Finally we arrive at one of the most important categories of ingredients in Chinese cooking. Where would we be without the holy trinity that is scallion, ginger, and garlic? What sad and lifeless food would we be subject to?!!
Okay, so we’re being dramatic, but seriously, this page has got the low-down on some of the most important ingredients in our arsenal. Read on for enlightenment!
If you’re looking for more information on other Chinese Ingredients, go to our main Chinese Ingredients Glossary page to review the different categories and easily find what you’re looking for.
Scallions or Green Onions
We say “scallion,” others says “green onion”…It’s all good, and whatever you like to call it, it’s the same ingredient whether it’s Chinese, Asian, Cajun, Mexican or some other cuisine.
We LOVE scallions–we buy it often and in large quantities, and during the summer we grow it in our garden. We just can’t get enough. When we think of scallions, we think of dishes like Scallion Ginger Shrimp and Scallion Pancakes, in particular, but quite literally, you can find this awesome allium in the majority of our savory dishes.
Large Green Onion
What is a large green onion anyway? The first time I saw these in Beijing, I called it a large scallion on steroids but when I asked, people said it was a “big onion” (that’s the literal translation). Okay…So only big onions and no corresponding baby-onion-like scallions?
An inquiry for “green onions” gets this answer: “Yes, we have green onions.” ::points to honking pile of steroidal “big onions.”
Basically, these seem to be overgrown scallions. It’s certainly tougher than a scallion, by virtue of size alone, but the flavor is virtually the same; and though it looks like a leek, they are most definitely closer to scallions. So, in conclusion, who the heck knows? We consider it to be a local Chinese vegetable, since we’ve only ever encountered these in China. While in Beijing, we used these all the time, often in place of scallions, since they were more readily available.
Leeks are quite common in western cooking, and, in the US, only a small portion of the green section is kept as the tops are considered tough and inedible. So, we really don’t have to explain much about this onion in particular.
When it comes to Chinese cooking, however, a bit more of the green part is usually used. Leeks are a key ingredient for Twice Cooked Pork, and the darker green parts are often included in the dish; a hot wok and plenty of stir-frying oil renders the green bits tender and sweet. Leeks are also a key ingredient in the traditional Buddha’s Delight (Lo Han Jai) providing sweetness and flavor to the dish.
Garlic greens are not that common of an ingredient, and, in western cooking, they are used more for their flavor and color in sauces and soups. In China, there are some signature dishes that use garlic greens; one that comes to mind is a spicy Hunan dish cooked with preserved pork belly and garlic greens. It’s not on the blog…YET.
Garlic scapes are definitely more common in China than in the US, from what we have seen. Most garlic scapes we’ve seen in the US markets are curlier and smaller than the variety found in China, and they are quite a bit more expensive as well. The picture below is from the local market near our apartment in Beijing; you can see how full and tender these garlic scapes are. They are regularly available in large quantities during the summer months and we love to have them stir-fried with some julienned peppers and chunks of pork. Tasty.
Garlic scapes or garlic stems found here in the US (notably more curly and a bit tough looking).
We use garlic so often that we’re not sure what our cooking would be like without it! Thankfully, garlic’s awesomeness is a fact agreed upon by the majority of the world, so being garlic-less is a problem we’ll hopefully never have to contend with. But we felt it deserved a spot in this glossary simply because it’s a foundation for so many of our recipes. Most of our veggies are simply stir-fried with oil, garlic, and salt–perfection.
So yeah. Garlic is verrrrryyyyy important. What would this Forty Garlic Chicken with an Asian Twist be without the garlic? Just some sad chicken…
Ginger or Ginger Root
You can find ginger easily in your local grocery store, but it is highly likely that it will be cheaper, fresher, and more abundant at an ethnic grocery store. Chinese or Indian groceries are probably your best bets, as these two cuisines use a lot of it. Tip: clean (or peel) the ginger and cut into small chunks or slices. Then freeze it, and take it out whenever you need it! We have quite a few dishes that use ginger, many of which involve seafood, since the flavor pairs well with shellfish and fish. The Chinese also believe ginger has medicinal qualities and helps “cleanse” the shellfish. I’m sure you can read more about it on the internet, but we think the simple fact that it tastes good is enough! You’ll find ginger adds great flavor to Ginger Scallion Shrimp, Cantonese Style Ginger Scallion Lobster, and Ginger Scallion Crab, just to name a few.
So here’s one of those eternal culinary question: why use shallots over onions? These days, shallots can be grown quite large and end up having a similar flavor to onions, so what gives? We hate to answer a question with another question but we’ll do it anyway: why use a purple onion over a white or yellow onion then? If you can answer that question, then you probably have the answer to the first question. So the short answer to our question is that shallots are milder in flavor than an onion and are a bit more tender too. Purple onions are most often used in salads rather than the white or yellow variety for their added color and because they are slightly less potent. Shallots are the same way in that they have a milder onion taste, are more delicate, and perhaps sounds bit bit fancier? And yes, fancy is more expensive!
Nevertheless, we use shallots in our kitchen, and, if we don’t have any, then we simply use onions. The opposite is true if our stash of shallots look like they’re taking a turn for the worse–chop them up and throw them in some fried rice! The ultimate take-home message is that, when you cook at home, you’re the boss; so shallots? Onions? We say the difference is usually tiny enough that it probably won’t matter what you use.
And to calm you down from that verging-on-philosophical-discussion of shallots, some nice snaps of these unassuming little onions:
Also known as garlic chives, these are flatter and wider than regular chives.Regular chives are often eaten raw, sprinkled over the top of something, or added to sauces and dips. Chinese chives, on the other hand, taste a bit more vegetal than herbal, and so, we tend to use them more as a vegetable than an herb–in other words, they are almost always cooked.
Chinese chives turn up most often in our dumpling fillings (check out our Pork Chive Dumplings (and homemade dumpling wrappers!) or just scrambled with eggs, sesame oil, salt, and white pepper. It may sound weird, but try it. Whenever we’re SCRAMBLING (ha!) for an extra side dish, or need some extra protein, it’s our go-to choice. Our recipe for Chinese Chive Frittata is a simple summer favorite of ours when fresh chive and tomatoes are available.
If you can get your hands on chive seeds, you’ll have more chives than you’ll know what to do with every summer! Just cut them like you’re trimming grass, and you’ll have more within the week. It’s GREAT. Try to mow down your basil or parsley plants like that–we can tell you that neither will ever recover.
Cilantro or Coriander
When it comes to cilantro, you either love it or you hate it; whatever your stance, we had to include it in this list.
Cilantro consists of the leaves of the coriander plant and is most known as a key ingredient for Mexican dishes. It’s also used just as often in Southeast Asian dishes. As for Chinese dishes, we like it as a garnish for noodle soups and for dishes like Whole Steamed fish.
Bottom line is, you all know what cilantro is.
Chinese Toon (香椿)
Chinese toon or xiāng chūn (香椿) in Chinese, are a kind of aromatic that is readily available in China during the springtime. Edible Chinese toon, also known as the Chinese Mohagany, are harvested from the young leaves of the Chinese Mohagany tree in the spring when the trees are sprouting and is available for only a few weeks of the growing season. Toon leaves have a purple tint with a floral flavor that has an onion-like flavor and is frequently used in cold dishes.
Toon sprouts (pictured below) are also available and have the same taste as the toon leaves but are much more tender and is sometimes used as a garnish in salads and other cold dishes. We had never eaten toon leaves or sprouts prior to our move to Beijing, but they really enhance the flavor of the dish. It has an unusual peppery, oniony aromatic flavor that’s very unusual and hard to describe but is great when added to salads and also cold tofu appetizers. Both of these varieties are generally used in egg dishes similar to our Shrimp and Stir-fried eggs dish.
This tasty addition to–duh–Thai dishes is easily found in most Asian grocery stores, but we’ve never really seen it in a run-of-the-mill supermarket. (It can be such a pain to find on a regular basis that we’ve taken to growing it in our garden–yep, those beauties in the picture are 100% homegrown! A few years ago, though, it was difficult to even track down the seeds!)
There are many varieties of basil that are similar to Thai basil, but the kind we use most often is the variety that has the purple stems and flowers. Some examples of dishes that use this fragrant herb is Thai Basil Shrimp Fried Rice, Thai Basil Beef, and the creative and seriously delicious Thai Basil Pesto Pasta.
Holy basil is much harder to find, even in local Asian grocery stores and is quite different in flavor from the more common Thai basil. The leaves of the holy basil are broader than the Thai basil and have jagged edges. The stems are green rather than purple and the flower buds are also more green than purple. Other types of basil that look similar and can confuse you are cinnamon basil and lemon basil. Looks aside, the flavor of holy basil is very different from any of these other basil varieties having a strong similarity in taste to anise and fennel.
We have published a few recipes including Thai Basil Beef (Pad Gra Prow) which many people commented about since we actually used Thai Basil instead of holy basil (literal translation of ka phrao in Thai). We even suggested that if you could not find holy basil to use Thai basil or even Italian basil! We understand why people objected to us calling any dish “gra prow” which translates to holy basil in Thai but if you have a chance to try it, you will understand that the flavor is very different also!
Sorry it took us so long to update this page but we could never find holy basil at markets near us so we had to order seeds and it took us a season to get the plants mature enough to try ourselves and bring you a new dish. Pork & Holy Basil Stir-fry (Pad Kra Pao) uses the real holy basil and boy were we pleasantly surprised with its unique taste. Our holy basil plants sprouted and grew to what you see below after three to four weeks.
If you have a garden, check out the link below, order some holy basil seeds from Amazon, and enjoy it next summer! We planted these organic heirloom seeds in loose, fertile soil where they could get plenty of sun and they grew nicely, yielding large, fragrant plants.
Curry leaves are an awesome herb that we love in Indian dishes. We know it’s also used in some Southeast Asian dishes, since there is quite a bit of Indian influence in the region, but we haven’t quite figured out how to use it beyond a homemade curry. So stay tuned!
Kaffir Lime Leaf
Kaffir lime leaves have a distinct aroma that really enhances Southeast Asian soups and curry stews. Our experience with using this ingredient was in our recipe for Beef Rendang. Hopefully we can figure out some additional ways to use this fragrant little leaf.
Fresh Turmeric or Yellow Ginger (姜黄)
Okay, looks a little bit like bugs at first glance, but don’t panic and X out of this window just yet, because this picture of the fresh turmeric is indeed a root! Although turmeric or Jiāng huáng(姜黄) in Chinese, is used extensively in Southeast Asian cooking, its origin are from India, where it lends a rich flavor and golden color to many dishes. A bonus of turmeric is that it’s loaded with antioxidants and actually has some antiseptic properties. Although we haven’t published any recipes using turmeric in its fresh form, we do use turmeric powder in our Beef Rendang. It’s definitely time to expand our horizons and get some fresh turmeric into our kitchen!
Lemongrass is a commonly used herb in Southeast Asia, but it has spread throughout the world due to its fragrant and fresh flavor. What we didn’t know about lemongrass is that certain varieties are used to make citronella for mosquito repellents. Making a mental note to start growing this on the deck AND to start incorporating it into more recipes!
Galangal is a cousin of the ginger root used in Southeast Asian cooking. It’s quite aromatic, and, while we don’t use the fresh galangal root often, we do have galangal powder in our pantry. It rounds out the flavor explosion in our Beef Rendang!
We can get fresh galangal root in some selected local stores, but you can also order it fresh from Amazon! They really do sell everything…
Long Green Hot Peppers
Long hot green peppers is definitely one of our favorite peppers. It’s readily available and relatively inexpensive, and they are TASTY. The only downside is that the heat index of these peppers varies greatly–sometimes they’re perfectly delicious and mild, and sometimes they can unleash an unsuspected sweat storm during meals. We realize that’s not the greatest ringing endorsement for these peppers, but check out Tiger Skin Peppers, Beef and Pepper Stir-fry, and Sichuan Three Pepper chicken, and we think you won’t be able to stay away.
Red Thai Chili Peppers
Red Thai chili pepper, also called Bird’s Eye or Bird pepper used in many dishes to add some heat like Shrimp Pad Thai or Pho Noodle Soup and they do pack a real spicy punch. We usually de-seed them to reduce some of the heat before using them in stir-fry and noodles dishes or keep them whole as a garnish. If we can’t find these peppers or want a little less heat, we will often use the larger red holland peppers.
Holland Red Chili Peppers
We stumbled upon Holland red chili peppers while shopping at our local Asian store and have been using them as our go-to fresh red chili pepper. They are relatively cheap and have a good level of heat–spicy enough to kick you in the pants a little but not so spicy that you feel a need to chug a gallon of milk.
That being said though, the world of chili peppers is vast, and we’re always looking for new ways to add a bit of spice to our dishes. We’d love to hear about your personal chili preferences and experiences! Leave a comment below!