Text by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo
My cooking classes always begin in New York City’s Chinatown. I have my students meet me there because I believe that a Chinese market is their classroom, and mine. If you live near a bustling metropolitan market like those in Manhattan, San Francisco, or Vancouver, you understand the sensory joys these markets provide, with the smells, sights, and sounds of chattering buyers haggling with sellers; mountains of fresh produce; live blue crabs wriggling in their baskets and fish swimming in tanks; shelves laden with cans and jars and bottles of sauces, wines, vinegars, and pickles from every region of China. If you don’t live near a Chinese market, then with any luck, there’s a Chinese grocery store nearby where you can find authentic ingredients. Short of that, the internet is a great source.
These markets provide me and my students with context, which is all-important. Since Chinese cooking relies on foods in their purest state, you need to touch, smell, test for freshness with a gentle squeeze, and even taste, when possible, the items you’re buying. Chinese markets offer those opportunities, and by leading my students through the market, I help them become familiar with, rather than daunted by, the supposed mysteries of Chinese food. I hope to do the same for you here as I introduce you to some essential ingredients and share recipes for turning many of those foods into delicious dishes at home. So come with me, and let’s explore the market together.
View a simple map for the locations of each shop on the tour.
Classic Chinese Sesame Noodles
Stir-Fried Beef with Mixed Vegetables
Chinese Chicken Broth
Hot Pepper Oil
Chinese Rose Wine Shrimp Soup
Chinese Sausage and Broccoli with Oyster Sauce
Essential Chinese Ingredients
Traditionally made of pork and pork fat, these cured sausages (lap cheong) can be
found in Chinese butcher shops and groceries, where they are hung for
display and sold by weight. They’re commonly steamed, stir-fried, or added to fried rice or soups.
To the Chinese, any alcoholic beverage is a chiew, or wine, which
explains this potent spirit’s name (Chinese rose wine, mei kuei lu chiew). Distilled from sorghum, rose petals,
and rock sugar, it’s used in cooking (as in this soup) and cocktails. A floral gin, such as Hendrick’s, is a suitable substitute.
Also known as black fungus, tree ears, and jelly mushrooms, cloud ear mushrooms vary from brown to brown-black. After soaking in hot water, they
soften, become translucent, grow to several times their dried size, and
resemble flower petals or ruffly ears. They’re prized
for their crisp-tender texture, which is delicious in soups and stir-fries with meat, especially mu shu pork.
Also called golden needles, these long, thin, reddish-brown buds of the
tiger lily flower are traditionally dried in the sun. The best buds are
soft and pliable with a sweet aroma; if hard or brittle, they’re too
old. They’re often used in soups, stir-fries, and vegetable dishes, such as Buddha’s Delight.
Most Chinese vinegars are made from rice and tend to be sweeter and less
acidic than Western vinegars. They range from white (mild) to red
(tart-sweet) to black (also known as Chinkiang; rich and smoky). The
latter is used as a dipping sauce and in braised dishes; you can use
unaged balsamic vinegar as a substitute. White (or plain) rice vinegar
is light and delicate, and is used in dressings, marinades, and sauces.
Red rice vinegar is traditionally flavored and colored with fermented
red yeast rice (or more often these days, food coloring); it’s used in
as a condiment for congees, in sweet-and-sour pork, and Shanghai soup
buns. If it’s unavailable, you can use a good-quality red wine vinegar
instead, but use less because it’s more acidic.
Chinese fresh bean curd are slightly firm, custard-like cakes (known as daufu) made from
ground soybeans cooked in the liquid, or “milk” they exude. A versatile
ingredient thanks to its ability to absorb flavors, the curd is
sold in 2-1/2- to 3-inch squares in the refrigerated section of Chinese
groceries. It’s commonly fried, stuffed, or used in stir-fries, hot
pots, and soups.
Frozen and then thawed, fresh bean curd takes on a wonderful
spongy-chewy consistency that I adore. Japanese medium-firm or firm tofu
is a good substitute.
Asian sesame oil, made from toasted sesame seeds, is wonderful in
sauces, marinades, and dressings. It has a low smoke point, so it’s
better used as a flavoring ingredient than a cooking oil.
Chinese sesame paste is mix of ground toasted white sesame seeds and soybean or sesame oil. It's smooth, fragrant, and has a pronounced sesame flavor. It’s
delicious in marinades, sauces, and noodle dishes. Do not substitute tahini (Middle Eastern sesame paste), which is made with untoasted sesame seeds.
Quite different from Western broccoli, Chinese broccoli (kai lan) has thick, bushy
leaves along its stalk, which is topped with tiny flowers and buds. Look
for fat, glossy leaves and plump stems. It’s often served poached or in stir-fries.
A staple of Chinese cooking for more than 3,000 years, soy sauce is made by
fermenting soybeans, wheat flour, water, and salt. Meant to impart
richness and body, soy sauce is used in main dishes, sauces, marinades,
and as a condiment. Light and dark versions are available; dark soys are
labeled “dark” or “black,” and “double dark” or “double black.” The
double sauces are darker, thicker, and more intense. I prefer soy
sauces from Hong Kong or Canada; Koon Chun is a good brand, with its
light soy labeled “thin” and its double dark soy labeled “double black.”
Made from coarsely ground dried red chiles, these flakes add fruity-spicy flavor; they’re ideal for making hot pepper oil for use in sesame noodles and Hot-and-Sour Soup,
and for any dish that benefits from a touch of spice. You can use half
the amount of Italian crushed red pepper flakes as a substitute.
Made from wheat flour, eggs, water, and sometimes salt, fresh Chinese egg noodles are pale
yellow, pliable, and come in varying styles and thicknesses. Found in
the refrigerated section of Chinese groceries and in the produce
section of many Western grocery stores, they’re used in stir-fries,
soups, and as a main ingredient.
Made from fermented glutinous rice and aged for 3 to 10 years, Shaoxing wine is indispensable in marinades and sauces, imparting a rich, nutty flavor. I
prefer Pagoda Brand 10-Year or Supreme Hua Tiao Chiew brand; avoid
bottles labeled “cooking wine,” which have added salt. A medium-dry
sherry, such as amontillado, is a good substitute.
All of my recipes call for freshly ground white pepper, because black
peppercorns only recently came into regular use in Chinese cooking. I
also prefer white pepper’s floral aroma and intense flavor.
An indispensable seasoning used throughout China, thick, dark brown
oyster sauce is made from boiled oysters and seasonings. It’s used as a savory
flavor enhancer and to impart a rich brown color; it can be found in
many meat and vegetable stir-fries and noodle dishes. I like Hop Sing
Lung and Lee Kum Kee brands.
Very salty and spicy, Sichuan preserved vegetable is made from zhacai, a
Chinese mustard plant grown in Sichuan; the bulbous stem of the plant is
cooked and cured with chile powder and salt. It’s often used in stir-fries, soups,
and vegetarian dishes. It can be sold by weight, but most often it’s
canned; you can find it both shredded and whole, and sometimes the cans
are labeled “Sichuan Mustard Pickle” or “Chinese Radish.”
Photos by Colin Clark