chinese pantry essentials

Chinese Pantry Essentials: 7 seasonings you need to cook Chinese food

Welcome to part 1 of this Chinese Pantry Essentials series! The goal of this post is to share a list of 7 of the must-have, essential Chinese ingredients you need in your pantry to cook ~90% of all my recipes (and most Chinese food)!

This Chinese Pantry Essentials list should serve as a "starter kit" for anyone interested in Chinese cooking, and help anyone round out their pantry. To make this list comprehensive and informative, I've included:

  • brief explanations of each ingredient
  • how it's used in Chinese cooking
  • my favorite recipes that use the ingredient
  • my go-to or favorite brands
  • any substitutions and alternatives

It's also worth noting that there are so many varieties of cuisine within Chinese cooking -- and I primarily focus on Cantonese food as that's what I grew up with and what's most familiar to me.

This first part of the Chinese Pantry Essentials series focuses on seasonings (like soy sauce, oyster sauce, etc.). I'll be doing a part 2 to focus on food pantry items like dried shiitake mushrooms, dried shrimp, Chinese sausage, and more soon.

I poured my heart into this post -- I really hope it's helpful for you and your journey through cooking Chinese food! If there's anything you have questions about, feel free to leave a comment or ask πŸ™‚

Table of Contents:

Please note that I may receive a small commission from Amazon for any purchases made through links in this post. None of the products mentioned are sponsored.

Chinese Pantry Essentials #1: Chinese soy sauce (light and dark)

light and dark soy sauce

Soy sauce is the #1 ingredient used in Chinese cuisine. It's made from soybeans, wheat, salt, and water. It's salty, umami, and a must in your pantry if you plan to cook any Chinese (or any Asian) food!

We use soy sauce in almost every savory dish -- to add flavor to marinades, sauces, dips, stir-fries, noodle dishes, rice dishes, and more!

What is the difference between light and dark soy sauce?

Light soy sauce is just regular soy sauce! I only add the "light" description if I'm also using dark soy sauce in the recipe. This is the default soy sauce you'd use in most Chinese recipes. You will rarely see soy sauce bottles labeled as "light" soy sauce, although the Pearl River Bridge brand does.

Dark soy sauce*, despite its name, is actually less salty compared to light soy sauce. It has a slightly thicker consistency, and is primarily used to add that deep caramel color you see in many "brown" Chinese sauces (like in Chinese beef and broccoli), or noodle dishes (like Cantonese beef chow fun). Just a little bit goes a long way!

*This Chinese dark soy sauce is not to be confused with Southeast Asian sweet soy sauces (like kecap manis) that are thicker, sweeter, and molasses-like.

If you had to pick one over the other, definitely stock your pantry with a light (regular) soy sauce. Dark soy sauce is more of a "nice to have" compared to light soy sauce.

My favorite brands of light and dark soy sauce

favorite brands of soy sauce

I really like Lee Kum Kee (pictured above) for both their regular (light) and dark soy sauce -- it's the brand I use in all my recipes. Pearl River Bridge (also pictured above) is another awesome and reputable brand for Chinese light and dark soy sauce.

If you have another soy sauce, you can still use it for these recipes! Just make sure to taste test the recipe as you go because the levels of saltiness can differ between brands.

A rule of thumb for cooking with soy sauce

Whichever brand you like or choose, I do recommend going for a Chinese brand (like the ones mentioned above) if you're planning on cooking a lot of Chinese food. A rule of thumb I like to follow is to use the respective Asian cuisine's soy sauce of the dish you're making.

If that sounds like too much for your pantry, pick 1 or 2 soy sauces for the cuisine(s) that you cook the most! I keep Chinese and Korean soy sauces in my pantry because I cook those two cuisines the most.

Alternatives for soy sauce

Did you know that soy sauce contains gluten? If you're looking for a gluten-free alternative, tamari or coconut aminos are the best substitutes.

If you're looking to substitute dark soy sauce in a recipe, just use your light soy sauce (or tamari) -- but only use half the amount, since dark soy sauce is less salty compared to light soy sauce. You won't get the same deep coloring that dark soy sauce gives to the dish, but the flavor will be the same!

Chinese Pantry Essentials #2: oyster sauce

oyster sauce

What is oyster sauce?

Oyster sauce is usually made from salt, sugar, and oyster extract or essence. It's umami, salty, slightly sweet, and adds so much flavor to marinades, sauces, rice or noodle dishes, and stir-fries! It's also often drizzled over freshly blanched veggies like gailan or yu choy (choy sum). Oyster sauce is typically paired with soy sauce, and adds a deeper, more complex flavor to the dish.

Like soy sauce, I use oyster sauce in almost every recipe. Some of my favorite recipes that feature oyster sauce are Chinese eggplant & ground pork in garlic sauce, yu choy (choy sum) with garlic sauce, and saucy beef lo mein.

What's the difference between Lee Kum Kee's Premium Oyster Sauce vs their Panda brand?

lee kum kee oyster sauce brands

This was a question I always asked myself -- is there a difference between Lee Kum Kee's Premium Oyster Sauce and their Panda brand?

To find out, I poured some out onto a plate (pictured above) to observe any differences in color and texture, compared the ingredients labels, and tasted them side by side.

As you can probably tell in the picture above, the Premium Oyster Sauce is thicker and darker in color. This is reflected in the taste, too: compared to the Panda brand, it has a much more concentrated, richer, and brinier oyster flavor.

As far as the ingredient label goes, the first ingredient on the Premium oyster sauce bottle is oyster extractives. On the Panda brand bottle, water is the first ingredient.

The verdict: Lee Kum Kee's Panda brand is basically a less concentrated version of their Premium oyster sauce.

Which oyster sauce should I use?

This all depends on your preference! It's also worth noting that the LKK Premium Oyster Sauce is sometimes double the price of the Panda version in stores.

If you like stronger, more concentrated flavors, I recommend going with the LKK Premium Oyster Sauce. The Panda version is great for those who like more mild flavors, or who want to save a bit on groceries.

I personally use the LKK Premium Oyster Sauce in my recipes and cooking because I prefer stronger flavors!

Alternatives for oyster sauce

oyster sauce subs

Vegetarian or vegan oyster sauce options are usually available in well-stocked Asian supermarkets. Lee Kum Kee has a vegetarian stir-fry sauce and a vegan flavored oyster sauce (gluten-free) that are awesome substitutes.

Hoisin is another popular vegetarian-friendly sauce made from fermented soybean paste, sugar, garlic, vinegar, and spices. It has a similar consistency to oyster sauce, but it is much sweeter, so I recommend reducing or omitting the sugar in the recipe if you're using this as a substitution.

Yondu has recently become a popular brand that offers a plant-based seasoning sauce that works as a tasty alternative for soy sauce, oyster sauce, or fish sauce.

Chinese Pantry Essentials #3: Shaoxing cooking wine (aka Hua diao cooking wine)

shaoxing wine

Shaoxing cooking wine (sometimes spelled as Shaohsing, and sometimes spelled or labeled as Hua diao cooking wine), is an absolute essential in a Chinese pantry. It's made from rice, is golden or amber in color, smells very fragrant -- almost floral, and is usually sold in a red-labeled bottle.

How to use Shaoxing cooking wine

Shaoxing wine is one of those ingredients that really helps your dishes achieve that distinct Chinese flavor that you get from traditional Chinese food. It's something that's hard to describe until you've started cooking with it and noticing the difference!

We love using Shaoxing wine in marinades with meat to remove any gamey smells or flavors, and to also impart its own fragrance. Any of my recipes that require marinating meat, like Chinese steamed pork patty, steamed pork spare ribs, or Panda Express mushroom chicken, include Shaoxing wine!

Shaoxing wine is also great for deglazing pans during stir-fries (similar to how you'd use wine to deglaze a pan in Western cuisine) and adding flavor to sauces and braising liquids.

My go-to brand for Shaoxing cooking wine

Unlike soy sauce, Shaoxing wine isn't something where there's significant differences between brands (for me, at least)! I've been using the Lily brand (pictured above, not available on Amazon), and have also used the Qian Hu brand.

Alternatives for Shaoxing cooking wine

One of the questions I get the MOST on my recipes is "what's a substitute for Shaoxing wine?"

My best answer is: if you plan to cook a lot of Chinese food, I really recommend purchasing a bottle of Shaoxing wine! The flavor it gives is so distinct that it's tough to give a suitable substitute that works for every Chinese recipe.

chinese rice cooking wine

Chinese rice cooking wine (michiu, pictured above), like Shaoxing wine, is a rice cooking wine. It's less flavorful compared to Shaoxing wine, but like Shaoxing, it helps remove gamey smell and flavors from meat and is great for deglazing the pan in stir-fries. If you already have this in your pantry, or if this is the only option you can find in the grocery store, then go for it! If you have the choice to buy between Shaoxing and michiu, definitely go for Shaoxing.

Some non-Chinese options are a dry cooking sherry or Japanese cooking sake. For Japanese cooking sake, it's better to get the unsweetened version. I wouldn't recommend mirin (the sweet version), as it's too sweet to use as a broad alternative for Shaoxing wine. However, depending on the recipe, you could use mirin and just omit or reduce the sugar in the recipe.

A flavorful stock, like a chicken or vegetable stock, can sometimes work as a non-alcoholic replacement for Shaoxing wine in some recipes. If a recipe calls for Shaoxing wine in a sauce for a stir-fry or for a braising liquid or to deglaze the pan, it can usually be replaced by a stock.

Substitutions for Shaoxing wine really depend on the recipe -- if it's a small amount, you can usually omit it with no significant effect on the outcome. If you're ever not sure, feel free to ask! I'll try to give the best recommendations based on the recipe and any restrictions.

Chinese Pantry Essentials #4: Chinese black vinegar and/or rice vinegar

chinese black vinegar

Chinese black vinegar, also known as Zhenjiang or Chinkiang vinegar, is a dark vinegar usually made from glutinous rice or black sticky rice that's been aged for a long time to develop its deep, robust flavors.

Compared to rice vinegar, which is made from fermented rice, Chinese black vinegar is much more complex and stronger in flavor. It's tart, slightly sweet (almost like a caramel, malty flavor), and incredibly fragrant, but not as intensely sweet like balsamic vinegar. Its acidity is also not as "punchy", sharp, or sour as a regular white vinegar -- it feels more well-rounded and balanced.

How do I use Chinese black vinegar or rice vinegar in my cooking?

One of the most popular ways to use Chinese black vinegar or rice vinegar in Chinese cooking is for dumplings. Mix it with soy sauce, ginger, chili oil and/or sesame oil, and you've got a delicious and addicting dipping sauce!

I also love using Chinese black vinegar or rice vinegar for a hint of acidity to balance a savory sauce, like the ones in these recipes: Chinese eggplant & ground pork in garlic sauce, kung pao chicken, and kimchi dan dan noodles.

Depending on the protein used in the recipe, I'll sometimes opt for different vinegars. For example, I like pairing Chinese black vinegar with red meats and sometimes chicken. But if it's a lighter protein like shrimp or fish or veggies, I'll likely use rice vinegar for its lighter flavor.

Rice vinegar can also be used for sushi rice, pickling, marinades, stir-fries, and salad dressings. I wouldn't use Chinese black vinegar for these (except maybe some stir-fries), because the flavor could be overpowering in these cases.

Rice vinegar also serves as a decent substitute for Chinese black vinegar in most recipes.

Should I get Chinese black vinegar or rice vinegar for my pantry?

The answer here depends on your preference, and also what kinds of recipes you'll be cooking more of. Personally I like having both in my pantry, because I use them for different dishes.

Rice vinegar is probably the more versatile option, but Chinese black vinegar is the more flavorful of the two.

If you ask me, I'll definitely say "why not both?" πŸ™‚

My go-to brands for Chinese black vinegar and rice vinegar

My favorite brand for Chinese black vinegar that I've tried is Gold Plum. For rice vinegar, I've used both Mizkan and Marukan.

Chinese Pantry Essentials #5: toasted sesame oil

toasted sesame oil

Toasted sesame oil is made from, surprise -- the oil from toasted sesame seeds!

It's wonderfully nutty and fragrant, and it's crucial to get the toasted (or roasted) version for Chinese cooking.

Differences between non-toasted and toasted sesame oil

sesame oil

While toasted sesame oil is made from toasted sesame seeds, non-toasted regular sesame oil (pictured here) is made from raw sesame seeds.

The best way to distinguish between them (because bottles are not always labeled with toasted or not), is by their color. Regular non-toasted sesame oil is light or golden in color, while toasted sesame oil is a dark amber or brown color.

How to use toasted sesame oil

Most regular, non-toasted sesame oils are neutral-tasting oils that can be used in high-heat cooking. It doesn't have much flavor or fragrance.

This is unlike toasted sesame oil, which is packed with a fragrant and rich, nutty flavor. It also has a much lower smoke point compared to regular non-toasted sesame oil, so it isn't meant for high heat cooking. In Chinese cooking, toasted sesame oil is used in marinades, sauces, or at the end of cooking (never to stir-fry with or with high heat).

I use toasted sesame oil in a LOT (almost all!) of my recipes, here are just a few: as a topping for Chinese steamed eggs, as a finishing flavor in these stir-fried rice cakes, and as a flavorful marinating ingredient in char siu.

Differences between brands of toasted sesame oil

sesame oil brands

Like soy sauce, I do notice differences between brands of toasted sesame oils.

The 3 brands pictured above, Lee Kum Kee*(Chinese), Kadoya (Japanese), and O'Food (Korean), are ones that I've tried and can speak to:

Out of these three, LKK's Premium sesame oil is the most subtle in its aroma and taste. It's good at giving a lighter sesame oil flavor, and I worry less about adding too much when I'm using this one.

*please note that the sesame oil I linked for LKK is not the premium version like the one I have pictured above -- I couldn't find the premium version on Amazon!

Kadoya, which is one of the more popular brands of toasted sesame oil, is usually my go-to. It has a strong nutty flavor, and a little goes a long way -- so don't use too much to avoid overpowering your dish!

O'Food's is the most fragrant and has the toastiest flavor. Like Kadoya's, a little goes a long way. It's also worth noting that this one is usually the most expensive out of the three!

Alternatives to toasted sesame oil

Because toasted sesame oil has such a distinct flavor, I don't have any good substitutions for it, but you can make your own if you have sesame seeds and a neutral oil (any oil that has a high smoke point and neutral or no flavor)!

Just toast some sesame seeds in a dry pan on low heat, add the neutral oil, and cook it together. Stir constantly, keep it on low heat, and don't let it burn. Once it gets fragrant, it's ready!

Chinese Pantry Essentials #6: white pepper

white pepper

White pepper, like Shaoxing wine, is another ingredient that gives many Chinese dishes its distinct flavor.

What's the difference between white pepper and black pepper?

White peppercorns are essentially black peppercorns with the outer layer removed. While black pepper has more of a bold "kick" and "spicy" heat, white pepper is usually considered more mild and earthy -- although they do have a distinct spice to them that's unique and very distinguishable in Chinese dishes.

In Chinese cooking, white pepper is often used in soups (like wonton noodle soup), to season protein or veggies (like Chinese steamed pork patty and stir-fry garlic bok choy), to season rice and noodle dishes (like this saucy beef lo mein), and as tasty finishers on dishes (like Chinese steamed eggs with clams).

Buying pre-ground white pepper vs a white peppercorn grinder

Similar to black pepper, if you want a fresher, spicier kick, you should go for a white peppercorn grinder. I mostly use pre-ground white pepper and think it works great in all Chinese dishes, so I don't feel a need to recommend the white peppercorn grinder over pre-ground (although I do prefer a peppercorn grinder for black pepper)!

Alternatives for white pepper

If you don't have white pepper in your pantry, you can just substitute black pepper. If you plan on cooking a lot of Chinese food, I really recommend buying white pepper for that distinct flavor that only white pepper can give.

Chinese Pantry Essentials #7: cornstarch

cornstarch

I'm cheating a little bit here, because cornstarch isn't technically a seasoning (like everything else on this list), but it's such a staple in Chinese cooking that I had to include it!

Cornstarch (sometimes referred to as cornflour depending on where you are) is the starch made from the endosperm of corn kernels.

How to use cornstarch in Chinese cooking

In Chinese cooking, cornstarch is used primarily in marinades to tenderize meat, to thicken sauces and soups, and in fry batters to provide a crispy coating.

Using cornstarch to tenderize, or "velvet" meat

chinese beef and broccoli with white rice
Chinese beef & broccoli

If you're into Chinese cooking, you've probably heard of the technique called "velveting" meat for stir-fries. It's the reason that Chinese dishes at restaurants always have the most tender meats, even when they're using lean or tough cuts.

Velveting meat involves mixing cornstarch, liquids (water, Shaoxing wine, or soy sauce), and oil (added last) into the marinade. Some recipes will also call for egg white, but I personally don't find it necessary for most dishes. This combination creates a coating on the meat that keeps it juicy and tender on the inside.

Here are some recipes that use cornstarch in the marinade to make the meat extra tender: Cantonese beef chow fun and Chinese beef and broccoli.

Bonus tip: if you have baking soda in your pantry, add just a touch (Β½ teaspoon for every pound) to your lean meats (tough cuts of beef, chicken breast, lean pork) for stir-fries with the most tender and juicy meat that's just like the Chinese restaurants'! Adding just a sprinkle to shrimp marinades will keep them snappy instead of gummy. Baking soda tenderizes meat by raising the pH level on the surface of the meat, preventing the proteins from bonding, thereby keeping them extra tender!

Using cornstarch to thicken sauces and soups

mushroom chicken and rice
Panda Express mushroom chicken

Another important use for cornstarch in Chinese cooking is for thickening sauces or soups.

You should never add cornstarch directly to the pan. It always needs to be mixed into a slurry first, otherwise it will just clump up!

To create the cornstarch slurry, just mix cornstarch and water (room temp or cold) together in a bowl. Always remember to give your cornstarch slurry a good stir before adding it to your pan, as cornstarch will settle to the bottom.

The cornstarch slurry is typically added at the end of cooking, and the heat needs to be high enough (203F to be exact) for the cornstarch slurry to work and thicken the sauce. This process happens very quickly!

A general rule of thumb for the ratio of cornstarch to water in a cornstarch slurry is 2 parts water to 1 part cornstarch. It doesn't always have to be this exact though, and may vary between recipes. If you're ever not sure, just add a little at a time to avoid over-thickening your sauce.

Some of my all-time favorite dishes use cornstarch to thicken their sauces: Cantonese fried fish with cream corn and Panda Express mushroom chicken.

Using cornstarch for crispy fried foods

a plate of honey walnut shrimp
honey walnut shrimp

Cornstarch is used in almost every fried Chinese dish. Sometimes it's mixed with flour, and oftentimes it's the only starch in the batter.

Compared to using just flour, adding cornstarch to a fry batter helps absorb water and prevent gluten formation (from the flour), making the end result more crispy. A 50/50 flour and cornstarch ratio makes a great fried chicken batter! A lot of Japanese and Korean fried chicken batters will just use pure cornstarch or a mix of cornstarch and rice flour.

For Chinese cooking, sometimes I like a light, dry crispy coating, like in my Cantonese fried fish with cream corn, and sometimes I like it mixed with flour in a thicker, wet batter like in my honey walnut shrimp.

Alternatives for cornstarch

Potato starch is one of the most popular substitutes for cornstarch, and works the same way to tenderize meat, thicken sauces or soups, and give a crispy coating to fried foods. Please note that it does give a slightly less crispy and less golden brown coating to fried foods compared to cornstarch, though! This has to do with cornstarch having a higher amylose content.

Rice flour is another common alternative for cornstarch in fry batter, and gets crispier than potato starch does!

All purpose flour can be used in place of cornstarch to thicken sauces or soups. You'll want to mix it into a slurry with cold water first (just like you would with cornstarch) before adding it to the sauce or soup. The sauce or soup will thicken with this method, but it won't be as translucent compared to using a cornstarch slurry.

Nice to haves for your pantry...

#8: chicken bouillon powder

chicken bouillon

Chicken bouillon powder is made from dehydrated chicken broth, and enhances the savory flavor of any dish (stir-fries, soups, sauces) it's added to. It is definitely a staple in my pantry, and I use it in almost every savory Chinese dish -- but it's also a "nice to have" and not absolutely needed to cook great Chinese food.

I recommend using an Asian brand, like Lee Kum Kee's chicken bouillon powder (the red label has MSG, and the green one doesn't). I've tried using Knorr's chicken bouillon powder, but its extra herbs and seasonings made the dish taste more American than Chinese.

I also use chicken bouillon powder as my "emergency chicken broth," since chicken broth isn't something I always have in my pantry. In recipes where I call for chicken broth, like this kung pao chicken or Panda Express mushroom chicken, I often just use chicken bouillon + water as substitute. For every cup of chicken stock, I add 1 teaspoon of chicken bouillon powder.

For a plant-based alternative, mushroom bouillon powder works great! I usually use Lee Kum Kee's but couldn't find it on Amazon -- here's another brand of mushroom bouillon powder.

#9: spicy chili crisp or oil

chili sauces

Spicy chili crisp or chili oil is another ingredient that many people (including me) will categorize as essential in their Chinese pantry. It's usually made up of chili flakes, oil, aromatics like garlic, onion, and shallots, but ingredients will differ between brands.

It's typically used as a topping or garnish to dishes, or in dips (like for dumplings) to add a flavorful, spicy kick. But like chicken bouillon powder, it's not absolutely essential in most Chinese or Cantonese dishes.

There are so many new brands of chili crisp and chili oils out there these days! Different brands vary in how spicy, nutty, fragrant, and aromatic they are. I've tried a lot of them at this point, and what I've realized is that there is no "best chili crisp" or "best chili oil." The best one is the one you like the most!

Lao Gan Ma's Spicy Chili Crisp, considered one of the original chili crisps, is super fragrant and aromatic, but not that hot or spicy. It's a classic -- I always have this in my pantry, and it's one of my favorites to add to dishes like smashed cucumber salad.

Fly By Jing, one that has gained much popularity over the past few years, has more numbing and heat compared to Lao Gan Ma's. I like using this one on dumplings!

I recommend trying a few to see what you like -- and then you could always make your own at home based on your personal preferences!

If you liked this Chinese Pantry Essentials post...

Please let me know by leaving a comment below! Look out for part 2, where I'll share my list of food pantry staples, like dried shiitake mushrooms, dried shrimp, and Chinese sausage.

Be sure to subscribe to the smellylunchbox email list to receive more delicious recipes and cooking tips straight to your inbox. You can also follow me on Instagram, TikTok, and Youtube @smelly.lunchbox to stay up-to-date on my latest posts and recipes. I can't wait to share more with you!

12 Comments

  1. Thank you for breaking down the different types of Chinese seasonings! I found this to be incredibly helpful.

  2. Gloria Pang

    I grow up eating Cantonese food as well. Love these essentials so that I can prepare some of your recipes

  3. Love the post! Can't wait for more from you. πŸ™‚

  4. Love!!!! Okay now where is part 222???
    I was surprised I had most of these but recently I did add shao wine to my pantry.

  5. This was a very comprehensive list of pantry essentials, thank you for sharing your insight!

  6. Sam Planetta

    I finally found Shaoxing wine and now my arsenal is complete! I can finally try all of your recipes! Cannot wait to try the tomato egg tonkatsu!

    • smellylunchbox

      Amazing, Sam!! So excited for you to try the recipes (especially that katsu tomato egg... it's one of my recent favorites)!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*