ESSENTIALS FOR A CHINESE PANTRY
Garlic is one part of the dynamic duo of Chinese cooking (ginger is the other half) - much like the Trinity is to Cajun, or Mirepoix to French food. Using the freshest garlic you can find will make a difference - I buy mine peeled and in bulk so I can see the cloves and make sure they are white and firm. Never buy garlic that has green sprouts - it’s old, and likely bitter. I chop a ton of garlic in my food processor, use what I need, and freeze the rest in zip-lock bags - that saves tons of work down the line.
Ginger is the other half of the duo. You can find fresh ginger in most markets. Look for ginger that is smooth and plump - if wrinkled and dehydrated, it is just that. You can leave the skin on ginger as long as it is well rinsed, and chop 1” chunks in your food processor. Much like garlic, you can freeze what’s left for baking or seasoning other dishes. If you want to peel it, the best way is with the tip or edge of a spoon - apply firm downward pressure on the knob and the skin will fly off. Store unused ginger at room temperature - once you cut into it, it should be stored in the fridge. However, ginger is often forgotten, and gets moldy pretty easily - so take my cue and process the whole root and you’ll have a stash for other projects.
Dried Mushrooms: dried mushrooms like shiitakes (easy to find), and wood ears (also called tree ear, black fungus) lend meaty and exotic flavor and texture to Asian soups, salads, stir fries and appetizers. Once soaked in hot water, dried mushrooms grow in size. Shiitake stems should be cut off and discarded (they are tough as nails), and wood ears can be sliced into thin strips (they have neither caps nor stems) for most dishes. Dried mushrooms keep indefinitely. Fresh shiitakes are often expensive, so dried varieties are most cost effective and can be found in most supermarkets. Wood ear dried mushrooms can be found in specialty groceries (for $$$),and in Asian markets for a fraction of the cost.
Dry Chili Flakes: these are a workhorse to add heat to Asian dishes, as well as other cuisines. Keep all dry peppers (paprika, chili powders, chili flakes, etc) either in a little bin in the fridge or in a cool, dry dark place in your pantry. Flavor and heat is retained better that way.
The good news about most of the “wet” ingredients in an Asian pantry is that they last a long time on the shelf. The only exception is sesame oil. Purchase a small bottle and make sure to keep it in the refrigerator - that way the oil won’t get rancid and the dark environment of the fridge will protect it from light damage.
Rice Vinegar: whether unseasoned or seasoned (there is sugar added), rice vinegar adds a lighter acidity to your dishes and makes a terrific and easy salad dressing when combined with a little neutral oil and a drop of sesame oil. Rice vinegar is stable at room temperature.
Hoisin Sauce: made from a combination of fermented soybean paste, garlic, vinegar, sesame oil, chiles, and sweetener, this smoky sweet paste adds body to salad dressings, dipping sauces, and forms the base of Moo Shu Pork. It can be kept at room temperature or in the fridge. My favorite brand is Koon Chun (and brand matters here) - it can be found on Amazon and also in Asian markets.
Low Sodium Soy Sauce: back in the day everyone used to douse Chinese food with excessive amounts of Soy Sauce - essentially destroying the flavor of any dish. I use low-sodium soy sauce (it’s lighter and less salt) in small amounts to add a slightly Asian flavor - but I use it in tiny amounts. My bottle of soy sauce usually lasts a couple of years and is stable at room temperature. If you are gluten-free, a good substitution is Tamari sauce.
Sesame Oil: a little goes a long way, and lends a slightly toasted and nutty note to your sauces and dressings. NEVER cook with sesame oil. Think of it like a finishing salt - it’s loaded with flavor and used only for just that. Best stored in the refrigerator (in the dark).
Bamboo Shoots: they are the new growth that comes out of the ground of bamboo and used as a vegetable in Asian cooking. They add crunch and a lovely flavor to stir fries and soups - they virtually don’t get soggy with cooking. They are canned, need to be drained, and should be used within 2-3 days of opening.
Water Chestnuts: the Chinese water chestnut or water chestnut, comes from water-borne grasses that grow in Asia. It’s storage corms below the water’s surface are called the chestnuts. They have a mild flavor, a distinctive crunch, and lend texture to Asian salads and dumpling fillings. I buy the whole chestnuts rather than sliced - they are much crunchier. Use within 2-3 days of opening the can.