I try to use only readily available ingredients in my recipes, but there are some items that would be good to have on hand if you can find them at an Asian grocer’s. Where possible, I’ve given substitutions.
The list will grow as I add recipes, so check back often!
condiments & seasonings
chopped salted chilies (duo lajiao) – This delicious condiment comes from just that: fresh red chilies, chopped finely, salted, and kept in a jar in the fridge. It is frequently used in Hunanese dishes and can often be found on the table as a condiment so that you can add to your own taste. You can make your own (in which case you can control the heat of the chili you selece) or buy a jar from the Asian market, if you’re lucky enough to have one nearby. I have yet to see this in conventional stores, even in the Asian section – let me know if you have! An acceptable substitute would be Sriracha, which can be found in most stores these days. I would avoid “hot oil” as a substitute – it lacks the fresh, clean flavor of the real thing and adds fat to the recipe.
Shaoxing cooking wine is made from rice wine and is available in most Asian markets – it happens to be the most famous brand, but any unsweetened rice wine (mijiu or even sake) or rice cooking wine (liaojiu) will do. If you can’t find this sort of item, substitute dry sherry (but avoid the cooking sherry, which has an overpowering flavor).
This condiment is made of tofu cubes that have been fermented, usually with salt, sugar, and rice wine. Older cookbooks call this “Chinese cheese,” but the flavor and texture are really not like that of cheese, rather it’s salty and creamy. You can find this in Asian markets and in some conventional grocery’s Asian sections, although probably only in larger cities that support sizable Asian populations. In China, more rural families make their own, but I have yet to come across a recipe for this. At our house we use it mostly for stirfrying with spinach and eating as a condiment with steamed buns. It is available plain or with chilies in it. Once you use some of the cubes, add a bit of oil to the jar so that the cubes remain submerged – otherwise they quickly spoil, even in the refrigerator.
fermented black beans
This seasoning is frequently used in Hunanese cuisine. These are dried soy beans that are soaked in water, steamed until tender, and then fermented – they have an interesting salty/smoky tone that adds depth to a dish’s flavor. Some recipes call for rinsing them before use – I leave that up to you, as I often don’t rinse them. You can buy these in Asian markets (the Mandarin term is douchi) and sometimes in the Asian section of a conventional market. Be aware that sometimes there is a lot of garlic added (common in Cantonese cooking), and occasionally there is a spicy version with chilies in it.
I highly recommend staying away from “conventional” store brands of soy sauce – La Choy comes to mind. If you have access to an Asian market, do try out a variety of brands to find one you like. “Light” soy sauce is used in most of my recipes, but it is not “light” in the sense that it is low sodium: in China, you can get two styles, light (shengchou) and dark (laochou). The former is salty but not overwhelmingly so and has a light, clean flavor. The latter is aged extra long and has an almost molasses-like flavor – this is usually reserved for braises and strong-flavored dishes.
black – Usually made from rice vinegar that has been aged. The most famous is probably Chinkiang vinegar. The flavor is pungent and a bit sweet – balsamic cut 50/50 with white rice vinegar (NOT the seasoned kind) is an acceptable, though not totally satisfactory substitute.
rice wine – This clear vinegar lends acidity without the pungency of a distilled white vinegar. I recommend the non-seasoned type, available in most conventional grocery stores in the Asian section (Japanese brands are particularly good) and of course in Asian markets. If you cannot find this, apple cider vinegar is an acceptable substitute.