Whenever you begin cooking a new style of cuisine I think one of the most daunting/discouraging aspects is figuring out what spices you need. When I started getting interested in cooking Chinese style dishes I was super overwhelmed, all I had was some chili paste and soy sauce. Oh yeah and a bottle of sesame seeds, because obviously those must be a staple...
Recently I purchased an entire CD shelf from Ikea to hold all of my spices, my collection is out of control. So it got me to thinking about what spices are the most essential when you're starting off cooking Chinese foods?
There was a time when a bottle of soy sauce would last me at least year. Now it's more likely it will last a month. It's good for marinading, adding to soup, dipping, salad dressing. I like the Taiwanese brand Kimlan, it has no preservatives.
I don't think there is much place for typical table salt when I cook, usually if I am going to make something salty I will use chicken powder. I use it in soup of course, but an interesting tip I learned from my fiance's father (who is a chef), was that when boiling or boil/steaming vegetables you can add chicken powder to the water to give the vegetables more flavour.
Hm... Something about the word oyster sauce just doesn't do it for me. Oyster extract, oyster essence...? Despite it's unappetising name I love this sauce, I use the Lee Kum Kee vegetarian version (no preservatives) in the majority of my vegetable side dishes. I will steam my vegetables, then mix 1-2 tablespoons of sauce with a small amount of water, then pour the sauce over the veggies when they are 80% finished.
I use clear coloured rice wine all the time, usually as a marinade for meats. I don't know the science behind it, but rice wine makes the marinated meats very juicy and tender. I sometimes find when cooking certain dishes (like soups) that the meat will be too tough or rubbery if I don't marinade in a mix of rice wine & cornstarch.
Obviously garlic. Garlic is just amazing, whether you mince it, grate it, smash it, fry it. What's not to love about garlic...
I was told by a friend that a Chinese soup is not a good soup unless I add ginger. I always include ginger in my soup and I am constantly buying more. I also like to lightly fry slivers of ginger to stir fry with broccoli and oyster sauce. Interestingly enough ginger has a low burning point, so it's important to watch while frying as if it gets too cooked it tastes a bit bitter.
You can find this in jars at the shops, you can choose whether the small blocks are just in brine or with a little added chili. I really like having them as a side for a rice dish, but I have also smashed them up into a sauce for tung choy, and even in stir-frying vegetables. It makes things saltier, but also a little sweet/spicy.
I love salty egg! I have been told they're not very good for you, but I wonder if that's just because it's so salty? I don't know, they are so fantastic when added to steamed pork and I prefer adding an egg to my soup broth instead of too much chicken powder.
I don't know why, but I have never made Western food with cornstarch... It just never had a place in my kitchen until a friend insisted that I wasn't making meat correctly until I used cornstarch. The first time I tried it I was making some sort of fusion chicken dish (pan frying) and I was so shocked at how much tenderness the chicken had.
Finally, green onions/scallions/spring onions. It was kind of a toss up between the green onion or the cilantro as I use a lot of both of these... But I think that the green onion is more commonly used, it doesn't really have an overwhelming taste like how cilantro can have (to some people). I almost always have some at home and will chop it up on the top of a meat/egg dish.
It's hard narrowing it down to 10, there are so many essential spices! What do you guys like to use in your cooking? Or what do you remember always seeing in the kitchen at home?