Below is only a partial list of the most commonly called-for ingredients in the most popular Chinese recipes. A Chinese grocery will have most or all of these ingredients. Some items have English translations. The shopkeeper will usually be able to point out the items you want, though he might not be able to explain what the ingredients are in English or how to use them. There are no substitutions for these ingredients and they are the only way to turn out an authentic Chinese dish.
Abalone is a shellfish from the mollusk family, used extensively in Chinese dishes. It is a moist, firm and chewy fish which has a slightly sweet aroma. It is available canned or fried.
Bamboo shoots are the crunchy shoots of the tropical bamboo plant and are available canned in a variety of forms. They are also available drie precooked and ready to eat, and can be found fresh in some Chinese groceries, stored in pails of water and shredded into chunks. Rinse bamboo shoots before using -- even the canned variety. Bamboo shoots can be kept in the refrigerator for several weeks if the water is changed every two days. They also keep well frozen.
Bean curd is available in many different forms -- fresh in a gelatinous moist cake/custard-like consistency, or fried, or as a creamy soft cheese. Bean curd has a delicate subtle taste on the bland side and can be cubed, sliced or shredded. Bean curd cake can be used without any further preparation, sliced in green salads as well as cooked in many Chinese dishes such as hot and sour soup. It will keep for about one week refrigerated, covered in water which is changed every other day. Bean curd is a highly nutritious puree of soybeans pressed and set in custard like squares. It's available dried in thin rectangular sheets or curled around sticks.
Bean pastes: Fillings and sauces are all derivatives of the bean. Sweet bean filling is from the kidney bean and is used in desserts and as a flavoring agent. Bean paste is sold in cans and jars and used for sauces in place of soy sauce. It is used in barbecued, steamed and stir-fried dishes. It's available as a prepared, ready-to-use sauce, or as a paste for use as a thickener and flavoring agent. Any of the sauces or pastes will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator. Black salted fermented beans are usually sold in plastic bags, cans and bottles and are used as a condiment or flavoring agent. It cuts odors and darkens the sauce.
Bean sprouts are the white shoots of the mung bean and are widely available fresh, soaking in huge pails and vats in vegetables stores. Bean sprouts are also available canned, but fresh sprouts are crunchier and tastier. sBean sprouts are best if used the same day they are purchased. They can be stored for a day or two in a plastic bag, or up to four days in cold water changed daily. They can be used in salads for a crunchy contrast, or combined in stir-fried vegetable dishes.
Beche-de-mer: Also known as sea slugs or sea cucumbers. They are round, shrunken and shriveled when fresh and often available dried. They are usually wrapped in cellophane and will keep indefinitely in your pantry. Sea slug has a meaty texture, fleshy and tender taste, though with little of its own inherent taste -- it takes on the flavors of othe ingredients.
Bird's nest is a form of protein, obtained from cliff dwelling swallow nests. They look a little like brittle curled twigs. They are sold in six-ounce packages, and are also called dragon's teeth. They must be soaked overnight, and thoroughly cleaned of the bird's feathers, and are of course vital in bird's nest soup.
Bok choi is a white Chinese cabbage available fresh in many vegetable stores or Chinese groceries. Bok choi is tender and crisp when cooked and used in many stir-fried dishes.
Chinese celery cabbage is broader than American celery -- with a leafy stalk. It's available fresh in vegetable stores and Chinese groceries and can be refrigerated for up to one week wrapped in plastic. Its flavor is delicate; its texture crunchy. It can also be used as a substitute for dishes calling for bok choi.
Cloud ears are a fungus also called dried fungus, tree fungus, brown fungus, wood ears or silver ears. They're available dried and will keep indefinitely. Cloud ears must be soaked for 15 minutes before they are ready for use. Cloud ears are chewy, almost rubbery and slippery and have very little taste of their own, but take on the flavor of other ingedients. They are widely used in Chinese dishes, and are often mistaken for dried mushrooms. They are used in hot and sour soup as well as many stir-fried dishes.
Dried Chinese mushrooms are widely available, and have a strong distinctive flavor. Soak in warm water for 20 minutes to prepare for use. Cut off the hard center stem. Dried Chinese mushrooms will keep indefintely and can be added to any entree for a distinctive contrast. They are chewy and have a delicate meaty taste.
100-year-old eggs aren't really 100 years old. They are duck eggs that have been cured for 100 days in a black coating of lime, salt, ashes and tea leaves. The result is a black-shelled egg, with a translucent gray egg white and a gray/green/black yolk. These eggs have a pungent cheesy taste and are used as an appetizer served with a sprinkling of vinegar, ginger, soy sauce and served over noodles.
Five spice powder is an essential spice, extremely fragrant with a strong sweet aroma and a distinctive tangy taste. It flavors any entree with a characteristic Chinese food smell. The powder is a mixture of star anise, anise pepper, cloves, Chinese cinnamon and Szechuan pepper.
Ginger is sold fresh, dried or powdered. It is widely available and an essential ingredient for Chinese cookery. It will keep well wrapped in a plastic bag, for about two months in the vegetable bin of the fridge. Dried ginger can be substituted for fresh ginger. One-eight of a teaspoon is equivalent to 1 tablespoon fresh ginger. Peel fresh ginger before chopping forfor use. Fresh ginger can be frozen.
Golden needles are also known as dried tiger lilies, lily flowers and tiger lily petals and are the dried stems of the lily plant. They are golden-brown in color and are sold by the ounce in cellophane packages. They have a slightly sweet, distinctive and unusual taste and are an important ingredient in hot and sor soup as well as many entrees. Golden needles are prepared for use by soaking in hot water for 20 minutes, discarding the hard brittle ends of each needle.
Hoisin sauce is a sweetish, dark reddish brown condiment sauce made of a comination of soybean flour, red beans, ginger, garlic, spices, chili and sugar. It is tangy, spicy and sweet. Hoisin sauce is used as a marinating sauce, dip for meats, flavoring agent or blended with other sauces. It's sold in cans and jars and will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.
Lotus roots are the roots of the water lily and are crisp and crunchy with a bland delicate taset. They are most widely used in soup and vegetarian dishes and can be purchased fresh, by the bulb or segment, dried, canned and powdered. Lotus leaves, the leaves of the water lily, are used for food wrapping for the delicate fragrance they impart. Lotus leaves are sold dried and must be soaked. Lotus seeds are sold canned or dried, and used as a flavoring agent in soups and candy.
Chinese melons come in many varieties: bittermelon, hairy melon, tea melon and winter melon. They can be cooked or candied. They are sold fresh in some vegetable stores and Chinese groceries. Bitter melon is predictably extremely bitter and used in soups as well as entrees and vegetarian dishes. Hairy melon is bland and takes on the flavor of other ingredients in an entree. Tea melon has a sweet aroma and taste, and is used in entrees as well as for snacks. Tea melon is avaliable canned, preserved in honey with or without ginger. Winter melon has a bland delicate taste and must be cooked to be used, either in soups or candied. It's available fresh, or sugared as a sweetmeat.
Oyster sauce is a thick, free-flowing brown sauce made from oysters and soy sauce. Oyster sauce is used as a flovoring agent, blending well with other sauces and enhancing theappearance of an entree. It will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.
Sesame oil: is made from toasted sesame seeds and is very pungent, with a nutty aroma and taste. It's used as a seasoning, a flavoring agent, and blended into sauces or salad dressings. A few drops added to peanut oil will flavor the oil and impart a nutty flavor and aroma to the food. It's available bottled and will keep for a year in the pantry. Sesame seeds can be sprinkled over many stir-fried dishes, or used in salads for a nutty contrast.
Shark fin is the dried cartilage from the fin of a shark. It has a bland taste, with no aroma. When cooked, it becomes gelatinous and translucent. It's used in soups, red-cooked meats and poultry. Shark fin is considered a delicacy in China and believed to confer strength and vitality. It's available dried or in cans. Dried fins will keep indefinitely. Canned fins can be kept soaking in the refrigerator for several days.
Shrimp chips are slices of shellfish with flour dough and resemble a very thick potato chip. They are fried till crisp, and have a delicate sweet taste. They are used as an appetizer, or garnish for an entree.
Dried shrimp have a very strong, fishy aroma and taste. They are used as a flavoring agent, or an ingredient in entrees or stuffing. Dried shrimps are sold by the ounce in cellophane bags and are usually tiny in size. Shrimp paste is even more pungent with a strong salty fishy taste and is used for flavoring It's sold in jars and will keep refrigerated indefinitely.
Snow peas are a flat green pea pod and require very little stir-frying, about 30 seconds, to turn a glossy green, crispy, crunchy and firm. They can be added to any entree for a lovely contrast.Though they are quite expensive, 10 to 12 snow peas pods are sufficient for an entree. They are also available frozen, but stick to the fresh when available for they are crisper.
Soy sauce comes in more varieties than the type supermarkets commonly carry, Dark soy sauce has caramel added to it. Black soy sauce, also known as heavy soy sauce, has a sweet smell. Light soy sauce is delicately flavored and light brown in color. Soy sauce is made from fermented soy bean extract combined with salt, and is used as a flavoring agent.It also cuts odors of strong ingredients and darkens sauces. Soy sauce will keep indefinitely tightly sealed.
Tangerine peel has a sweet, spicy and tangy taste and is used dried to flavor poultry and meat dishes. It's also used in stuffings, as a garnish, a spice and a condiment. It's sold by the ounce in cellophane bags and will keep indefintely.
Transparent noodles are also called elophane noodles, Chinese vermicelli, and bean threads. These noodles are made of mung bean flour and are sold in closely curled wound mats. Cooked, they become translucent. They are slippery and gelatinous with a bland taste and intended to take on the flavor of other ingredients.
Chinese vinegar: Comes in three varieties. Red vinegar is used as a dip, a light amber vinegar is used in sweet and sour dishes and a dark black vinegar is used for red cooking as well as for dipping. These vinegars have a strongly fragrant pickled aroma and a sour, spicy and tart taste.
Water chestnuts are small, bulbous roots with a crunchy, meaty consistency and a delicate, subtle taste. They dan be used as a garnish, or added to any entree for a crunchy contrast. Water chestnuts are sold fresh, canned and dried and will keep refrigerated for a month covered in water which is changed every two days.