Getting to know Chinese Ingredients and their uses

Well its about time that I revealed the answers to the last competition on the blog and some of the things I learned along the way – like the fact that two of the ingredients were not what I thought they were and it took readers of my blog to put me straight! Here are the answers to those fiendish questions.
Who am I and what am I used for?
Continue reading Getting to know Chinese Ingredients and their uses

Chinese kitchen essentials

I first posted this list the day Shananigans was a month old but I learn something new every week so I update it regularly.
I love getting feedback from friends, tweeps and readers who have been trying out Shaningans recipes at home and finding out for yourselves how easy, good value and nutritious they can be.
Don’t forget that all the recipes we’ve tried so far in Beijing, Sydney and Dublin are in the archives and I’ve tried to make them a bit easier to find by categorising them by principal ingredient. While some need a few unusual or exotic ingredients, not all do and not all are terrifyingly spicy. As time goes by, and I work around the different regions of China, you will learn along with me which regions favour the spicier food and which produce dishes that are more accessible to the western palate. And I suspect, like me, you will become more adventurous in your tastes as you go along. While the chilli heat of the recipes may vary, one thing you will discover is that Chinese food is never boring or bland.
You will also find in the archives tales of our travels in China, of good food experiences in Ireland and elsewhere and of the fun we are having connecting our family in China, Oz and Ireland through food.
A few questions have come up over the past few weeks about cookbooks, ingredients and the basic kit you need to cook Chinese foods so here is a brief recap.


Since I started on this journey I’ve made new “friends” with food writers that have inspired and challenged me. All of these books are available from good book shops such as Hodges Figgis in Dublin or from Amazon.
Gok Wan was my first “discovery” (I know, I was late to that party!) and his Gok Cooks Chinese, which I came upon in the Wexford Book Centre has become a firm favourite. His recipes are straightforward and easy to follow and it’s worth watching the TV series on which the cookbook is based on the Channel 4 Player or keep an eye out for repeats. Thanks to Gok I’ve gained the confidence to make Dim Sum as well as a host of other lovely family dishes. His influences are mainly Cantonese so his food isn’t overly spicy.
Next up in order of discovery is the visually stunning and evocative BBC2 series “Exploring China – A Culinary Adventure“. Ken Hom and Ching He Huang’s journey through Chinese regional cuisine mirrors my own dreams of exploration and some of my experiences. The book that accompanies the series is as much a travelogue and social history as a cook book and captures their insights and discoveries as they travel through China. For both of them it is something of a voyage of rediscovery into their Chinese heritage. Some of the recipes are a bit more complex but it is a beautifully produced book to have on your bookshelf or kitchen table.
It was the addictive, spicy food of Sichuan province that started me on this food journey on my first night in Beijing last June when it blew my mind as well as my taste buds. It was inevitable that within a week of returning I would stumble upon Fuchsia Dunlop whose Sichuan Cookery is the definitive guide to that region. I’ve already tried her Ma Po Dou Fu and Dan Dan Noodles with near perfect results. I have made recipes such as Chairman Mao’s Red-braised Pork from her Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook on Hunan Cuisine. Her most recent and accessible cookbook on simple Chinese food, Every Grain of Rice, is rapidly becoming one of my favourites and the one I reach for when I want to rustle up something quick and easy for a weekday dinner.
But Fuchsia is more than a chef, she is a wonderful food and travel writer. Her memoir Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper is an enthralling journey through a Chinese landscape that I can only glimpse the aftermath of in 2012, told with wit, humour, keen observation and an objective honesty about the China she encountered tempered with a love of its people and food. I loved every moment of it and read it with a tinge of regret that I can never have her experience of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, so rapidly is the Chinese landscape and cityscape developing.
My journey through the regions led me to The Food of China – a journey for food lovers first published around 2001 which is a great, colourful introduction to the landscape of chinese food with manageable recipes and not a celebrity chef in sight. The Cantonese recipe Lemon Chicken came from this book.
And finally I have to spare an affectionate thought for my first ever Chinese “cookbook” more a recipe leaflet really, produced by Sharwoods when they first introduced a range of Chinese foodstuffs and prepared sauces to Ireland in what must have been the late 1970s. I will forever have a soft spot for that booklet which hooked me into Chinese cooking and using chopsticks when it was relatively unheard of in Ireland. And do you know the recipes still work – I might just reproduce one of them one of these days… I bet you some of you have this hidden away on your bookshelf somewhere. Go on. Check.
Store cupboard ingredients
I took a tip from Gok Wan from his first episode. I invested in two cheap wicker baskets in which I store all my Chinese ingredients and I keep them separate from all my other store cupboard ingredients (stored under the butcher block in my case) so that they are always easy to find. They even travel with me in the back of the car to Duncannon at weekends.
I buy ingredients as I need them for specific recipes. Once you make the initial investment, replacements are relatively infrequent and not very expensive. I keep a list in notes on my iPhone when bottles or packets run low and stock up on them whenever I visit the Asia Market or a good store.
A lot of these ingredients are  available in supermarkets in ranges such as Sharwoods, still on the go all these years later. Speciality food stores and good local greengrocers are also good sources of many of these ingredients. Brands such as Lee Kum Kee, Blue Dragon and Pearl River Bridge are also readily available.
I’ve tracked down all of the ingredients in the Asia Market in Drury St. or Oriental Emporium in Jervis St., both in Dublin city centre, or in the Tony’s Asia Market in Bray, Co. Wicklow (opposite the Royal Hotel). Tony in Bray is particularly helpful at finding products in his densely packed shop and will go looking for them for you if they are not in stock.
Many of these ingredients are also available in good supermarkets or speciality food shops such as Roy Fox Gourmet Foods in Donnybrook. Niall at Get Fresh Rathfarnham has at least 90% of the items in stock and is working on sourcing the rest. Kate’s Farm Shop in Wexford also has a good range of oriental ingredients and spices.

Where I have found a brand that I like I have included it in brackets below but in most cases there are alternatives.

In my ever expanding “sauce/ jar” basket I have:

  • Light soy sauce (Lee Kum Kee or Pearl River Bridge)*
  • Dark soy sauce  (Lee Kum Kee or Pearl River Bridge)*
  • Shaoxing cooking wine* – sherry or white wine can be used as a substitute but Shaoxing is cheaper and has a more authentic flavour
  • Chinese black vinegar – Chinkiang Vinegar (Gold Plum)* or any good Chinese black vinegar. Watch out for aged black vinegar – Balsamic vinegar can be used as a substitute but the flavour is different
  • White rice vinegar (Blue Dragon)
  • Sesame oil (Lee Kum Kee)*
  • Chilli oil (Lee Kum Kee) but home made is nicer – see this post*
  • Oyster sauce (Panda)
  • Fish sauce (Squid)
  • Maggi sauce*
  • Hoisin sauce – home made is best – see this post
  • Sesame paste
  • Sichuan chilli paste made with broad beans – douban djan (Lee Kum Kee Chilli Toban Djan chilli bean sauce is a good substitute)*
  • Laoganma chilli bean sauce*
  • Yellow bean sauce
  • Tianjin preserved vegetables (Yongnian Mengde Food Co. Ltd.)*
  • Ground nut oil, sunflower oil, rapeseed oil (rapeseed oil, now readily available in Ireland, is typically used in Sichuan cooking).

In my “spices/dry-goods/cans” basket I have:

  • Sichuan peppercorns – a vital ingredients. See below and try Green Cuisine or Bart’s Spices if you can’t get the good stuff.
  • Fermented black beans (Pearl River Bridge)*
  • Water chestnuts
  • Anchovies
  • Dried Chinese shitake mushrooms
  • Large whole chillies or chilli pieces – the milder or Sichuan type, not the small, fiendishly hot Thai ones – you will find these in Asian markets described as Chinese long chillies*
  • Chilli flakes
  • Ground Chilli
  • Dried shrimps*
  • Star anise
  • Cinnamon or cassia bark* – the Chinese substitute this for cinnamon
  • Chinese white pepper (ordinary white pepper will do but if in an Asian market pick up some Chinese )
  • Dried noodles and egg noodles (I find these easier to get in good quality in a supermarket. I particularly like Blue Dragon wholewheat noodles and their medium egg noodles)
  • Cornflour
  • Potato flour*
  • Rice flour*
  • Rice – thai jasmine rice
  • Fine sea salt – sea salt flakes do not dissolve fast enough when stir-frying
  • White pepper – there is a special Chinese type which is very aromatic but ordinary white pepper will do – Chinese cooks consider flecks of black pepper unsightly.

*all available in Asisan supermarkets
I acquired a few exotic ingredients when I was making Gok Wan’s dim sum including some very camp dried lotus leaves that open up to look like enormous fans and ridiculously expensive dried scallops which will last me a lifetime but you don’t need these unless you are going to do his sticky rice parcels and even then you can improvise.
A few items are hard to come by in the quality available in Beijing – Sichuan peppers and Sichuan dried chillies in particular. A lot of the Asian Markets here are Cantonese owned and do not seem to import direct from Sichuan. Restaurants like The China Sichuan import their own. The Green Cuisine range includes Sichuan pepper and cassia bark among other exotic spices Bart’s Spices is another good quality range. I recently found them in the Harvey Nichols in Dundrum. They can be expensive in small quantities so I bring home a supply whenever I am over in Beijing.
It’s impossible to get through a weekend of Chinese cooking without the holy trinity of fresh ingredients:

  • Spring onions
  • Ginger
  • Garlic.

and I also usually need some fresh red and green chillies. The garlic keeps but I usually buy a “hand” of ginger, a bunch or two of spring onions (Irish if at all possible) and a few red chillies each Saturday. I’m constantly searching for fresh Irish vegetables for use in the recipes and try to always use what is in season. Irish pak choi is readily available.

Your Chinese kitchen

My favourite place to buy kitchen equipment is Sweeney O’Rourke, Pearse St. Dublin which has been  supplying the catering trade in ireland for over 30 years. Prices are reasonable, the staff are very helpful and you can even have your knives sharpened for about €1.50 each. I have found nearly everything I need for Chinese cooking there including my latest stainless steel cleaver which is better suited for fine work than the cleaver I originally bought which I use for chopping meat.
What few things you cant get at Sweeney O’Rourke you will pick up at the Asia Market or the Oriental Emporium. Many items are also available in the kitchen shops of Brown Thomas or other large Department stores and in specialist kitchen shops.
It’s not for nothing that countless generations of Chinese have cooked sumptuous meals in tiny kitchens in claustrophobic spaces with only a hob and the space for a chopping board. I was amazed at how small the kitchens are, even in modern Chinese apartments and an oven or grill is still a rarity. So, apart from one or two rings on which to cook, all you really need is:

  • A wok or two or three – one that requires seasoning before use and takes on the “patina” of the food cooked in it over time gives a much more authentic flavour. Go for a type that suits your hob – I have an induction hob which limits me a bit but I find the “boost” function on an induction hob is fantastic for fast stir-fry cooking. Woks are available in Sweeney O’Rourke, the Asian Market, Oriental Emporium, Ikea and most kitchen stores. They are inexpensive. I have two – a larger one for deep-frying and steaming and a medium one capable of handling a stir-fry for two to three people. My favourite, multi-purpose wok is this one from Ikea which has great capacity and cost €43
  • A ladle, shovel and strainer – these are cheap and great fun. They make you feel like a real Chinese cook. The strainer is great for working with deep-frying in the wok.
  • A chopping board, preferably round as the Chinese consider that more auspicious, or use plastic boards colour-coded for food safety
  • A cleaver – mine still scares me and I haven’t got the hang of it. Now that I’ve attended a Knife Skills Course, I’ve reverted to a Chef’s knife for dicing garlic and ginger. I have ambitions though. I aspire to being able to use two simultaneously to mince meat like they do at the markets in China! (update in November 2013 – I now own 5 cleavers and use them all the time!!)
  • A set of stacking bamboo steamers in various sizes with lids for each stack. Make sure at least one is big enough to take a dinner plate and one small enough for pancakes. Cooking with steamers is a revelation and so healthy.

Indispensable Chinese kit

This final bit of kit is far from being an essential but is my favourite – a genuine Shabu Shabu hotpot which I bought on line from the lovely Sophie in Table Top Cookware who had no difficulty arranging it’s delivery to Ireland.
Shabu Shabu Hotpot

And finally… a film

This is not a book, ingredient or implement but if you can get hold of it it will complete your love for Chinese food and culture.
Ang Lee’s film Eat, Drink, Man, Woman is an absolute treasure for anyone who wants to understand the importance of food and family in China and the opening scene is pure food porn.
Unfortunately it never seems to have gone on general release here in Ireland but it is available from Amazon. Just make sure it’s “region free” before you buy.