Chinese cuisine

17 top Chinese pantry must-haves to keep close at hand

Budget Eats viewers have repeatedly asked me to make a shopping video on where I go and what I buy for my spice cabinet, but the truth is, there are just too many good things. all over for me to put everything together in a neat and succinct video. That said, a great place to start scratching the surface of delicious flavoring agents is my favorite Chinese pantry.. There are spices, condiments, and toppings I always have on hand, for good reason – they’re versatile and can be added easily to any dish, not just Chinese! And if you stick around until the end, you can see a bonus rundown of my three favorite Chinese packaged snacks.


Sichuan Pepper

There are reds and greens, and I like both. The reds are deeper and more fragrant in a toasty way while the greens are a bit brighter and lemony in their bite. Sichuan peppercorns are the basic ingredient for mala dishes, which means “numbing spice” – if you happen to chew those little peppercorns on their own (strongly do not recommended), your tongue and lips will begin to buzz and vibrate as if you are kissing a swarm of gentle bumblebees.

You can use them whole in soups as long as you promise not to accidentally chew any (unless you want to kiss bumblebees, so be my guest), or use them ground in just about anything. other. I like to sprinkle a fair amount on a Sichuan specialty, the fish-flavored eggplant, a dish with a misleading name that is actually suitable for vegans.

White pepper

White pepper is the seed of the ripe fruit of the same plant as black pepper (but not the same plant as Szechuan pepper). While black pepper can taste toasty, warm and spicy, white pepper is a bit more androgynous and elusive: floral but musty, simply floating on the palate and nose where black pepper smacks of heat. I like to sprinkle it on soups and stir-fries, especially in some crispy noodles where the white pepper tames the rich, fatty thick-sliced ​​bacon and adds some smoky intrigue.

Five spices

Think of the Chinese five spices as the East Asian pumpkin pie spice. “Five” spice blends will vary from household to household and brand to brand, with some formulas actually containing more than five spices.

They are often a harmonious blend of sweet and warm spices meant to be applied to savory meat dishes and I like to highlight them in Taiwanese chicken popcorn. The particular blend I have on hand includes cinnamon, fennel seeds, star anise, ginger, and cloves. Other common additions include nutmeg, star anise, licorice, orange zest, and Sichuan pepper.


Somehow, still controversial despite numerous scientific studies debunking its bad reputation, MSG is a trusted sidekick in raising any dish with its umami power. I made an entire video exploring this ingredient and use it in everything from crushed cucumbers in chili oil to sesame noodles. Use sparingly: a little goes a long way.


Dark aged soy sauce vs light soy sauce

The soy sauce that we’re most used to seeing in the United States is probably light soy sauce. It is dark in color but quite liquid, like a flat cola. Black soybeans, on the other hand, are much more viscous: they are thick and syrupy, and their flavor is just as intense. With a slight hint of molasses, black soy isn’t as plainly salty as light soy and is much more suited to feature as a background in heavy meat dishes like braised pork belly and roast duck.

Black vinegar vs rice wine vinegar

Chinese black vinegar looks like a cross between balsamic vinegars, apple cider and rice wine. Where rice wine vinegar is crisp and fruity, black vinegar is a bit more tannic and tangy. As black as balsamic, but nowhere as sweet, black vinegar is truly excellent on its own (like in a dumpling dip) or paired with rice vinegar (like in a sweet and sour soup) for a multidimensional flavor.

Hoisin sauce vs oyster sauce

While both are rich and bright brown sauces, hoisin is much sweeter and oyster is much saltier. It’s also worth noting that while “hoisin” literally means “seafood,” the hoisin sauce itself is generally vegan and does not contain any real seafood in its ingredients. Oyster sauce, however, actually contains oyster extracts. These thick, umami-filled sauces are popular in southern Chinese and Chinese-American cuisines, and are delicious in stir-fries, such as beef and broccoli, and General Tso’s chickpeas.

Toasted sesame oil

Widely used in Chinese, Japanese and Korean cuisine, toasted sesame oil is the perfect finishing oil to give your dish a little more nutty at the very end of cooking. Due to its low smoke point, avoid using this oil for cooking over high heat and for long periods of time. Try a fillet of tteokbokki, five-spice roast chicken, or any other stir-fry, like sweet and sour cashews.

Shaoxing wine

It’s in great demand in various Chinese recipes but let’s get right to the point: I don’t like using this variety of rice alcohol in my cooking. This is probably due to the fact that I can only find one brand and just don’t think it’s good quality Shaoxing wine. It’s a bit too strong in this alcoholic way and leaves a lingering bitterness behind. It’s often used in marinades to tame the gaminess, but I often replace it with rice wine vinegar. If you can access better Shaoxing wine, don’t let me put you off!


Fish balls

Bouncy, bouncy fish balls are a delight. They are a compound of ground white fish and starchy substances bound together in a salty-sweet marriage. I love them in soups and stir-fries, like fishball chow mein.

Crispy chili

Laoganma brand crispy chili is a household name now, and if you haven’t tried crispy chili, it’s never too late. There are many different varieties, and my favorite is the jar which has roasted peanuts and crispy tofu chunks alongside the chili oil. If you can’t find it in stores near you, you can try making homemade chili oil from the comfort of your own kitchen.

Century eggs & salted duck eggs

Century eggs, also known as Thousand Year Eggs, are dried in a clay mixture for several months until the whites of the duck eggs turn translucent green-black and the yolks turn into a creamy, olive green, brie-like center. They are an acquired taste, but if you acquire such a taste, they are a godsend in texture.

Salted duck eggs look relatively docile in comparison: the whites are still white, the yolk is still yellow, but the textures are another story. The whites take on the texture of soft tofu, but the yolks take on a creamy, grainy consistency, much like freshly ground natural peanut butter. True to their name, they are extremely salty and are meant to be eaten as a condiment, not on their own.

Both eggs are wonderful as a garnish on congee, but I love eating hundred-year-old eggs dressed in a simple dressing.

Pork bristle

Chances are, if you like cured meat, you would love pork bristle. Pork bristle is basically pork seasoned with sugar, soy sauce, and spices, dried, then separated into tiny, meaty fibers, almost like cotton candy. It is often served with rice or congee, or baked in enriched breads as a garnish. My guilty pleasure is to eat it by itself with a spoonful.

Zha cai

According to Wikipedia, zha cai refers only to the Chinese pickled mustard plant, but i grew up using this term as the cover label for any salty and spicy chinese pickle. (Maybe my mom never corrected me and gave in to my Chinglish habits over time.) Either way, Chinese pickles are always crunchy, extremely salty, tender but never wet like juicy pickles. with American cucumber, and sometimes spicy.

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