Did You Know?The Chinese considered forks and spoons to be weapons, which is why most of their food is chopped into small, bite-size pieces, which can be easily picked using chopsticks.
Asian cooking may look complex, and many shun away from trying their hand at this cuisine, due to the elaborate process of procuring ingredients. Although Chinese cuisine may appear indulgent and exotic, it's a frugal cuisine, using simple ingredients and a variety of sauces to flavor the foods.
It involves the use of different sauces and aromatics to flavor a dish, and is all about combining different flavors, so as to maintain the balance and harmony in a dish. Moreover, you don't need a host of ingredients to cook an Asian meal for dinner. Let's take a look at some essential ingredients for Chinese cooking, with which you can quickly stir up a fancy meal for tonight's dinner.
Basic Ingredients for Chinese Cooking
Soy sauce is the most popular Chinese ingredient and is loved for the flavor it imparts to dishes. Prepared from fermented soybean, wheat, and salt, this ingredient is mainly added towards the end of cooking, although it's also added to marinades. There are two kinds of soy sauce available in the market: light soy sauce and dark soy sauce. The lighter version is salty and thinner in consistency, whereas the darker version is thicker and sweeter, and is added to give color to dishes. Add soy sauce sparingly to a dish, and using the taste test, add more if required. Certain brands are saltier than others, so choose your brand accordingly.
The next most important ingredient in Chinese cooking is rice wine. Although named as wine, this amber-colored liquid is prepared by the fermentation of glutinous rice or millet. A splash of this wine into your marinade or even into your stir-fried vegetables will give you the authentic flavor of Chinese food. While it's an indispensable part of the cuisine, you may not find it at local supermarkets. However, it should be available at most Asian grocery stores. If you can't manage to get hold of it, you can substitute it with pale, dry sherry; however, you won't be preparing a dish with authentic flavors.
This thick, brown sauce is prepared by boiling oysters along with some seasonings. Since it has been boiled, it doesn't have a bad, fishy taste; instead, it has a nice blend of salty and sweet, with lovely earthy overtones. Authentic oyster sauce doesn't even contain seasonings, and is a pure extract of boiled oysters. However today, we have all kinds of additives being added to oyster sauce, including cornstarch, soy sauce, MSG, etc. You also get the vegetarian version of oyster sauce that has been prepared from mushrooms. The savory-sweet flavor of oyster sauce is used to accentuate flavors of Chinese delicacies like stir-fried beef, etc.
Chinese cooking mostly involves a lot of stir-frying. It calls for oils with high smoking points, because the food is cooked at a high temperature. Peanut and soybean oils have high smoking points, which makes them ideal choices. Their nutty flavors add to the flavor of the dish. However, canola oil with its neutral flavor is also used in Chinese cooking. Olive oil is not used, simply because it has a high smoking point. Similarly, sesame oil has a low smoking point, which is why it isn't used for stir-frying. However, it's drizzled over salads and various cooked dishes as a seasoning. It has a wonderful, intense, and pungent flavor, so use it sparingly.
Tapioca starch or cornstarch is used in meat marinades, and is also added to thicken gravies. When added to the marinade, cornstarch allows the liquid ingredients of the marinade to stick to the meat, thereby, increasing the flavors of the dish. Meat pieces are often dredged in a cornstarch mixture and then deep-fried. This seals the juices in the meat and makes it crispier. Cornstarch is also used to thicken soups. Never use more cornstarch than that called for in the recipe. If your meat is to be marinated with cornstarch, add it at the end. Cornstarch and tapioca starch can be used interchangeably. However, before this ingredient is added, it's dissolved in a little water to avoid clumping.
Ginger, Garlic, Chili, and Scallion
Whether you're cooking vegetables over high heat or preparing a soup/stock/stew, garlic, ginger, chili, and scallions form essential aspects of Chinese cooking. They're added to almost everything―relishes, marinades, dressings, etc. In fact, they form the cornerstone of this cuisine. These fresh ingredients deliver wonderful flavors to the dish, which is why they are abundantly used in this cuisine. These four ingredients are usually the first ones to be tossed (chopped, sliced, or minced) into the hot-oiled wok. Their intense aromas infuse the oil, and are then ready to impart their wonderful flavor to the added meat, fish, tofu, or even host of vegetables.
This five-flavor powder is prepared from five spices: cloves, fennel, Sichuan pepper, star anise, and Chinese cinnamon. This spice mixture has a balance of sweet, sour, salty, pungent, and bitter flavor to it. It is popularly used as a rub for roast chicken, duck, beef, or even pork. It can also be sprinkled in small amounts to a vegetable stir-fry, etc. You can purchase this spice rub from the grocery store or can even prepare it at home, using a spice grinder.
Ground White Pepper
The Chinese don't use black pepper in their cuisine; instead, they stick to ground white pepper. The white version is added for its sharp bite. They are added to dishes to give them a spicier flavor, without setting the tongue on fire. Moreover, they are preferred over the darker variety, especially in the case of soups and light-colored dishes. The light color of this ground pepper doesn't interfere with the aesthetic value of the dish.
Rice and noodles are staples of Chinese cuisine. Various kinds of noodles are used in cooking: egg noodles, rice noodles, and cellophane noodles. Cellophane noodles are prepared from mung bean, while the rice noodles are prepared from rice flour. Try out different noodle varieties, and figure out which type you like best. As far as rice is concerned, long-grain rice is the option available for cooking. Moreover, if you want to prepare stir-fried rice, it's better to use one that has been cooked the previous day. Prepare the rice in advance, about 12-24 hours, for good, sticky-free results.
Also referred to as soybean curd, tofu is prepared from soybeans and is a great source of protein. It's basically quite bland; however, tofu isn't meant to be eaten by itself. Since tofu absorbs sauces and spices very well, it takes on the flavor of the seasonings added to it. Tofu can be classified on the basis of its firmness. There's the extra firm, firm, soft, and silken varieties. Firm tofu is used in stir-fried dishes, while the soft variety is commonly used in soups. The soft, silken variety is used in sauces, puddings, and various desserts. Tofu is an integral part of Chinese cuisine and is a wonderful meat substitute.
Whether you're preparing a soup, stir fry, or even dumplings, you need vegetables and meat. Chinese cooking calls for fresh ingredients―fresh and colorful vegetables, like cabbage, peppers, carrots, onions, zucchini, scallions, celery, broccoli, snow peas, etc. Bamboo shoots, Chinese cabbage (wong bok), Chinese eggplants, etc., are also popularly used in this cuisine. Then there's the poultry, meat, and seafood that are also integral ingredients in various dishes. Meat and vegetables are usually chopped or sliced into bite-size pieces, and often combined to form delectable delights. If you're a vegetarian, tofu is a great meat substitute.
Although there are many more sauces and ingredients used in Chinese cooking, these were some basic ones you will need to start off with. Once you master the art of this cuisine and gain confidence, you can slowly try out different ingredients and even different cooking styles.