Traditionally, a Chinese housewife is supposed to check first thing each morning the following seven items in her kitchen: firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar and tea. A Western housewife is luckier in a way as she has no need to be bothered with the firewood problem, but she should add to this list sugar, pepper, cornflour and cooking sherry or Shaoxing rice wine.
The following is a list of the most generally used materials and ingredients, given in alphabetical order. All these are obtainable from most Oriental stores; some of the items can even be found in the delicatessen or a good supermarket.
Bamboo shoots: normally only canned ones can be bought in the West; try to get winter bamboo shoots, which are smaller and more tender than the ordinary ones. After opening the tin, drain before use; any leftovers can be stored in fresh water in a covered jar where they will keep for weeks in the refrigerator.
Bean curd: also known as tofu, this soft cheese-like preparation of puréed and pressed soya beans is exceptionally high in protein. It is sold in cakes about 3 in (7½ cm) square and 1 in (2½ cm) thick in Oriental and health food stores. It will keep fresh for a few days if submerged in water in a container and placed in the refridgerator. Packets of dried bean curd skins, available in sheets ot sticks, will keep for a long time. The dried skin is soaked overnight in cold water, or for an hour in warm water, before use.
Bean sauce: there are basically two kinds: yellow bean sauce and black bean sauce. They are sold in cans or jars, and are sometimes called bean paste. The yellow is sweeter than the black.
Bean sprouts: use fresh bean sprouts only. Canned ones should be banned by law, since they taste nothing like the real thing. Do not bother to top and tail them, as that would take you hours to do and is quite unnecessary. Just wash, rinse and discard any husks that float on the surface of the water. They will stay fresh in a refrigerator for a few days if kept in a closed plastic bag.
Chilli bean paste: fermented bean paste mixed with hot chilli and other seasonings. Sold in jars, some are quite mild but some are very hot. You will have to try out the various brands yourself to see which one is to your taste.
Chilli sauce: very hot sauce made from chillis, vinegar, sugar and salt. It is usually sold in bottles and should be used sparingly in cooking or as a dip. Tabasco sauce can be a substitute.
Chinese dried mushrooms: you only need a very small amount in any one dish, which is just as well since they are rather expensive. Buy 4 oz (100 g) at a time; they will last you a long time and will keep indefinitely in a tightly covered jar if stored in a cool place. Soak them in cold water overnight before use, or in warm water for about 30 minutes. Fresh mushrooms, which are quite different in fragrance and texture, do not make a good substitute.
Five spice powder: a combination of star anise, fennel, clove, cinnamo and Sichuan pepper. Use less than 1 teaspoonful at a time, as it is very pungent. It is sold in plastic bags or tins and should be stored in a tightly covered container.
Ginger root: sold by weight, fresh ginger root should be peeled, sliced and finely shredded or chopped before use. Will keep unpeeled for weeks in a dry, cool place. Alternatively, peel and place in a jar, cover with dry sherry, seal and store in the refrigerator.
Hoi Sin sauce: also known as barbecue sauce. Made from soya beans, flour, sugar, spices and red colouring. It is sold in cans or jars and will keep in the refrigerator for months.
Oyster sauce: a thickish brown sauce made from oysters and soy sauce. It is sold in bottles and will keep almost indefinitely in the refrigerator.
Rice wine: made from glutinous rice, it is also known as ‘yellow wine’ (huang jiu or chiew in Chinese) because of its golden amber colour. The best variety, Shaoxing is from the southeast of China. A good dry or medium sherry can be an acceptable substitute.
Sesame seed oil: strongly flavoured seasoning oil which is sold in bottles and keeps indefinitely. The refined yellow sesame oil sold in Middle Eastern stores is not so aromatic, has less flavour and therefore is not a very satisfactory substitute.
Sichuan peppercorns: also known as hua chiao, these reddish-brown peppercorns are much more aromatic, though milder, than either black or white peppercorns. They are sold in plastic bags and will keep for a long time in a tightly sealed container.
Sichuan (Szechuan) preserved vegetable: this pickled root vegetable is hot and salty. Sold in cans, once opened it can be stored in a tightly sealed jar in the refrigerator for months.
Soy sauce: sold in bottles or cans, this most popular Chinese sauce is used both for cooking and at the table. ‘Light soy sauce’ has more flavour than the sweeter ‘dark soy sauce’ which gives the food a rich, reddish colour. It will keep almost indefinitely.
Tiger lily: also known as ‘Yellow flower’ or ‘Golden Needles’ in China, it is a dried bud, golden yellow in colour. It must be soaked in water before use. Will keep indefinitely.
Water chestnuts: sold ready peeled in cans. They can be obtained fresh during the winter months both in Britain and the USA and will keep for about a month in a refrigerator in fresh water in a covered jar.
Wooden ear: also known as ‘cloud ear’, it is a dried tree fungus. Only a very small amount is needed each time. Soak in warm or cold water for 20 minutes, then rinse in fresh water before use. It has a crunchy texture and a mild but subtle flavour.
© Deh-Ta Hsiung and reproduced with his kind permission.