What is it that makes one cuisine distinct from another? It can’t be the basic ingredients. After all, almost all cultures use the same raw ingredients to come up with their dishes. The difference lies in the seasonings and flavoring used by skilled cooks. For example, take some beef, a few vegetables, wine, and a few herbs like thyme and bay leaves, you can cook yourself a traditional, French beef stew. But, if you swap out some soy sauce for the wine and change the thyme and bay leaves to ginger and garlic, your dish is suddenly transported across the world to Asia. If you have an interest in Asian cooking and want to make authentic dishes at home, you need to stock your pantry with a few essential Chinese ingredients to produce good results. Below are five key ingredients that every aspiring Chinese cook needs in his arsenal.
It might sound strange, but salt is as important in the Chinese kitchen as it is in any other kitchen around the world. The reason for this is that salt is the main flavor enhancer available. If you’ve ever tasted a dish that you made and thought to yourself that the flavor wasn’t quite right, chances are that you need to add more salt. A lot of amateurs shy away from using salt, fearing that they might add too much, but aggressive seasoning is needed in order to make food taste its best. Salt also helps to amplify other flavors, which is why some people like to sprinkle salt onto their fruit. It sounds crazy, but the salt actually helps to make the sweetness of the fruit more apparent. Salt can also help to suppress tastes like bitter flavors. For example, Asians like to cook a vegetable called bitter melon that is incredibly bitter as its name suggests. Adding a pinch of salt to the melon while it is cooking greatly reduces its bitterness, making it palatable. When shopping for salt to use for cooking, always look for kosher or sea salts. They are pure salt and do not have any chemical agents in them like regular table salt, which gives them a clean, briny flavor.
2. Soy Sauce
Almost all savory Asian recipes call for soy sauce in one way or another. Created thousands of years ago in China, soy sauce has been a staple of the Asian diet ever since. Soy sauce is made by fermenting the soy bean and combining it with wheat and strains of bacteria that get the fermentation process going. The mixture is combined with water and allowed to ferment for weeks or months. After the fermentation is complete, the liquids are separated from the solids, strained, and bottled. Soy sauce not only adds salt to a dish, but it also adds richness and a meaty flavor. There are two broad categories of soy sauce available on the market. The first type is called light soy sauce, while the second is called dark soy sauce. Light soy sauce is the one that most people are familiar with and the one that is used most often in Chinese recipes. Dark soy sauce is darker, as its name suggests, and sweeter because of the caramel flavoring that they add to produce the color. Dark soy sauce is used primarily to color dishes. If you are on a sodium restricted diet, you can also purchase reduced sodium soy sauce, which has as much as 30% less sodium than regular varieties.
3. Oyster Sauce
Leave it to the Chinese to figure out a way to make a sauce from oysters, but along with salt and soy sauce, oyster sauce forms the third part of the trinity of Chinese cooking flavorings. Oyster sauce is a rich, thick, brown sauce made from cooking oysters and their liquid down till the mixture becomes thick and syrupy. Like soy sauce, oyster sauce is salty, however, it also has a bit of sweetness. Oyster sauce is used to give dishes a meaty and rich flavor since it is high in the fifth basic taste of umami.
No Asian chef would dream about having a kitchen that is devoid of ginger. This root has been cultivate for thousands of years across Asia and gives dishes a fragrant and pungent flavor. Ginger can also add a bit of spice, but not in the hot pepper sense of the word. When shopping for ginger for Chinese cooking, always choose fresh ginger. Dried ginger will not work since it has a completely different flavor profile. The freshest ginger will have smooth skin and will look plump and juicy. Avoid ginger that has any moisture on it, since this can facilitate molding.
While not exactly a flavoring ingredient, cornstarch is used very frequently in Asian cooking. First and foremost, cornstarch is used as a thickening agent for sauces. However, it is also used as an ingredient itself in marinades. You will see that many recipes call for adding cornstarch to a meat or seafood marinade. The purpose of adding the cornstarch is to create a coating around the meat, which will make it more tender and juicy during the cooking process. Cornstarch is also used in a number of pastries and dumplings as an ingredient in doughs and coatings.
If you are serious about Chinese cooking, you need to make sure that your pantry is stocked with these five essential Chinese ingredients.