Ten Best Chinese Ingredients: Traditional Chinese Cuisine

You want to become a pro at cooking authentic Chinese food?  It’s actually very simple!  You only need ten traditional Chinese ingredients to be the star of any family gathering or potluck!


We learned in the previous food post about the “Top Ten Chinese Food to Try.”  Now we will learn what it takes to cook almost all of those dishes.  Your newly discovered cooking ability will be the talk of all your friends and family.  Let’s get started!


10. Lao Gan Ma

Chinese ingredients

老干妈 (lǎo gān mā) is perhaps the most interesting on this list of Chinese ingredients.  Of the ten, it is the only man-made one.  However, this sauce has become so popular that restaurants now serve dishes like “Chicken Lao Gan Ma Noodles.”  Anymore, most families will have this in their pantry, and so should you!

There are multiple flavors, but their bean chili pepper is the most common.  It mostly consists of chili oil, dried chili peppers, and black beans.  It also contains some special seasons that make Lao Gan Ma so addicting! 

9. Spicy Numb Peppers

sichuan pepper

Number 9 on this list is 花椒(huā jiāo)!  Although it is the favorite of many Chinese, especially those from Sichuan province, it isn’t as common all around China.  In fact, this “flower pepper” is from Sichuan and compliments many Sichuanese dishes.

Although it does have a bit of spicy kick to it like other peppercorns, it isn’t used for spicing up dishes.  It is used for its unique “numbing” ability!  The sensation is very difficult to describe.  However, it’s nothing like the numbing-feeling you get at the dentist’s office.  It is so much better, especially with a spicy dish like many traditional Sichuan foods!

8. Green Onions

green onions

Green onion is one of the must-have Chinese ingredients!  The vegetable is a great compliment to northern cuisine as well as southern.  Some Chinese in parts of the country even eat green onion raw!

In traditional Chinese cuisine (dates back thousands of years), green onions have been an Imperial kitchen requirement along with many others on this list.  Learn how to slice and cut the green onion in as many ways as you can think, because Chinese food uses the green onion in very unique ways compared to the West.

6. Cinnamon

Chinese ingredients

肉桂 (ròu guì) is so important to Chinese traditional culture that not only is it considered one of the “traditional five spices.”  It is also used in Chinese medicine to help cure illnesses in the lungs and spleen!  

Most commonly sold as a powder, cinnamon is also sold as a stick.  With a combo of sugar, cinnamon sticks, and chili peppers, your lamb or spareribs dishes will be the talk of the party!

7. Sugar

chinese ingredients        Chinese ingredients

The use of 糖 (táng) as an ingredient in Chinese cuisine is extremely important.  Chinese people love food with deep flavors and long cooking-time.  There is just something that brown sugar (“red sugar” in Chinese) adds to a dish that can’t be replicated with anything else!  

Brown sugar is probably the most common form of sugar used in China as it gives the food a dark brown shade.  However, other forms of sugar are also used.  This includes rock sugars and even “pink” sugar.

5. Sesame

Chinese ingredients Chinese ingredients

芝麻 (zhī ma) is a favored flavor of Chinese for more than 2000 years!  Similar to brown sugar and cinnamon, sesame adds a deep, nutty flavor to the food.  Sesame is also a stand-alone as a beverage in China!

The most common forms of sesame is oil, seeds, and paste.  The easiest form to use for a beginner to Chinese ingredients is oil.  Pour a small amount into the pan before cooking or sprinkle some on the food when it is finished as dressing.

4. Star Anise

Chinese ingredients

The strangest looking on the list, 八角 (bā jiǎo) has an impressive licorice flavor that is a pinnacle to Chinese cuisine.  Once you cook a dish with star anise for your friends and family, they will be wondering what was in the food that made them go “mmmmm!” every time!

Called “eight points” in Chinese, most northern-style dishes can incorporate this ingredient with ease.  Westernized Chinese dishes are far more authentic with the inclusion of this ingredient.  For instance, try to cook Kung Pao Chicken with a few 八角 and you will love it forever!

3. Chili Peppers

Chinese ingredients

Southern Chinese would certainly disagree with 辣椒 (là jiāo) being number 3 on this list.  However, the rest of China would likely agree that “spicy peppers” are one of the most important Chinese ingredients ever!  

Living in China, you need to learn how to respond to “要不要辣椒?” which is “Do you want or not want peppers?”  Yes is “要.” No is “不要.”  The frequency that you will encounter this question is a testament to the pervasiveness of chili peppers in China! — (For pronunciation, copy and paste the Chinese characters into Google Translate and click the listen button: Image result for listen button.)

Although peppers are also cooked fresh in China, they more commonly come in the dried variety.  By now you will surely have recognized the recurring theme that Chinese love dishes with a deep flavor.  In this case, dried peppers just possess something more profound than their fresh counterpart.  They also keep seemingly for eons.

2. Garlic

Chinese ingredients

蒜 (suàn) is a universally Chinese ingredient (all of China uses it).  The ingredient was discovered by Chinese scientists well over 2000 years ago and is one of China’s earliest cultivated crops!  In this time span, Chinese chefs have mastered the use of garlic.

Amazingly, people of Shaanxi province and the Northeastern provinces have the habit of eating garlic raw! Wow, so strong!  Restaurants in these areas will serve peeled garlic on the table like salt and pepper.

However, the majority of Chinese prefer to incorporate the ingredient via cooking.  The possibilities are endless here, but learn to mince fresh garlic with the blade of a knife.  This is one of the most common methods in Chinese cuisine.

1. Ginger

Chinese ingredients

It almost doesn’t get more Chinese than 姜 (jiāng)!  The root has a complexity of flavor ranging from spicy to earthy.  Ginger especially compliments sweet dishes but can improve the quality of 100s of recipes.  Because of this, it is the best of the Chinese ingredients!

Out of all the items on this list, ginger is a must!  Luckily, 姜 is one of the easiest to learn how to use.  Peeling then slicing or mincing is all you really have to know.  Once you have figured out how the fibers of ginger work, you can cut with the fibers to prevent them from spreading into the food.

What really makes ginger the number 1 on this list is its versatility.  you can  incorporate ginger into soups, delicate dishes, barbecue, or beverages.  In addition, this Chinese ingredient goes great together with all the other items on this list!

Master of Chinese Ingredients

The best way to improve your cooking ability is to try for yourself!  The next time you go to the market, see which of these items they carry.  If they don’t have some of these ingredients, find the nearest Asian market.  They are almost certainly to have all of these items.  

After you have located a good market to purchase from, it’s time to experiment.  You can start here with China IQ’s list of “Top Ten Chinese Food to Try” as a reference for what kind of food you might try to cook.  Because many Chinese dishes are quick stir-fry made in a wok, you can try some of your own combinations of stir-fry.  

Lastly, don’t forget to impress your family and friends once you have discovered something great!

1 Comment

Leave a Reply