Chinese Cooking Ingredient Substitutions

Traditional Chinese food in Dragon Boat Festival
MaaHoo Studio / Getty Images

Cooking Chinese food can be really frustrating if you’re cooking to impress your friends and family with your new found Chinese cooking skills and delicious authentic Chinese recipes. It’s not because dishes are particularly difficult to make (although some can be) but because some ingredients can be difficult to source.


When I wrote my recent cook book I tried to source all of my ingredients from within the UK but there are so many dishes that I have to use subsistute ingredients for.


But what can you do? First of all don’t panic or despair. Of all the international cuisines, Chinese cuisine is one of the creative cuisines born of need and circumstance. Many of the ingredients that we see as integral to Chinese cuisine, such as fiery red chili peppers, aren’t native to China but instead introduced by other cultures. So this is why we can so easily substitute other ingredients.


In my professional chef life and career there have been many occasions where we just can’t get hold of certain ingredients at certain times. This kind of situation happens even in Western cuisine and restaurants. So what can you do? One of the most important things is “improvising” the menu and recipe. If you can’t get hold of Chinese celery it’s ok. You can use western celery and cut it into similar size pieces as Chinese celery.


Here are some food substitution suggestions for ingredients commonly used in Chinese cooking.



An Asian gelatin substitute that doesn’t require refrigeration. This ingredient is getting more and more popular in local supermarkets. But if you can’t get hold of it just use gelatin instead.


Bamboo Shoots

It’s very hard to get hold of the fresh bamboo shoots in the Uk so I usually purchase canned bamboo shoots from Chinese supermarkets.

You can remove the can and rinse in cold water and drain before cooking.


Fresh and canned bamboo shoots do taste quite different so here’s where substitution can come in. If you don’t like the taste of canned bamboo shoots and you’re slow cooking pork, you can use carrots instead of bamboo shoots. If you’re stir-frying chicken, pork or beef and the recipe states bamboo shoots, alternative vegetables include asparagus, carrot, white cabbage and broccoli, to name just a few.


Bok Choy

You can replace with Swiss chard, long stem broccoli, broccoli, Chinese leaves (Napa cabbage), green heart cabbage or spring greens.


Chinese five-spice powder

Equal amounts cinnamon, star anise, cloves, fennel and Szechuan peppercorn. If Szechuan peppercorns aren’t available, use freshly ground black peppercorns. If you need five-spice powder for slow cooking meat then you can just use 1 or 2 star anises, cinnamon sticks and cloves to replace five spice powder.


Coconut Milk

Use whole milk in equal amounts, if possible with coconut extract. For coconut cream, substitute half and half or whipping cream with possible coconut extract if possible.  Nowadays with Asian and Chinese cuisine getting more and more popular you should be able to find coconut milk in your local regular or Chinese supermarket.


Fresh Ginger

You can use ground ginger or candied ginger to replace fresh ginger.


Garlic Cloves

You can use garlic powder to replace fresh garlic.


Hoisin Sauce

Equal amounts ketchup and molasses. You can also use sweet bean sauce to replace hoisin sauce.


Lotus Root Flour

You can use corn flour or potato starch to replace lotus root flour


Oyster Sauce

You can replace with thick soy sauce or soy sauce


Rice Vinegar (Rice Wine Vinegar)

You can replace it with sherry vinegar or white wine vinegar


Sesame oil

1 tablespoon white sesame seeds fried in ½ cup vegetable oil


Soy sauce

You can use Japanese tamari to replace soy sauce


Potato starch

You can use corn flour instead of potato starch. Potato starch is available in Chinese supermarkets or you can purchase through Amazon


Dried Shiitake Mushroom

You can replace with dried mix wild mushrooms or dried porcini mushrooms.


**Recipes of some popular Chinese sauces:

Brown Sauce

Chili Sauce

Hoisin Dipping Sauce

Hot Pepper Oil

Peanut Dressing-Asian (made with peanut butter and coconut milk)

Peanut Sauce-with mint and cilantro

Sweet and Sour Sauce


Edited by Liv Wan