Takeout is fine every now and again, but it’s really time to start cooking more of your own Chinese food.
Fortunate are those among us who live close to a good Chinese restaurant—with dinners of sautéed bok choy, mapo tofu, and kung pao chicken just a click or phone call away.
Whether or not you have a solid local place you support, though, it sure is satisfying to concoct top-notch Chinese food at home. All you need is a great starter pantry and a few common fresh items, and you’re off to the races. I asked Kate Telfeyan, line cook at New York City’s Mission Chinese Food (and, full disclosure, a friend)—whose saucy, spicy dishes I’ve long admired on Instagram—about her ideal starter Chinese kitchen. (Note: Telfeyan and I agree that Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking, by Fuchsia Dunlop, is a wonderful resource for amateurs and pros alike.)
Telfeyan says she makes Chinese food all the time, both at work and at home. Born in Korea and adopted by American parents, she’s been “playing around with Asian ingredients” for decades, and working the line at two different New York Asian restaurants has been crucial in honing her technique. Here are the items she can’t live without—and why.
Light soy sauce
This tends to be the most commonly available version, and is what Telfeyan says “you’d get in your Chinese takeout.” It’s “very thin, liquidy… at your average supermarket, they’re probably only going to have light soy sauce.” (Dunlop’s book specifies that it is also “saltier in taste” than dark.) This is the more frequently called for type of soy sauce.
Dark soy sauce
Dark soy sauce is beloved for its ability to turn the hue of your dish dark brown, and for its viscous texture. If you see a mushroom-flavored form of it, snap it up; “it’s the devil word—umami—but [that type] does lend a lot of flavor,” says Telfeyan.
When looking for any soy sauce, always select those that have been naturally brewed or fermented, and remember that “low-sodium” is not the same as “light.”
This cooking wine from Eastern China is used both in marinades and as a flavoring in its own right. Occasionally you’ll spy a high-end Shaoxing wine at a Chinese market, which may well be fit for drinking, but more often it’s intended solely for cooking. (In a pinch, writes Dunlop, use medium-dry Sherry instead.) Telfeyan uses the wine as a deglazer, particularly after stir-frying aromatics like ginger, garlic and scallions and before adding her protein or vinegar. “It creates a little bit of a sauce, and reduces down for a little bit of texture.” Additionally, it’ll help remove anything that’s stuck to your wok or skillet, and help keep it from burning. If playing around with a quick marinade for something like chicken, consider equal parts light soy and Shaoxing, she says.
The Thai and Vietnamese staple made from anchovies, salt and sometimes sugar makes plenty of cameos in Chinese cookery, too. “I use it way too liberally,” laughs Telfeyan, explaining that it is “a little funky [and] wicked salty; I’ll use it usually at the end as things are sort of done.” She’ll add it to all her Chinese dishes, yes, but also eggs and spaghetti, since it adds “that little layer of flavor that you can’t put your finger on.”
Watch: What is Fish Sauce?
Called “black vinegar” for short and often labeled “Chinkiang” or “brown rice vinegar,” this dark substance is made from glutinous rice and derives its color from charred rice grains. It’s complex and lightly acidic. “There are so many ways you can use it,” says Telfeyan, such as a base for a dumpling dipping sauce or in place of rice wine vinegar (another handy staple) in noodle dishes or stir-fries.
“Something I learned the hard way,” said Telfeyan, is that nutty, punch-packing sesame oil is “a finisher.” By using a neutral oil such as canola or soy when initially frying or cooking produce, aromatics and proteins, she points out, you’re not “making everything taste like sesame” (thus diluting the impact of sesame as a final touch). She’ll reserve it to drizzle over a finished dish, which “sort of blew my mind” the first time she tried it.
Garlic, ginger, and scallions
“Every time I go to the market, even if I don’t want to cook something,” says Telfeyan, [it’s] “always garlic, always ginger, always scallions”—what she calls “the Asian trinity.” Scallion whites, garlic, and sometimes ginger will frequently mingle and sizzle away in oil for the base of a stir-fry or meat dish, imparting aroma and flavor to everything else that’s added in. She’ll reserve the green ends of scallions as a final garnish, for color and fresh flavor.
In a starter pantry, some sort of chiles are a must, whether you’ve got whole dried chiles or tiny fiery Szechuan peppercorns, of which “green and red are good to have,” says Telfeyan. She also likes to have Szechuan chili flakes on hand, but suggests that if you can only have one, you go with whole dried chiles. Throw those in at the end—“you don’t want to overcook or burn them,” she warns—and don’t eat them! They’ll release their oils and then go into the garbage. “I’ll throw them out; they served a very good purpose.” (Those who can handle their heat level and texture, she added, will eat them whole.)
You’re going to want a chili oil (like those you’ve spied on the table at Chinese restaurants) to use as a finishing touch; Telfeyan is particularly partial to a version containing chili flakes and peanuts.
Small fermented black beans or black bean sauce will come in handy more often than you’d expect. If she had to choose, Telfeyan would pick the former, since “they don’t impart so much sauciness” to what she’s already made and can be dropped into a beef and bean dish like this one.
Take a spin through the condiment aisle when next you’re at a Chinese grocery. Snap up pickled mustard greens, pickled bamboo shoots, and interesting-looking items preserved in chili oil, suggests Telfeyan. She’ll toss these pickled garnishes into stir-fries, noodle dishes, soups, and alongside rice cakes with pork strips. They contribute sourness, saltiness, and sometimes spice, and lend vibrancy to the finished product.
So there’s your starter pantry. Yes, you could (and should!) also have fresh or dried shiitake mushrooms, oyster sauce, bok choy, ground pork, tofu and the like kicking around, but start with these ingredients and you’ll be well on your way to Chinese cuisine glory.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.