People ask me all the time: what do I need to keep stock in my pantry for oh-ten-tik Chinese cooking?

Okay, that’s a lie. People don’t ask me that all the time. In fact, no one has ever asked me that. But I know you are just DYING TO KNOW, right?!?!?! All right, here it is then, split into three main categories: sauces, dried goods, and liquids.

Sauces

I bought almost all of these sauces in one day when I was trying to make some Szechuan cuisine (四川菜). I don’t think we use such strong flavors where I come from, which is across the Chang Jiang river (长江) from Shanghai (上海). (I’m not really sure why I feel compelled to include the Chinese characters for everything I say in Americanized Chinese, but somehow I’ve convinced myself that I’m validating my Chinese credibility this way. Makes me seem a lot more intense, don’t it?) I’m also not sure why I’ve decided to number the sauces from left to right, except that in Ancient China people read that way. Again, establishing my street cred here. Without further ado:

1. Fermented Bean Sauce or Chili Bean Paste (豆瓣酱): Essential for stir fries, adds saltiness and depth. Depending on the brand you buy, it may be spicier or darker in color. I haven’t experimented much between brands yet.

2. Fermented Black Beans: (豆豉): Intense and fragrant and soaked in oil. I love adding them to my stir-fries. I find them more flavorful and less intrusive than the fermented bean sauce.

3. Lao Gan Ma (老干妈): My friend who was over last night for dumplings asked “who is that person on the jar and why does she look like a man?” I have to agree that she is quite unattractive and also looks very unhappy in that picture. How typical of the Chinese to use a picture of an overworked woman instead of a happy, jolly woman (think Aunt Jemima). But god damn, that woman makes good sauce. Fermented black beans in chili oil is like heaven in my mouth. I add it to marinades, soups, and dipping sauces, especially for dumplings.

4. Pixian fermented bean sauce (郫县豆瓣酱): Like the other fermented bean sauce, but spicier. I think I like this more.

5. Sweet bean sauce (甜面酱): I don’t know much about this, except that it’s sweet. I’ve only used like half a tablespoon of it before and I’ve never used it since. I’m just glad I took it out for a picture because I just noticed that the due date was 10/15/2009. Gross! And I’m pretty sure I bought this less than two months ago. Damn Chinese supermarkets…just can’t trust ’em.

Dried goods

1. Dried mushrooms (香菇): Extremely versatile and indispensable. Soaking them in water makes stock (including great vegetarian daishi stock for Japanese dishes) and are great in soups/noodle soups. Can also be used in buns or stir-fries. I used to put them in dumplings, but I now avoid them because I find them slightly overpowering in my dumpling mix.

2. Seaweed (紫菜): These are a great and incredibly fast addition to soup that can make a crappy bowl of ramen taste like a million bucks. Okay, maybe not a million bucks, but at least $2 more than it actually cost you. One of my favorite soups also uses it: 紫菜鸡蛋汤 — seaweed eggdrop soup. Simple, but very satisfying.

3. Dried shrimpies (虾仁): For me, minced shrimpies are essential in my dumplings. I’m sure people out there have been DYING to know what sort of magic I put into my dumplings to make them so incredibly awesome and better than you’ve EVER had before. Here is the secret! These dried shrimpies add “unami.” I also like dried shrimpies (or “dried shrimp” if you aren’t feeling the cuter term) stir fried with napa cabbage. Just make sure to soak them in water first, because sometimes they tastes like feet at first.

4. Wood ear (木耳): I love using wood ear in stir fries. They don’t have much of a flavor, in my opinion, but they’re texturally great for many dishes, including pork sliver stir-fries. You’ll also need them if you ever want to make hot and sour soup (yum!!)

5. Dried chilies: If you ever want to add heat to your dish, just heat oil in a pan and snip up some of these guys and throw them in. It’ll smell great and add spice to your stir-fry.

6. Sweet potato starch (or any other form of starch): You know how and when to use starch. I’m not sure why I felt the need to put it in the picture. I guess I wanted some symmetry with #9 (secret ingredient whose identity I won’t reveal until you scroll down! DUN DUN DUN)

7. Star anise (八角): Love it for braising stuff, like braised pork belly (红烧肉). Also great for tea eggs!

8. Szechuan peppers: Szechuan cuisine is known for being spicy and numbing (麻辣). These peppers contribute to the numbing portion. You use them like the dried chilies: drop them in some hot oil before a stir fry. I like using them to stir fry potatoes (very thin-ly cut potatoes).

9. Secret ingredient…drum roll….wait for it, wait for it MSG!!!!! (味精): I never use exorbitant amounts, but a little unami never hurt anyone. So chill out, Americans! It won’t kill ya.

Liquids

1. Soy sauce: I hope this one is pretty obvious. Kikkoman is my favorite.

2. Mirin: Not Chinese, but essential for Japanese cooking. I use it to make that sauce mix I love so much in both cold soba and katsudon.

3. Black vinegar: Make sure you get it from Zhen Jiang, the only place in China where I found the legitimate vinegar. Black vinegar is more flavorful and slightly more sweet than your everyday acetic acid vinegar. It’s like a milder and sour-er version of balsamic. I always dip my dumplings in vinegar. I also love vinegar in my noodles…

4. Dark soy sauce: Great for braising or anytime you’re going for that deep, dark, red color. Thicker and much saltier than regular soy sauce. Use with caution!

5. Sesame oil: MMMmmmmmmm soooo goooood. Some of my favorite recipes call for nothing but sesame oil and salt. Try cutting up some small pieces of cucumber and mix it with sesame oil and salt. Or take a quarter of a block of raw tofu, mash it with a fork, add sesame oil, salt, and finely cut scalltions (green parts only). It’s really the best.

6. Chili oil: Self-explanatory. I do like it in my dumpling dipping sauce, though.

7. Cooking wine: Absolutely essential. I always use it for any meat dish either as part of the marinade or during stir-frying. It adds depth and great flavor. Always buy “Shao Xing” or “Shao Hsing.”

P.S. Upon re-reading this entry, I’ve noticed that I talk about dumplings a lot. I loooove dumplings. I would make a blog post about how to make dumplings, but I’m pretty sure I’d be giving out family secrets. And that leaves no honor! Foh familie!

P.P.S. I love how I keep saying that something adds depth to a dish. Here’s a secret…I have no idea what that means. I just didn’t know what else to write about it. But I guess you would have never guessed. MUAHAHAHHA

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