be difficult to find a local source for some of the ingredients. In addition to that, you may not even know what some of those ingredients are.
If you can relate, this resource is definitely for you! Bookmark this page and refer to it whenever you need information on a specific Chinese spice or condiment.
Chinese Spices and Pantry Staples
Here are the essentials that you’ll find in almost every home kitchen in China.
Chinese spices- ground or powdered
Five Spice Powder – Wu Xiang Fen
This famous 5 spice mixture, also known as wǔxiāng fěn (五香粉), is usually a blend of Sichuan peppercorns, fennel, cloves, star anise, and cinnamon. However, the spice can vary depending upon the brand.
The blend combines the five primary flavors of Chinese cuisine: sweet, sour, pungent, bitter, and salty. It is great for marinades and dry rubs for meats. I make my own Five Spice Powder, give it a try!
White Pepper – Bai Hu Jiao Fen
The white peppercorn has a distinctly different taste than the black peppercorn, and is always the preferred choice for Chinese cooking.
White pepper has a much hotter taste that follows right down to the back of your throat, giving a prominent flavor to soups.
Ginger powder or jiāng fěn (姜粉) is a must have item in your pantry for baking and Chinese cooking. It is pale yellow in color and has a pungent, spicy smell to indicate freshness.
Ground ginger has a warm, slightly sweet and spicy bite. The flavor is not as strong as fresh ginger.
Substitute 1/4 teaspoon dry ground ginger for every 1 teaspoon of freshly grated ginger root.
Chinese spices- whole seeds and pods
Sesame seeds are tiny, cream-colored and shaped like teardrops. They have a mild nutty flavor which is further enhanced when the seeds are roasted. When you use them, the aroma is distinct and noticeable.
There are 4 varieties: white, black, yellow and red. Black sesame seeds a typically used for making sesame oil.
Sichuan Peppercorn – Hua Jiao
Known for the slight numbing sensation it leaves on the tongue, the Red Sichuan (Szechuan) peppercorn, or hóng huā jiāo (花椒 ), gives Sichuan cuisine its distinctive flavor. It’s used both in whole and ground form.
Dried Red Chilies
Dried Red Chili peppers, or gān hóng là jiāo (干红辣椒), come in a vast number of varieties–too many for us to keep up with. In general, the smaller the chili pepper, the more spicy heat they have.
Star Anise – Da Liao
Star Anise (大料, Da Liao) is sweet with a strong licorice-like aroma and flavor, and has warming properties. It is commonly used in Chinese kitchens for stewing or braising, especially for pork dishes.
Chinese sauces and other essential pantry staples
Light Soy Sauce
Soy sauce (jiàng yóu, 酱油) is a liquid condiment and seasoning, originating in China. Brewing takes place by fermenting soybeans, grains (usually wheat), and mold cultures/yeast.
The word for light soy sauce in Chinese translates to “fresh”, as it is traditionally made from the first pressing of fermented soybeans.
It is the most commonly used Chinese sauce for cooking. Do not confuse this for Light Soy Sauce from Kikkoman, which is a low sodium variety.
Dark Soy Sauce – Soy sauce (jiàng yóu, 酱油) is a liquid condiment and seasoning, originating in China. Brewing it requires fermenting soybeans, grains (usually wheat), and mold cultures/yeast.
As it often contains added sugar, it is thicker and sweeter than light soy sauce. It’s used in small amounts, for color as well as flavor in dishes.
It typically contains more sodium than light soy sauce; about 15% more, to be exact. However, the flavor is balanced by sweetness and is therefore not as intensely salty. Tamari is a good substitute if you can’t find Dark Soy Sauce.
Oyster sauce (háo yóu, 蚝油) is a savory Chinese sauce made with boiled oysters and seasonings such as soy sauce and garlic.
Hoisin Sauce (hǎixiān jiàng, 海鲜酱) is a thick, dark condiment with a sweet, salty flavor. This Chinese pantry staple is made with fermented soybean paste, as well as additional seasonings like garlic, chilies, and sesame.
Also known as Sweet bean sauce (tián miàn jiàng, 甜面酱), this essential pantry staple is made from wheat flour, sugar, salt, and fermented yellow soybeans.
As the name suggests, the sauce is a bit sweeter than other salty bean pastes. Some brands and recipes use the terms hoisin sauce and sweet bean sauce interchangeably, but, generally, commercial Hoisin sauces are thinner, lighter and sweeter than a traditional sweet bean sauce.
One of the most delicious ways to use Hoisin is on Moo Shu Pork (spread on the delicate pancake prior to filling).
Water Chestnuts (sliced)
Water Chestnuts or mǎ tí (馬蹄) in Chinese, are a crunchy tuber vegetable that grows in marshes and muddy waters. It has a wonderful nutty flavor and in spite of its name, bears no resemblance, flavor or texture to the chestnut. Water chestnuts are a common ingredient in many vegetable stir-fry dishes and sometimes are also added to shrimp dumplings like my Shrimp and Pork Shumai.
Bamboo Shoots (sliced)
Chinese bamboo shoots (竹笋, zhú sǔn), also known as bamboo sprouts, are conical, creamy-coloured tender shoots cut from the bamboo plant. They have a mild flavor and crunchy texture and are widely used throughout Asia to bulk out stir-fries, soups and other dishes.
Canned bamboo shoots are easier to obtain than fresh ones, and are available whole, shredded, or sliced. After opening the can, be sure to drain and rinse them. Unused bamboo shoots should be stored in the refrigerator in a jar of water for up to three weeks; just remember to change the water daily.
Corn Starch sometimes known as cornflour, is the starch derived from corn grain. It is used quite often to thicken the sauce of Chinese stir-fries and other Asian dishes with sauce or gravy.
Fried onions and or shallots are a crunchy and savory garnish for soups and other dishes.
Toasted Sesame Oil
Toasted sesame oil is valued for its strong and fragrant flavor. The flavor is deep, earthy, nutty and rich. In comparison, cold-pressed sesame oil is much gentler in flavor.
Peanut oil is widely used around the world, but is an essential pantry staple in Chinese, South Asian and Southeast Asian cooking. It has a high smoke point of 437℉ (225℃) and is commonly used to fry foods.
Red chili oil or 红辣椒油, pronounced hóng là jiāo yóu in Mandarin Chinese, is a very popular condiment for Chinese food but also an essential pantry staple.
Red chili oil is simply pure infused oil, and does not contain any red pepper flakes. Therefore, it is a good choice when you don’t want any chili flakes in your dish, or simply need the convenience of chili oil in a bottle.
Chinese vinegars and wines
Shaoxing wine (Shào xīng jiǔ, 绍兴酒)
Chinese rice wine, mǐ jiǔ, (米酒) or yellow wine, huang jiu, (黄酒) is used frequently in marinades and sauces. The most famous rice wine comes from the city of Shaoxing, in eastern Zhejiang Province.
Shaoxing wine has a more complex and deeper taste than clear rice wine. It is a bit like using salt versus light soy sauce, where you get sodium and saltiness from both but one adds a rich taste of soy.
The same is true for the lighter flavor of rice wine versus the stronger taste of the Shaoxing. The wine is essential for Hong Shao or red-cooked dishes.
If you need a substitute for Shaoxing, Japanese sake and dry sherry are good choices.
Generally speaking, there are three types of rice vinegar (mi cù, 米醋) used in Chinese cooking. They are red, white, and black (see black rice vinegar).
Although the flavor is milder, white rice vinegar comes closest in flavor to Western apple cider vinegar.
Chinese Black Vinegar
Chinkiang vinegar (Zhenjiang vinegar, 镇江香醋) is a type of Chinese black vinegar. It is made from various grains and is aged until the color turns dark brown or inky black. It has a rich, pungent flavor, sometimes with a hint of sweetness. It has a fermented malty taste and woody character that distinguish it from the light colored and fruity rice vinegar.
For most Chinese recipes, if a recipe says to use rice vinegar without specifying the type, it usually means black vinegar.
Made with chili pepper, rice vinegar, and salt, this sauce is spicy and fragrant, and will keep in the fridge for months. It a fantastic dipping sauce or use in marinades and stir fry for a kick of heat.
Chile and Garlic Paste
Made with chili pepper, garlic, rice vinegar, and salt, this Chinese pantry staple is spicy and fragrant, and will keep in the fridge for months. It a fantastic dipping sauce or use in marinades and stir fry for a kick of heat and garlic.
Fermented Black Bean Paste
Black bean garlic sauce (suàn róng dòuchǐ jiàng, 蒜蓉豆豉酱) is made from grinding salted/fermented black soybeans with garlic and other seasonings. Rather than using whole fermented black beans and hand-chopped garlic to make a dish, this sauce comes ready to use.
Dried Chinese pantry staples
Dried Shiitake Mushroom
Shiitake mushrooms, as the name implies, is a Japanese variety with a meatier and thicker texture and a flowery pattern.
Nowadays, I think names are used interchangeably, and only a fine connoisseur of mushrooms could probably tell or care about the fine differences within the black mushrooms category.
In Chinese cooking, dried mushrooms are favored over fresh, as the drying process really enhances their flavor, similar to dried vs. fresh herbs.
Dried shrimp is one of, if not the most common pantry staples in China. This dried seafood is used extensively in Chinese cooking. It adds great umami flavor and is sometimes even the star flavor of the dish.
Dried Lily Flowers
This Chinese specialty ingredient is also known by several other names, includings lily buds, golden needles, 金針 jīn zhēn (in Mandarin) or gum zhen (in Cantonese).
Lily buds have a slight fruity, floral scent and are used in a variety of traditional Chinese dishes. These are dried, so they need to be soaked prior to cooking. I use them to make Hot and Sour Soup.