Viewers of Budget Eats have asked time and time again for me to do a shopping video on where I go and what I buy for my spice cabinet, but the truth is, there is just too much good stuff everywhere for me to pack it all into one neat and succinct video. Having said that, a good place to start scratching the surface of delicious flavor agents is my favorite Chinese pantry staples. There are spices, condiments, and toppings that I always have on hand, for good reason: they are versatile and can be added easily to any dish—not just Chinese ones!—for a bump in savoriness. And if you stick around to the end, you’ll get to see a bonus round-up of my top three favorite Chinese packaged snacks.
There are the red ones and the green ones, and I like them both. The red ones are deeper and more fragrant in a toasty way while the green ones are a little brighter and citrusy in their bite. Szechuan peppercorns are the foundational ingredient for mala dishes, meaning “numbing spice”—if you happen to chew these little peppercorns on their own (highly not recommended), your tongue and lips will begin to buzz and vibrate as if kissing a swarm of gentle bumblebees.
You can use ’em whole in soups as long as you promise to not accidentally chew on one (unless you want to kiss bumblebees, then by all means, please, be my guest), or use them ground in pretty much anything else. I like to sprinkle a good amount into a Szechuan specialty, fish fragrant eggplant, a misleadingly named dish that’s actually vegan-friendly.
White pepper is the seed of the ripe fruit of the same plant as black peppercorn (but not the same plant as Szechuan peppercorn). While black pepper can taste toasty, warming, and spicy, white pepper is a little more androgynous and hard to pin down in flavor: floral but musty, merely floating off the palate and nose where black pepper smacks with heat. I like to use a sprinkling in soups and stir-fries, especially in some crispy pan noodles where the white pepper tames down the rich, fattiness of thick-cut bacon and adds a certain smoky intrigue.
Think of Chinese five spice as the East Asian pumpkin pie spice. “Five” spice mixes will vary from household to household and brand to brand, with some formulas actually containing more than just five spices.
They’re often a harmonious mix of warm, sweet spices meant to be applied to savory meat dishes and I like to feature them front and center in Taiwanese popcorn chicken. The particular mix I have on hand includes cinnamon, fennel seed, star anise, ginger, and cloves. Other common additions include nutmeg, star anise, licorice, orange peel, and Szechuan peppercorn.
Somehow still controversial despite many scientific studies debunking its bad reputation, MSG is a trusty sidekick for elevating any dish with its umami power. I’ve done a whole video exploring this ingredient and use it in everything from chili oil smashed cucumbers to sesame noodles. Use sparingly: A little goes a long way.
Aged, dark soy sauce vs. light soy sauce
The soy sauce we’re most used to seeing used in the U.S. is probably light soy sauce. It’s dark in color but fairly watery, like flat cola. Dark soy, on the other hand, is much more viscous: It’s thick and syrupy, and its flavor is similarly intense. With a slight hint of molasses, dark soy is not as plainly salty as light soy, and is much more suited to feature as a background player in heavy meat dishes like braised pork belly and roast duck.
Black vinegar vs. rice wine vinegar
Chinese black vinegar feels like a cross between balsamic, apple cider, and rice wine vinegars. Where rice wine vinegar is spritely and fruity, black vinegar is a little more tannic and tart. As black as but nowhere as sweet as balsamic, black vinegar is really great on its own (like in a dumpling dipping sauce) or in conjunction with rice wine vinegar (like in hot & sour soup) for a multidimensional tang.
Hoisin sauce vs. oyster sauce
While both are shiny, rich brown sauces, hoisin is much sweeter and oyster is much saltier. Iit’s also interesting to note that while “hoisin” literally means “seafood,” hoisin sauce itself is usually vegan and contains no actual seafood in its ingredients. Oyster sauce, however, actually contains oyster extracts. These thick, umami-packed sauces are prevalent in Southern Chinese and Chinese-American cuisines, and are delicious in stir-fries, like beef & broccoli and general Tso’s chickpeas.
Toasted sesame oil
Used widely in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cuisine, toasted sesame oil is the perfect finishing oil to lend your dish a little extra nuttiness at the very end of cooking. Due to its low smoke point, avoid using this oil to cook over high heat and long periods of time. Try a drizzle in tteokbokki, five spice roast chicken, or any stir-fry, like sweet & sour cashews.
It’s called for a lot in various Chinese recipes but let’s cut to the chase: I don’t like using this variety of rice wine in my cooking. This is probably due to the fact that I can only find one brand and I just don’t think that it’s good quality Shaoxing wine. It’s a little too sharp in that alcoholic way and leaves a lingering bitterness behind. It’s often used in marinades to tame gaminess, but I often just substitute it with rice wine vinegar. If you can access better Shaoxing wine, please don’t let me discourage you!
Bouncy, bouncy fish balls are a delight. They are a composite of ground white fish and starchy substances bound together in salty-sweet matrimony. I love them in soups and stir-fries, like fish ball chow mein.
Laoganma brand chili crisp is a household name by now, and if you haven’t tried chili crisp, it’s never too late. There are many different varieties, and my favorite is the jar that includes roasty peanuts and crunchy tofu pieces alongside the chili oil. If you can’t find it in stores near you, you can try to make some homemade chili oil in the comfort of your own kitchen.
Century eggs & salted duck eggs
Century eggs, also known as thousand year eggs, are cured in a clay mixture for several months until the whites of the duck eggs turn a translucent green-black and the yolks morph into a creamy, olive green, brie-like center. They are an acquired taste, but if you acquire such a taste, they are textural boon.
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 turn a creamy, grainy consistency, not unlike 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.
Chances are that if you love jerky, you’d love pork floss. Pork floss is essentially pork that was seasoned with sugar, soy sauce, and spices, dried, then pulled apart into tiny meat fibers, almost like porky cotton candy. It’s often paired with rice or congee, or baked into enriched breads as a topping. My guilty pleasure is eating it on its own by the spoonful.
According to Wikipedia, zha cai refers only to Chinese pickled mustard plant, but I grew up using this term as a cover-all label for any salty, spicy Chinese pickle. (Maybe my mom never corrected me, and just gave in to my Chinglish habits over time.) In any case, Chinese pickles are always crunchy, extremely salty, tender but never wet like juicy American cucumber pickles, and sometimes spicy.
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