When it comes to Chinese cuisine, don't be scared to try cooking it at home — you don't need much in your pantry to experiment with China's flavors. I asked Ching-He Huang, host of the Cooking Channel's Chinese Food Made Easy and the forthcoming Easy Chinese: San Francisco, to rattle off some of the ingredients she couldn't do without in her kitchen. Along with tea and rice — fundamentals of the Far East cuisine — she also mentioned the following food items. See what they are when you read on.
- Oil for stir-frying. "I cook with peanut, because it has a high smoking point and a slight nuttiness that I love," Ching told me, "but canola works well, too."
- Five-spice powder for just about everything. "This versatile powder is great for marinades, fish, and meats. Try roasting a duck with it."
- A good rice vinegar or two. "Black rice vinegar is made from black rice, and it's very mellow and not as sour as white rice vinegar. You can buy both and use them for different purposes; if you can't locate black rice vinegar, balsamic is a good substitute."
- Shaoxing rice wine to intensify flavor. "It's the most crucial ingredient in Chinese cooking," Ching says. "It's sort of bittersweet. The bitter brings out the sweet, and the sweetness brings out the salty." If you don't cook with alcohol, Ching recommends using an intensely flavored chicken, vegetable, or beef stock instead, to help achieve an umami-rich flavor.
- Soy sauce both light and dark. "A light soy sauce gives a dish a fresh saltiness," the cooking host explained. "In contrast, a dark soy sauce is mellow, rich, and caramelly. It's good for color, as you eat with your eyes, too. Just be sure to use it sparingly."
Do you ever cook Chinese at home? If so, what essential items do you keep in your kitchen?
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