Chinese Cooking Ingredient Substitutions

Traditional Chinese food in Dragon Boat Festival

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When a recipe calls for a Chinese ingredient you lack, you can often make a substitution. You may not have an Asian specialty market handy, or it may not stock what your recipe requires. The good news is that many of the ingredients that are integral to Chinese cuisines, such as fiery red chili peppers, aren’t native to China but instead were introduced by other cultures. This is why you can so easily substitute other ingredients.

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


Agar-agar is a powdered Asian gelatin substitute made from algae that doesn’t require refrigeration. It is becoming more available in supermarkets, perhaps because it is a vegan alternative to gelatin, which is an animal product. But if you can’t get hold of it (and you are not vegan), just use gelatin instead. If you are vegan, consider using pectin powder or guar gum.

Bamboo Shoots

Fresh bamboo shoots can be hard to find, but you can purchase canned bamboo shoots from Chinese supermarkets. Drain them and rinse them in cold water before cooking. Fresh and canned bamboo shoots do taste quite different, however, and you may prefer substituting a different vegetable. For slow-cooked dishes such as pork, you can use carrots instead. If you’re stir-frying chicken, pork, or beef and the recipe states bamboo shoots, alternative vegetables include asparagus, carrot, white cabbage, and broccoli.

Bok Choy

Replace bok choy with Swiss chard, long stem broccoli, broccoli, Chinese leaves (Napa cabbage), green heart cabbage, or spring greens.

Chinese Five-Spice Powder

Use 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 one or two-star anises, cinnamon sticks, and cloves as a substitute for the five-spice powder.

Coconut Milk

Coconut milk is a little thicker and creamier than regular milk, and some recipes will benefit by the flavor it adds. To reproduce this, use whole milk, soy milk, or nut milk in equal amounts, and add a little coconut extract for flavor. For coconut cream, substitute half-and-half or whipping cream, with coconut extract for flavor.

Dried Shiitake Mushroom

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

Fresh Ginger

Ground ginger can be a substitute for fresh ginger. Candied ginger can also be used, although it will add sweetness and that may not be as desirable in some recipes.

Garlic Cloves

Use garlic powder to replace fresh garlic.

Hoisin Sauce

Use equal amounts of ketchup and molasses as a substitute for hoisin sauce. You can also use sweet bean sauce as a replacement.

Lotus Root Flour

This flour is used as a thickener. You can use cornstarch, or potato starch to replace lotus root flour.

Oyster Sauce

Replace oyster sauce with thick soy sauce or soy sauce.

Potato Starch

Use cornstarch instead of potato starch.

Rice Vinegar (Rice Wine Vinegar)

You can replace rice vinegar with sherry vinegar or white wine vinegar.

Sesame Oil

To replace sesame oil, fry 1 tablespoon of white sesame seeds in 1/2 cup vegetable oil.

Soy Sauce

Use Japanese tamari to replace soy sauce. It is thicker and less salty. In a pinch, you can also dilute Worcestershire sauce (3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce and 1 tablespoon water for 1/4 cup of soy sauce substitute). Coconut aminos are a gluten-free option.