Everything you need to have in your small Chinese pantry but you're afraid to ask. Short list and some knowledge about basic condiments. Look for some of them in stores with Chinese articles or online. You can make some of them at home and trust me - they are worth the time and effort! Go through the list and check, maybe you already have some of them.
Soy sauce 醬油
This is a must have. Soy sauce is already a recognized condiment around the world and does not need special introduction, but it is worth knowing a few things: distinguish light and dark soy sauce. Made of fermented soybean paste, soy sauce is the umami in Chinese cooking and both light and dark sauces are used in different ways. In approx. 2,200 soy sauce has evolved in many ways and differs throughout whole Asia. When in Chinese store, grab them both light and dark sauces! My favourite brand is Pearl River Bridge, you can find out more about their products here.
When it comes to Chinese soy sauces, they can also be divided into brewed and blended. Brewed is mostly light soy sauce. there are three brewed sauces: fresh, premium and darker Taiwanese, which is also thickened with some starch and infused with some spices. All of them are more salty and richer, does not add that much colour and are perfect for dipping. Blended on the other hand include dark (or old) soy sauce, mushroom sauce and thick soy sauce, which is thickened with starch and sugar. It does add colour to dishes and is used widely for cooking. The best ingredient list includes water, soybean, wheat and salt. Store in a cool and dark place.
Like any other great invention, oyster sauce was also invented by accident and only in 1888. According to the story, Lee Kum Sheung, in Guangdong Province, was cooking an oyster soup but forgot about it and let it simmer for a long time, until he discovered that after some time the soup turned into a thick, dark and aromatic sauce. And that is how, on an ordinary day a miracle took place! Oyster sauce is one of my favourite condiments and you need it in your pantry. I usually use Lee Kum Kee (with panda) Chinese oyster sauce. It is widely used mostly in Cantonese cuisine. Store in regrigerator.
Shaoxing wine 紹興酒
Golden and aromatic, originates from Shaoxing region, Zhejiang province of eastern China. It is brewed in a spacial container and may be used in both cooking and drinking. It is a game changer in pork dishes and soon will become your must-have in any pantry stash. Store in a cool and dark place.
Woody, strong and smoky vinegar, which gives an amazing kick to many dishes. Made of glutinous rice, black vinegar is used in cooking mainly in southern China. There is no dumpling dipping sauce without it. Period. Store in a cool and dark place.
Sichuan red oil 紅油
You can buy it in stores, but to be honest... it is best homemade! You can learn how to make it here.
Chinese sesame paste 芝麻酱
Recipe coming soon!
Sesame oil 香油
My next favourite oil, right after peanut oil. Aromatic, light and best raw. There are lighter ones and darker ones, depending on pressing method. In general, sesame oil does not need to be specific. My favourite brand is Che Seng and you can find their products here. Always add it at the end, as when heated too much, it loses aroma and taste. I use it as a finish. Store in a dark place.
Sichuan pepper corn 花椒
Even though it is neither pepper nor chili, Sichuan pepper corns are unforgettable once tasted. Responsible for my favourite sensation - málà - is irresistible and one of a kind. Due to hydroxy-α-sanshool, it makes you lips, tongue and mouth go a bit numb and the sensation is addictive. You've been warned! Use it to infuse oils, grind and sprinkle. Always store tightly closed in a cool place to avoid losing aroma. Before grinding, dry-fry on a pan until fragrant and discard all black seeds inside. Only shells are aromatic, seeds are bitter. Sichuan cuisine does not exist without it. IMPORTANT! - try to use only pink skins and discard black small shiny seeds inside. They will make ground pepper corns bitter!
Five-spice powder 五香粉
There is a bit more to it than just Sichuan pepper corns, fennel seeds, cinnamon, cloves and star anise. You can buy the mix or do it yourself. You can find the recipe here.