Must-Have Ingredients for Cooking Chinese Food

Stir-fried ingredients in a skillet

The Spruce

Question: What Ingredients Do I Need To Cook Chinese Food?

So, you've decided to finally take the plunge and start cooking Chinese food. However, a quick look through any Chinese cookbook makes it clear that this could be a time-consuming and possibly expensive proposition. Is it really necessary to embark on a frantic search through Chinatown for ingredients such as lily buds, shark's fin, and winter melon, not to mention splurging on fancy gadgets such as ginger graters and garlic crushers? For the most part, no. Exploring a cuisine that's new to you is what you make of it. However, there are several basic ingredients that you will use over and over in Chinese cooking, and those are worth familiarizing yourself with.

Illustration showing common ingredients in Chinese cooking

The Spruce / Marina Li


  • Chinese Rice Wine (Shaoxing Wine): It adds flavor and is good for removing strong odors, such as fish. (If rice wine is unavailable, use dry sherry).
  • Chinese Dried Black Mushrooms: Also referred to as shiitake mushrooms, these are found dried in bins in Asian markets. Cheaper brands work fine in soups and stir-fries.
  • Cornstarch: Used in marinades and as a thickener. Can substitute for tapioca starch in recipes.
  • Garlic: Along with ginger, it is often used to season cooking oil.
  • Ginger root: Always use fresh ginger unless the recipe states otherwise.
  • Spring Onions (Green Onions, Scallions): Often used as a garnish, or added to stir-fries in the wok.
  • Oyster Sauce: Made from boiled oysters and seasonings, this rich savory sauce is used in meat and vegetable ​dishes and is one of the key ingredients in Cantonese cooking.
  • Rice: Long grain for meals; short-grain or sticky rice for desserts or snacks; sometimes jasmine rice is used.
  • Rice Vinegar: This type of vinegar has a more delicate flavor than regular white vinegar.
  • Asian Sesame Oil: This is used as a flavoring in stir-fries and soups.
  • Soy Sauce: Look for both light and dark. The bottles are not always clearly labeled, but you can tell by holding it up to the light, dark soy sauce is thicker and darker.
  • Chili Paste: Made with chiles, salt, garlic, ginger, and oil. A small amount of this spicy seasoning adds heat to stir-fries, marinades, and sauces.
  • Oil: You'll need this for deep-frying and stir-frying: Traditionally, peanut oil is used. However, you can use vegetable oil, such as canola. Peanut oil will become rancid faster than canola oil, which can be a problem if you're just getting into Chinese cuisine and don't cook it often.

With the exception of rice wine and dried black mushrooms, these ingredients can usually be found in the international section of many supermarkets. They are all available in Chinese/Asian markets. Dry sherry can be purchased at a liquor store.

Fresh and Canned Vegetables

Celery, zucchini, and mung bean sprouts are all great choices for stir-fries. And be sure to keep a supply of canned bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, and baby corn on hand. Find freshwater chestnuts and bamboo shoots at Chinese markets.