« back to encyclopedia search results
Chinese ingredients and menu terms
Aubergines (Solanum melongena): These are used in various sizes from large to very small - but very seldom peeled in Chinese cooking. If salted for about 20 minutes - then rinsed and dried, any bitterness will be removed (although this is less necessary for modern varieties) - but they will also absorb less oil, so the procedure is still worthwhile.
Bean Sauce(s): This comes in various varieties - Black bean: very popular in Southern China, but even there bought-in. It combines very well with ginger. See 'Black Beans' below. Chili Bean Sauce: A thick, dark sauce or paste, which is hot and spicy. It's made from yellow soybeans, chilis, and other seasonings. For home cooks, it's available in Chinese supermarkets, but shouldn't be confused with 'chili sauce' which is a thin dipping sauce, which is very hot - and made without beans. Hoisin Sauce: A thick, dark, sauce - used in Southern China. It's made from soybeans, vinegar, sugar and spices. It's sweet and slightly spicy, and generally incorrectly used in The West to accompany Crispy and Peking Duck instead of the traditional 'sweet bean sauce'. Hoisin sauce is sold in jars and cans at Chinese supermarkets. Sweet Bean Sauce: A similar sauce to Hoisin (and the traditional accompaniment to Peking Duck). It has a more salty flavour than Hoisin, and not always popular to Western palates. Available from larger Chinese grocers. Yellow Bean Sauce (sometimes just called 'bean sauce'): A thick,spicy, aromatic sauce made with yellow beans, flour and salt - all fermented together. There are two types - Whole beans in a thick sauce; and mashed or puréed beans (sometimes sold as crushed beans). Chinese gourmets prefer the former. The sauce is used as an addition to stir-fries etc. and can be bought at Chinese supermarkets.
Bird's nest: This is literally what it says - held together with regurgitated spittle of a certain type of swift from Northern China (but also found in Java, The Philippines, Thailand ND Vietnam). Their nests are found in large mountainside caverns where searchers climb on long bamboo scaffolding to retrieve them. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, there are shops that just specialise in selling them. Bird's nests come in various grades - the best ones are the 'white nests' and 'pink or blood nests', which are complete cups. The nests are expensive, and are generally sold pre-cleaned - so feathers etc have been removed. They are sold dried, so must be soaked before using. The result is a bland, soft, crunchy jelly that relies for flavour on whatever sauce or broth it's served with.
Bitter melon (Momordica Charantia): Avegetable with a bumpy dark to pale-green skin. It has a slightly bitter quinine flavour, that's an acquired taste. Once this as been done, it's good stir-fried with fermented bean curd. It should be remembered that the greener the melon, the more bitter the taste. If preparing at home, cut the 'melon' in half, deseed and discard the membrane, then chop and blanch the pieces in boiling water before proceeding - this will reduce the bitterness.
Black beans: These are small black soybeans, which have been fermented with salt and spices. They are very popular in Southern China - often being added to stir fries or made into their own sauce (this is usually bought in cans or plastic bags, even in China - gourmets preferring the latter). Once open, they keep in the fridge for a few weeks.
Bok Choy (Brassicacae Chinensis): This is a form of brassica that's been grown in China for many centuries, and is now a familiar sight on our supermarket shelves. There are many varieties, but the most common has long, smooth, milky-white stems and large, crinkly, dark-green leaves. When buying, remember that the smaller the better, as larger versions can have tough stalks. Bok choy can be steamed or stir-fried, but it's better to remove the stalks and cook them for about a minute before briefing finishing the leaves (which cook very quickly).
Chili bean sauce - see Bean Sauce:
Chili oil: An oil generally used as a dipping condiment, and originating in the Sichuan Provence of China - where it can be ferociously hot.. Western versions are toned down. It can be bought at Chinese supermarkets or made at home. See our Recipe Section.
Chinese Broccoli (Brassica Alboglabra): This is not like European broccoli, being very crunchy and slightly bitter, and more resembles Swiss chard in flavour. It has a delicious 'earthy' taste, deep olive green leaves and sometimes white flowers. It's available from Chinese supermarkets, but when buying, look for stems that are firm and leaves which look fresh and green. Prepare it as you would European broccoli.
Chinese cabbage (Brassicacae Pekinensis): This is also known as Peking cabbage, and is popular throughout China. It comes fresh in various sizes from long, compact and bullet-shaped to fat and squat-looking. All types are tightly-packed, with pale-green or slightly-yellow, crinkled leaves. It's good when, sliced and added to stir fries, as a stand alone vegetable (like cabbage), or sliced and added to salads.
Chinese chives (Allium Tuberosum): A form of chive which is stronger and more garlic-like than our native versions, and has flat blades (stems) - the flowers can be used as well as the stems. They can be found at Chinese supermarkets, but can easily be grown at home. They can be used whenever chives are called for. Yellow varieties are sometimes found- these have been grown in the dark, in the style of chicory. They are seldom found in the West, but are highly perishable.
Chinese Flowering Cabbage (Brassicacae Chinensis var. Parachinensis): This is part of the large mustard green cabbage family and is very popular in the dishes of Southern China - where it's known as 'choi sum'. It has yellow flowers which are eaten along with the leaves and stems. Delicious stir-fried.
Chinese Long Beans (Vigna Sesquipedalis): They beans are popular in China and many areas of the Indian sub-continent - and often known in Britain as 'yard-long beans'. There are two varieties: the pale green ones and the dark, thinner ones. Buy those without any dark marks. In Chinese cooking, they are stir-fried with meats or fermented bean curd. They have a pleasant crunchy texture.
Chinese Mushrooms: These are found dried in Britain, and generally so in China, and have been cultivated for more than a thousand years. They are black or brown in colour, and need reviving by soaking in warm water (for about 20 minutes) to soften them - the liquid is good added to soups etc. They should be kept stored in an air-tight container.
Chinese Tree Fungus: These are tiny 'leaves' and are also known as 'cloud ears', as when they are soaked in warm water, they puff up and look like little clouds. They should be kept in an air-tight container, if storing.
Chinese White Cabbage - see Bok Choy:
Chinese White Radish (Raphanus Sativus): A form of radish also known as 'icicle radish' or by its Japanish name of 'daikon'. It's large, and carrot shaped, but usually much larger. In China, the vegetable is peeled and used as we would carrots or potatoes.
Chinese Wood Ear Fungus: A larger variety of Chinese Tree Fungus, which can be used in the same manner.
Chopsticks: These are used for stirring, beating and whipping - as well as eating. Special, long versions being made for these purposes. They were originally made of wood, but plastic is now the norm.
Chop suey: A pseudo-Chinese dish developed in the U.S.A; originally comprising left over fish or meat, with bean sprouts and sometimes noodles.
Chow chow: A pickle of mixed vegetables
Chow mein: A dish from Southern China, made with egg noodles to which almost any fish or meat can be added. The whole flavoured with soy sauce, spring onions and sesame oil.
Choy: The general restaurant term for Chinese green vegetables
Cinnamon sticks: Much used in Chinese cooking - but never in the inferior powdered form. See 'Cinnamon'
Citrus peel: In the markets of China you will find fresh and dried lemon, orange and tangerine peel - to dry, it's simply warmed gently on a wire rack until it's hard. To revive it, soak the peel in warm water for 20 minutes.
Coriander (Coriandrum Sativum): The feather leaves of coriander are a popular herb all over China. Tstore - wash it in cold water, then spin-dry it thoroughly and put it in a plastic bag along with a couple of sheets of moist kitchen paper. Stored like this, it will keep in the fridge for several days.
Cornflour: This is the most popular thickener for commercial Chinese restaurants, as it's very convenient. Home cooks prefer bean flour,as it thickens faster and holds longer. Cornflour should always be blended with a little cold water, to 'dissolve' it - before using. It produces a clear, shiny sauce.
Dim Sum: These are small steamed or deep-fried dumplings with a filling. They are traditional in the Canton (Guangzhou) area of Southern China. The words mean 'heart's delight' or 'to touch the heart'. Dim sum is traditionally eaten as a snack meal between mid-morning and late afternoon - and generally only offered in British 'Chinese' restaurants during this period. Sunday, being the most popular day, when long queues occur outside the best eateries. Drinking tea is the norm when eating dim sum, and their consumption is traditionally a leisurely affair.
Dried Shrimps: These can be found in nearly all Asian grocers, and are used to perk-up rice dishes etc. Look for brands with the pinkest colour and avoid the greyish ones. They keep indefinitely, if kept dry.
Egg white: These are used in Chinese recipes as ingredients for batters and coatings. One egg white from a large egg generally measures about 2 tablespoons (30ml). Egg whites freeze well in ice-cube trays - without damaging their properties.
Five Spice Powder: This is made up of cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise and Sichuan pepper. These represent sour, pungent, salt, sweet and bitter.
Garlic (Alliaceae Sativum): Very popular in Chinese cooking, cooks often adding a crushed clove to hot oil, before cooking something else. The garlic being said to have 'sweetened' the oil - is then removed and discarded.
Garlic shoots: These are young garlic shoots removed before they begin to form a bulb. They look a bit like young spring onions, and are used as a garnish or flavouring.
Ginger root (Zingiber Officinale): An essential ingredient in most Chinese wok cookery.
Ginger juice: Juice extracted from fresh ginger root. If trying this at home, putting peeled root ginger in a food processor and then squeezing it through a clean tea towel, will produce juice.
Hoisin Sauce - see Bean Sauce(s):
Leeks: These are popular in the cooking of Northern China,.
Lily buds (Lilium Lanciffolium): These are also known as tiger lilies, and are generally dried. They are a traditional ingredient in muxi (mu shu) dishes and hot and sour soups. To revive the buds, soak them in hot water for about half an hour or until they're soft; then cut off the hard ends and shred or cut them in half. They can be bought in Chinese supermarkets, but are quite expensive.
Maltose Sugar: A type of liquid malt sugar that can be found at Chinese supermarkets. Honey can be used as a substitute.
Mangetout: Mangetout peas are popular in Chinese stir-fry dishes, and are smaller than those generally on sale in Britain.
Mooncakes: Small cakes, made for the Autumn Moon Festival (a time when the Chinese celebrate the harvest and give tribute to the declining sun. They consist of a light-brown crusted cake of flour, with a purée of red beans or lotus seeds as a filling. The cakes can be round or square, are sometimes made with salted duck egg yolks.
They are exchanged as gifts among family and friends.
Noodles: Noodles are a Chinese staple and come in many forms most can be found fresh or dried - the main ones are these:
Wheat Noodles and Egg Noodles: These are made from hard or soft wheat flour and water. If egg has been added the noodles are usually labelled as egg noodles. Many British supermarkets stock them both fresh and dried, and are available flat or round - the former usually being used for soups and the latter for stir-fried dishes. The fresh ones freeze well if they are well wrapped.
Rice Noodles: These are popular in Southern China, where they are widely-known as Sha He noodles, the name being derived from a small village outside the city of Guangzhou (Canton). The fresh ones are called 'fen noodles', and are prepared in a different manner (cooked in sheets, before being cut into noodles). The dried noodles simply need soaking in warm water for 20 minutes until they're soft - before draining them in a colander or sieve. They are then ready to be used in soups or to be stir-fried.
Bean Tread (Transparent) Noodles: These are also called cellophane noodles, and are made from mung beans and not from grain flour. I Britain they are generally only available dried. They are never served on their own, but added to soups or braised dishes or deep-fried and used as a garnish. They must be soaked in warm water for about 5 minutes before use. They are easier to handle if they're cut into shorter lengths. If you're frying them, they don't need to be soaked, but do need to be separated. A good technique for doing this is to pull the strands apart while holding them in a large paper bag - which stops them flying all over the place.
Oil: Oil is the most common cooking medium in China - although animal fats, usually lard and chicken fat, are used in some northern parts of the country. Peanut/Groundnut is the oil of choice, but corn oil (and other vegetable oils) are sometimes used.
Oysters; dried: These are generally used finely-minced to enhance dishes. They need soaking for about an hour to revive them, but must be used sparingly or they can overwhelm a dish.
Oyster Sauce: A popular sauce in the fishing villages of southern China. It's thick and brown and is made from a concentrate of oysters cooked in soy sauce, seasonings and brine. It has a rich flavour, and is used not only in cooking but as a condiment, diluted with a little oil, for vegetables, poultry, or meats. It can be bought in Chinese supermarkets, and it's worth paying more for a good variety.
Plum sauce: A general term for a sauce based on hoisin.
Red-in-Snow Cabbage: A hardy winter cabbage, which is generally pickled and can be bought tinned in Asian speciality grocers. It adds a pungent, slightly sour taste to dishes when used as a flavouring, or it can be used as an interestingly-textured vegetable ingredient in stir-fried dishes.
Rice: This comes in various forms -
Long grain: The most common rice used in Chinese cooking.
Short grain: This is used in Northern China, where it's used for making rice 'porridge', a popular morning meal.
Glutinous: This is also known as 'sweet' or 'sticky' rice. It's used for stuffings, rice pudding and in pastries.. it's also sometimes wrapped in lotus leaves, and served at banquets. Glutinous rice must be soaked for at least two hours before cooking.
Rice Flour: This is used in two forms - Regular; this is made from raw rice and is used to make fresh rice noodles. Store as you would wheat flour. Glutinous; as its name suggests, this is made from glutinous rice, and is used for making rich dim sum pastries, and giving them their characteristic chewy texture. It's not an acceptable substitute in recipes that call for rice flour - but should be stored in the same way.
Rice wine: This wine is used extensively for cooking and drinking throughout China - the best varieties coming from Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province in eastern China. It's made from glutinous rice, yeast and spring water. Chefs frequently use it not just for cooking but also in marinades and for sauces. It shouldn't be confused with sake, which is the Japanese version of rice wine, but quite different. It's easy to buy at Chinese supermarkets, but dry sherry can be used instead.
Sausages; Chinese: Chinese sausages are made from beef, pork or duck liver - but pork is the most common. They are sweet and mild, but are best blanched in water for two minutes, until the fat becomes translucent and the sausage tender. They can then be briefly fried or steamed - after which they can be chopped-up and will transform a dish of leftover rice.
Sesame Oil: An aromatic oil, used in very small quantities - generally as a final flavouring.
Sesame seeds: Dried seeds of the sesame plant. Unhulled, the seeds range from greyish white to black in colour, but once the hull is removed, the sesame seeds are tiny, somewhat flattened, cream coloured, and pointed at one end. Sesame seeds are valued throughout Asia, as a flavouring agent and as a source of oil and paste.
Shallots: These mild-flavoured members of the onion family are used in Chinese cookery - but the type grown there, are slightly different. They are also pickled and in this form are traditionally served with reserved eggs.
Sharks Fin: A delicacy of Southern China. Shark's fin is extremely expensive, so mostly confined to restaurant menus. But they can be found dried in Chinese food shops. Their preparation involves an elaborate process of soaking and boiling in several changes of water and stocks. However, they are now found deep-frozen. Like bird's nests, shark fin has little flavour, but is prized for its clear, gelatinous strands and texture. It's served with a rich stock - as in Shark's Fin Soup - or stuffed in poultry or scrambled with eggs and crab meat.
Shrimps; dried - see Dried Shrimps:rnSichuan/Szechuan: An inland region of China, were hot and spicy dishes are typical - so they often contain chilis and Sichuan peppers.rnSichuan peppercorns: These are known throughout China as 'flower peppers', because they look like flower buds. They are reddish-brown in colour with a strong, pungent odour which distinguishes them from the hotter black peppercorns. They aren't, in fact, a pepper at all, but the dried berries of a shrub belonging to the citrus family. They keep indefinately in a dry air-tight container. To get the best out of their flavour, they need to br 'dry-roasted' for about 5 minutes, until they start to smoke, then ground in a mill or pestle and mortar. rnSichuan preserved vegetable: China's most popular form of preserved vegetables, is in fact the 'mustard green', pickled in salt and hot chilis. It's sold tinned and adds a crunchy texture to dishes. Before using, rinse the vegetable in cold water, then slice or chop as required. Any unused vegetable can be stored in its original liquid in the fridge.rnSilk Squash (Luffa Acutangula): A popular vegetable in China, and sometimes called Chinese okra. It resembles a long, thin, cylindrical squash, tapering at one end with seep, narrow ridges. Choose firm, unblemished dark green ones, peel away the ridges. If the vegetable is young, you can leave some of the green , but if older, it's best to peel away all the skin. The inside flesh turns soft and tender as it cooks, tasting like a cross between a cucumber and a courgette. It readily picks up the flavours of other food.rnSoy Sauces: An essential ingredient in Chinese cooking, this is made from a mixture of soybeans, flour and water, which is then naturally fermented and aged for some months. The distilled liquid is soy sauce. There are two types -rnLight Soy Sauce: As it's name implies, this is light in colour, and is the best one to use for cooking. It's often known as 'Superior Soy' and is saltier than dark soy sauce.rnDark Soy Sauce: This is aged for much longer than its lighter cousin. It's thicker, and stronger than the light version - so more suitable for stews and as a dipping sauce. It's known in Chinese food shops as 'Soy Superior Sauce' (which is rather muddling).rnSpinach: Spinach is popular in China, but the version grown there differs from ours - but both are inter-changeable. It's most commonly stir-fried, so frozen spinach can't be substituted. Chinese water spinach (Ipomoea Aquatica) is the type used there, and is sometimes available in larger Chinese supermarkets here. It has hollow stems and delicate, green, pointed leaves, lighter in colour than common spinach - it also has a milder taste.rnSpring onions: These are one of the three most important ingredients in Chinese cooking, along with ginger and garlic - together they provide an essential and distinctive flavour.rnSpring roll skins/wrappers: These can be bought (generally frozen) at Chinese supermarkets, they are thin and translucent. It's worth seeking out the Vietnamese rice-flour versions, as they are thinner allowing the stuffing flavours to shine through - these need soaking for a few seconds in warm water to soften them.rnStar Anise: The hard, star-shaped seed-pod of the anise bush. It's an essential ingredient of 'five spice powder', and is widely-used in braised dishes. Star anise is available in most large British supermarkets.rnSteamer; bamboo: These are filled with food (which is generally plated) and placed on top of a pot or wok of boiling water. They are best bought from Chinese speciality shops, as they're much cheaper that their British counterparts. Before using a steamer for the first time, it should be steamed empty for about ten minutes.rnSweet Bean Sauce - see Bean Sauce(s):rnSweet and Sour Sauce: A westernised version of the sauce served with the Chinese dish 'gulao pork'. Authentically it should be made with fruits - such as plums, oranges and berries, sharpened with sweetened vinegar. In western restaurants a combination of sugar, vinegar and pineapple juice is generally thickened with cornflour. A good version can be made using orange juice. See our Recipe SectionrnTea-smoked: Hot-smoked, over tea leaves.rnVinegars: These are widely used in Chinese cooking. Cider vinegar is a good substitute for white or black rice vinegar, if you are unable to find these - malt or wine varieties are too strong. There are many varieties, but these are the most common -rnWhite Rice Vinegar: This is clear, and mild in flavour. It has a faint taste of glutinous rice and is used for sweet and sour dishes.rnBlack Rice Vinegar: This is very dark in colour, with a rich but mild taste. It's used for braised dishes, noodles and sauces.rnRed Rice Vinegar: This is sweet and spicy in flavour, and is usually used as a dipping sauce for seafood.rnWater Chestnuts: These are a white, crunchy root vegetable about the size of a walnut - so don't belong to the chestnut family. They are especially popular in southern China, where they are often grown between rice plants in paddies. Fresh ones must be washed and peeled before they are cooked. If you find fresh water chestnuts in a Chinese supermarket, the skin should be tight and taut, not wrinkled, but they are more often found tinned. Jicama are preferred by many Chinese chefs to the tinned variety. See 'Jicama'rnWheat gluten: This is made by washing out starch from wheat dough until only the adhesive substance remains. Once made, it can be boiled or deep-fried, then cooked with other ingredients. It's a staple and mock meat for Chinese vegetarians.rnWheat starch: This is a flour-like powder left after the protein is removed from the wheat flour. It's used as a wrapping for dumplings in China, and in top-class dim sum restaurants in Britain.rnWontons: These are small filled parcels, often floated in soup. Won Ton means 'swallowing a cloud'.rnWonton/Huntun skins: These are made from egg and flour and can be bought fresh or frozen from Chinese supermarkets. They are very thin pastry-like wrappers, which can be stuffed with minced meat and fried, steamed, or used in soups. They are sold in little piles of 7.5cm/3 in squares, sometimes a bit larger, wrapped in plastic. The fresh variety keep for about 4-5 days in the fridge. Frozen ones, thaw almost instantly.rnYellow Bean Sauce - see Bean Sauce(s):rnYunnan and Jinhua Ham: China produces some of the world's great hams, but they are almost impossible to buy in the West. Italian prosciutto is the nearest substitute. rnrn