From Chinkiang vinegar to wonton wrappers, our Glossary takes the mystery out of ingredients
臭粉, cheoh fun
A predecessor to the modern raising agents bicarbonate of soda and baking powder, ammonium bicarbonate is still used in Chinese cooking for its ability to produce more gas for the same amount of agent without leaving a soapy taste. The powder has a strong ammonia smell, which must be cooked off completely, so only small amounts should be used. It is easy to source online as food grade ammonium bicarbonate.
竹笋, jook shuun
Bamboo shoots are harvested from the cone-shaped stems that emerge from the ground when the plant is young. The firm, milky yellow flesh has a delicate perfume and is fantastic at absorbing strong flavours. You’ll easily find pre-sliced, canned bamboo shoots in large supermarkets, but try to get the whole or halved versions if you can because they are less fibrous in texture.
粉丝, fun see
Also known as cellophane noodles or glass noodles, these long resilient threads are made from ground mung beans. They are ready to cook after a soak in cold water and once cooked, are a bit gelatinous and supremely waat (slippery). They soak up flavours like a sponge so are best used in saucy dishes.
豆瓣酱, dou ban jeung
A spicy, salty paste made from fermented chilli and broad beans often used in Sichuan cooking. The most authentic versions are from the town of Pixian and contain large pieces of chilli and broad beans that should be chopped roughly before using. Fry the paste in hot oil to release its ruby red oils.
芥兰, gai lan
Gai lan have tiny green flower buds and deep-emerald leaves that grow from a central stem. Its delicate bitterness is a great match for ginger, rice wine and a sprinkle of sugar in stir-fries. Avoid choosing gai lan with very thick and hollow stems, open flowers or yellow leaves, as these are signs of age. Fun fact: broccolini is a hybrid between broccoli and gai lan.
芽白, wong ah bak
Wong ah bak, with their creamy white stalks and crinkly pale green leaves, are widely available in supermarkets. They are crisp and slightly sweet, and very juicy when cooked properly. Choose a cabbage free of any black or brown spots on the stalks.
罗卜, loh bak
Also known as mooli, this radish looks like a very large, pointed white carrot and its crisp, creamy white flesh has a slight peppery flavour. Choose firm radishes and check that there is only one layer of skin (Japanese daikon has two layers and has a slightly different flavour).
镇江香醋, jun ghong hohng chouw
This mildly acidic vinegar from the city of Zhenjiang (formerly Chinkiang) has an almost smoky flavour. It is used as a dipping sauce for dumplings (especially those with fatty fillings) and added at the start of braises to intensify flavour. At a pinch, you could substitute with equal parts balsamic and water.
菜心, choy suum
This vibrant green vegetable looks a bit like gai lan but tastes more like pak choi (also called bok choy). Its sweet, juicy stems and tender leaves are delicious stir-fried or simply blanched with a drizzle of oil. Choi sum are recognisable by their little yellow flowers, but choose a bunch that is still in bud to ensure tenderness.
芫茜 , yeen say
Readily available in supermarkets, coriander is used in soups, stir-fries and as a garnish. Keep coriander fresher for longer in the fridge by wrapping in damp kitchen paper followed by a plastic bag.
冬菇, dong gu
Good dried Chinese mushrooms can have the pungency of dried porcini, only less earthy and more perfurmed. The lighter-coloured mushrooms with lots of tiny cracks on their caps are the most prized (and accordingly priced) for their intensity of flavour. To prepare them for cooking, soak in hot water with a pinch of sugar (to counter any bitterness) for 30 minutes. They are eaten for their fleshy caps, but you can break off the stalks before soaking to use in stocks.
These wrinkly looking beans have a sharp, pungent umami flavour that pack a lot of punch. They are also intensely salty so rinse them first, use sparingly and with a sprinkling of sugar. You will find them sold in vacuum-sealed bags or in cardboard tubes in Chinese supermarkets.
五香粉, mmh heung fun
This spice blend typically consists of ground cloves, star anise, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper and fennel seeds, although recipes vary and can include components such as ginger and mandarin peel. The pungent, heavily aromatic powder is often paired with fatty meats like pork and duck. To create a delicious seasoned salt for finishing off dishes, simply dry-roast equal portions of five-spice and table salt in a hot saucepan and store in an airtight container.
吞面, won ton meen
Some Chinese supermarkets stock fresh wonton noodles in the fridge. These are more elastic than ordinary egg noodles and more closely resemble the kind that you would find in a wonton noodle shop in Hong Kong.
炸豆腐, jaa dou fu
Deep-frying tofu turns it into the most wondrous sponge for other flavours. Cubes of deep-fried tofu are sold in packets in the fridge in Chinese supermarkets: use quickly as they will go mouldy within a few days.
蒜头, shuhn towh
You know this one! We’re not too fussy about our garlic but do try to buy only as much as we need because the bulbs dry out easily.
韭菜, gowh choi
The slender green blades have a distinct garlicky flavour that is delicious when stir-fried. You will find them as tied bunches or in sealed plastic bags in Chinese supermarkets: avoid if the tips look burnished or yellow, as these are signs of age.
生姜, saang gheung
Choose firm, knobbly looking ginger with rough tan skin and fibrous flesh. Smooth-skinned ginger tends to have more fibres and less flavour. This is not to be confused with ‘young’ ginger, which has smooth skin and pink tips.
糯米, law mei
When cooked, the grains are tacky and translucent with a firm bite. Prepare by washing then soaking overnight and steam over a rapid boil for the best results.
糯米粉, lo meen fun
Milled from glutinous rice, this flour produces a flexible, resilient dough that imparts a sticky, chewy texture to sweet snacks and desserts. It is not interchangeable with rice flour
海鲜酱, hoy seen jeung
Hoisin sauce is savoury, sweet and tangy all at once and used in stir-fries, sauces and for dipping. The colour will vary from dark chocolate to a reddish brown (if it contains red fermented rice). Avoid hoisins the colour of milk chocolate as this suggests a heavy use of thickeners. As for texture, the best hoisin sauces should be scoopable (like soft ice cream) and definitely not runny
香米, heung mei
Mostly grown in Thailand, the nutty, fragrant, tender and ever so sticky jasmine rice is the best choice for steaming, in our opinion. The best-quality jasmine rice will leach a little oil as it cooks, producing gleaming grains: a sign that it hasn’t been stored for a long time.
猪油, ju yeoh
Although out of fashion, lard is an integral ingredient in many traditional Chinese baked breads and pastries as it creates a tender crumb and well-defined layers. On the whole, lard is not interchangeable with butter as the constitution is very different, but vegetable shortening can be substituted (look for 100 per cent vegetable fat).
荷叶, hhoh yep
Lotus leaves are used as wrappers to imbue a delicate floral fragrance to their contents, such as glutinous rice and marinated meats. They need a rinse and soak in lukewarm water before use.
低筋粉, day gun fun
Containing only 8–10 per cent protein, the low elasticity of this flour is suitable for making pillowy soft breads like steamed pork buns. The fine milling process also produces a whiter flour than plain flour (10–12 per cent protein), although it is not as snowy white as the bleached flour used in China and Hong Kong (unavailable in the UK). Buy it in the Chinese supermarket or online, where it is sometimes called ‘dim sum flour’.
蚝油, hoh yeoh
Oyster sauce is traditionally made by simmering fresh oysters in water until they caramelise to a viscous an intensely flavoured sauce. The versions available now use oyster extract or essence. Use for glazing a stir-fry, dolloped on top of blanched greens or simply mixed through noodles.
白菜, baak choy
The term pak choi encompasses many varieties and but all of them have thick, sweet juicy stems and light to dark green leaves. The variety most commonly found in supermarkets has pale green stems and spoon-like, grass-green leaves. Also called bok choy.
豆沙, hong dou shaa
Made from mashed azuki beans, the paste is honey- sweet, velvety smooth and good enough to eat with a spoon. Find in cans or vacuum-sealed bags in Chinese supermarkets.
粘米粉, jee mei fun
A flour made from finely ground long-grain rice used in steamed sweet and savoury cakes. Add a touch of rice flour to a glutinous rice flour dough if you want it to crisp up when fried (otherwise it remains tender and soft).
米粉 / 沙河粉, mei fun / sa ho fun
The two types used in Chinese cooking are mei fun (super-skinny) and sa ho fun (flat and wide). Soak both types in cold water until floppy then briefly boil until supple, just before eating.
芝麻油, zi maa yeoh
Sesame oil is used as a flavour enhancer, not a cooking oil, and as such should be added at the end of cooking. This is also because the flavour molecules in sesame oil are very delicate and are destroyed by heat. Look for ‘pure’ sesame oil, which has not been blended with other oils (and is not that much more expensive than the blended varieties).
芝麻, zi maa
The inviting aroma of freshly toasted sesame seeds can really lift a dish. Black sesame seeds, on the other hand, can add graphic impact but are less pleasant to eat as the hulls are gritty. For both, store in an airtight container to stop the seeds from going rancid.
沙茶酱, saa sha jeung
Sha cha is an intensely savoury and slightly spicy sauce made from an aromatic combination of garlic, shallots, chilli and dried shrimp. The paste separates from the oil, so stir thoroughly before using. You can use it as a marinade, braising sauce, barbecue rub or condiment for noodles.
绍兴酒, siew hing jiao
Made from glutinous rice, this dark amber liquid is used to add depth to marinades and an unmistakable fragrance to stir-fries. It is not good for drinking. Supermarkets stock Shaoxing rice wine in small bottles but try to get your hands on a more authentic version in the Chinese supermarket if you can. Avoid ‘cooking wine’, which is salted and entirely different. Dry sherry is a good substitute.
花 椒, faa jiew
‘Flower pepper’ in Chinese, Sichuan ‘peppercorns’ are actually dried berries. They are usually sold cracked open like ladybird wings with the seeds discarded, since it is the woody husk that induces the tingly, numbing sensation on the tongue. They can be added whole in braises or roasted and then freshly ground before use. When used alongside chillies, the effect is called maa laat, literally ‘numb-spicy’.
雪耳, shurt yee
Snow ear is a tree fungus that is wondrously song (refreshingly crisp) in texture when cooked and will lap up sauces within its overlapping fronds. It is particularly delicious when simmered in a hoisin-based sauce. Cut off any tough knobbly bits at the base and soak in cold water for 10 minutes, after which they will expand to about three times the size. Also called silver ear fungus or white jelly mushroom.
豉油: 生抽 / 老抽, see yeoh: sarng cheo / lhoh cheo
The two types of soy sauce (see yeoh) most widely used in the Chinese kitchen are light and dark soy. Light soy (sarng cheo) is the saltier of the two and is used for flavour and seasoning. Dark soy (lhoh cheo) is fermented from light soy and has a mellower flavour and is deeper in colour and added during cooking. A good dark soy will coat the inside of a glass bottle when inverted while a runny consistency is a sign of poor quality. If you are gluten intolerant go for tamari, a Japanese soy sauce made with little or no wheat (check the bottle).
A true staple of Cantonese cooking, spring onions are used almost everywhere: to flavour oils and add depth to braises, in dumpling fillings, or as a garnish. The bunches in supermarkets usually have their pointed ends chopped off so add more than the recipe calls for if you like – it’s not a precise science.
春卷皮, chun gurn pei
These are simply larger versions of wonton wrappers and if you can find them, the best kind for deep-frying contain no egg and are almost translucent (sometimes called ‘Shanghai spring roll wrappers’).
八角, baat gok
These eight-pointed star-shaped dried fruits have a strong aniseed flavour and are used sparingly in braises and stews where their fragrance can permeate sauces. 19
甜面酱, tem meen jeung
Sweet bean sauce is made from fermented wheat, salt and soybeans and is the thick, glossy sauce nestled inside Peking duck pancakes. Since it is also sold as sweet fermented sauce, sweet flour sauce and hoisin sauce (which it is not, although they are good substitutes for each other), be sure to show the Chinese characters to a shop assistant.
菱粉, ling fun
A starchy powder extracted from the root vegetable cassava that is used as a thickener in the same way as cornflour. It is sometimes called tapioca flour, although it is gluten-free. Fun fact: the chewy, translucent balls in bubble tea are tapioca pearls.
芋头, warh teoh
Taro is a starchy root vegetable eaten for its unique chestnut-ty, coconut-ty flavour, and revered floury texture. The skin is dark brown and hairy and its firm white flesh turns a ruddy lavender when cooked. Wear rubbers gloves while peeling fresh taro because it causes itchiness. Pre-sliced frozen taro is more affordable.
豆腐 , dou fu
Tofu comes in different degrees of firmness: silken, soft, firm and extra-firm. The soft kind is what you are looking for when making braises such as Mapo Tofu (page 100), while the firm kinds are good for pan-frying. Store in the fridge covered in water.
马蹄, marh teay
Water chestnuts are eaten for their song (refreshingly crisp) white flesh. Try sneaking little nuggets into meatballs for a surprising crunch. You can find fresh water chestnuts at the Chinese supermarket but the canned version is perfectly fine for our recipes – and much easier!
蘿蔔, tong choi / ong choi
Harvested tong choi are about 40cm long and each plant features an elegant tubular stem topped with skinny, spear-shaped pointed leaves. The stem is usually cut into chopstickable pieces which are delightfully, crunchy when stir-fried, while the leaves wilt down like spinach.
Made with or without egg, sold fresh or dried, these are the most common type of noodles used in Chinese cooking.
澄面粉, dung meen fun
The starchy part of wheat only (no gluten) ground into a fine powder. It is essential for achieving the pliable, translucent wrappers of the delicately steamed dumplings, like har gau.
白胡椒, bak wu jiew
This is often the pepper of choice for Chinese cooks because unlike black pepper, it doesn’t mottle the appearance of light-coloured dishes.
云吞皮, won ton pei
These silky wrappers are made from wheat flour, water and egg and are sold frozen or chilled in the Chinese supermarket. When you have a choice, use the thinner wrappers for steaming and boiling, and the thicker wrappers for deep-frying (check the label). You can sometimes find round versions for siu mai dumplings (or just make your own with a cookie cutter).
豆角, dou gok
These long, rope-like green beans have brown blemishes and retain a hearty, crunchy bite when cooked. Trim the ends before cooking. Green beans are a good substitute but reduce the cooking times.
黄酱, wong jeung
The name describes the yellow soybeans used to make the sauce as, once fermented, the paste is light to dark brown colour. It is primarily used in Northern Chinese cuisine to add umami richness to dishes. A drier version, called ghon wong jeung (literally ‘dry yellow paste’) is also available in Chinese supermarkets.