Chinese sauces can be confusing when cooking traditional Chinese food! Our growing list of Chinese sauces include many essential ingredients in our recipes!
In the realm of Chinese cooking, there are so many types and iterations of different Chinese sauces, pastes, vinegars, and oils, that it can sometimes seem like you’re drowning the moment you step into the sauce aisle of your Chinese grocery store. It’s just row after row of bottles, jars, and cans that have weird shoddy English translations and odd labels that don’t really explain much about how they should be used. For your ease of cooking, we’ve compiled a list of some of the most often used and familiar of these ingredients and Chinese sauces, but also a few of the not-so familiar ones as well. If you see an ingredient listed in one of our recipes about which you need more information, then just come here and look it up! This is a living page that we will continuously update, so if you have any suggestions or think we’ve left anything out, feel free to comment below.
In this collection, we have included pictures of the actual products that we use in our kitchen–that is, the brand and type. In general, our selection can be found in any well-stocked Asian grocery store. For those of you who can’t find local Chinese grocery stores (or just like having things show up on your doorstep), we’ve included Amazon links so you can shop online. Following the Amazon link will also allow you to see a variety of brands and other related products out there that you may be interested in until you find a local go-to place. Full disclosure, these are affiliate links that allow us to make a small fee on sales of these products, but be aware that online vendors sometimes sell at premium prices and/or in bulk (you may have to buy 3 bottles or a case). We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.
We always suggest you to buy locally at a brick-and-mortar store so you can see, touch, smell (sometimes), read the labels, talk to real people, and ask questions.
If you’re looking for a different kind of ingredient, be sure to check our Chinese ingredients glossary main page, where you can easily locate what you’re looking for.
Armed with this information, ingredient confusion will hopefully never stand between you and enjoying our most authentic recipes. In general, though, we try to keep our recipes as simple as possible; we carefully consider whether or not each ingredient really adds to the dish or if it can be left out. So folks, read on and, again, let us know if you have any questions!
Soy Sauce (酱油)
Light or Regular Soy Sauce (生抽)
Pearl River Bridge is another brand of Chinese sauces that we enjoy. The cost is comparable to Lee Kum Kee, but Bill likes to use Pearl river because he thinks the flavor is a bit better; but then again that could simply be because this is the brand his parents used for years.
Dark Soy Sauce (老抽)
Dark soy sauce (lǎo chōu, 老抽) is just that: a thicker, darker and less salty version of soy sauce that is used for both flavor and color in sauces and fried rice. Of all the Chinese sauces, dark soy sauce is the go-to sauce to darken the color of Chinese dishes. It is also commonly used in marinades and braised/red-cooked (hong shao) dishes. It’s also quite commonly used to achieve a delicious dark soy color in many Noodle and Fried Rice Dishes. Once again, we’ve got our favorites–Lee Kum Kee and Pearl River Bridge.
Mushroom-flavored Dark Soy Sauce (蘑菇老抽)
Dark Soy sauces also come in a mushroom flavor (mó gū lǎo chōu, 蘑菇老抽), which adds a higher level of naturally occurring glutamate or umami to your dish. We favor this type over the plain dark soy sauce, but if you can’t or don’t like to eat mushrooms, just go for the tried and true dark soy sauce.
Double Black Soy Sauce (雙老頭抽)
Double black soy is a super dark variety of soy sauce. Double black soy sauce is written in traditional Chinese characters as 雙老頭抽 and pronounced in Cantonese dialect as “sheung lo tao cho”. If we use simplified Chinese characters, it is written as 双老头抽 and pronounced as “shuāng lǎo tóu chōu”. If you’re not familiar with the differences in traditional and simplified Chinese characters, the simple explanation is that PRC or mainland China introduced the simplified character set in the 1950’s. and the intent of simplified Chinese characters was to reduce the number of strokes in Chinese traditional characters to make Chinese easier to read and write. However, Hong Kong and Taiwan continued to use the traditional Chinese character set even to today. So, if you are asking older people from Hong Kong and Taiwan, the traditional characters will be more recognized than the simplified. The older generation of our Cantonese family still prefer to use Chinese traditional characters.
All that to explain that Koon Chun is company who has been around for many years and still uses traditional Chinese characters on their products. You can see what I mean if you pay attention to the Chinese characters on the bottle. Many of our readers use product images and characters on bottles to ensure they are getting the right product when shopping at their local Chinese grocery store so I wanted to clear up any potential confusion.
So why does one use double black soy you ask? Well, is is a much darker and thicker soy sauce than even most brands of dark soy sauce so some chefs like to use of for applications where a darker, richer color is needed. As you can see from the ingredients on the bottle, molasses is the second ingredient after water which gives the double black soy the darker color and thickness but also a distinct taste of molasses. I have heard varying opinions from chefs about using double black soy with the additional molasses. Some say the flavor is “off” and others say for the right dish, it is a great addition.
Seasoned Soy Sauce
Seasoned soy sauce is a light soy sauce (aka “regular” soy sauce) with seasonings added. In our recipes, I generally dilute light soy sauce and add a pinch of sugar plus other seasonings rather than use bottled seasoned soy sauce. That said, I still like to keep the seasoned soy sauce in the pantry because it’s convenient and quick, especially for dipping sauces. It also has some MSG in there for a little extra flavor kick–something that’s either really good or really bad depending on who you’re talking to.
Kikkoman Soy Sauce
This is probably the best-known soy sauce among American consumers and will be available at your supermarket 9 times out of 10. We’ve used both light (lower sodium) and dark types of Kikkoman before; they are generally fine, but they do have a slightly different taste when compared to Chinese soy sauce brands. I encourage you to try a few different brands and see which one you prefer. It’s like anything else you buy, mustard, ketchup, mayo–everyone has their favorite brand. Kikkoman used to be the only soy sauce you saw in grocery stores, but, luckily, times have changed. So go explore the ethnic aisle in your supermarket!
Low Sodium Soy Sauce
Low sodium soy sauces are now more common as producers see the demand for lower sodium products. Recently, we have seem Lee Kum Kee Low sodium soy Sauces appear in Chinese markets. Use low sodium soy sauce in our Mongolian beef recipe!
Gluten Free Soy Sauce
Many of our readers have asked for gluten free recipes and we have done our best to develop and also point out our naturally gluten free recipes for those folks who have a gluten free diet or Celiac’s disease. The best start is to use gluten free ingredients and sauces but unfortunately most soy sauces do contain wheat. Now, we can thank food manufacturers who have begun making gluten free soy sauce products! Kikkoman now makes a gluten free soy sauce:
Lee Kum Kee has also stepped up to the plate with a gluten free soy sauce as well!
Tamari is a soy-only soy sauce (say that five times fast!), whereas virtually all other soy sauces contain wheat. Tamari is a great product for those requiring a gluten-free diet, but it does have its own distinctive flavor. Some say it has a more complex soy flavor, but you can see for yourself.
Thai Soy Sauce
Thai soy sauce is quite similar to Chinese soy sauce, except it is generally sweeter and lighter in both color and salt level. In fact, we have found that most Thai sauces are usually more salty than Chinese sauces. We use it for Thai dishes exclusively, but if this is the only brand you can find or if you have some in the pantry, use it and adjust the quantity and the amount of sugar in the recipe accordingly. Remember the best way ensure a good outcome when improvising ingredients is to taste often! This Healthy Boy brand of soy sauce is what we can find near us:
Another point of confusion is black soy sauce. What is black soy, and is it the same as dark soy? In our experience, we have only seen the term black soy sauce used by Thai brands. It’s very similar to Chinese dark soy sauce, except it’s a little bit lighter and sweeter than Chinese dark soy sauce.
Sesame oil (麻油)
Did you know that sesame oil or zhī ma yóu, (芝麻油) was once used for medicinal purposes? Well, I didn’t either, but I do know that it’s aromatic, tasty, and an essential part of Asian and Chinese cooking. Sesame oil is valued for its strong and fragrant flavor, and, although it does have a high smoking point, you’ll notice that in most recipes, it is almost never added directly to a hot wok. Instead, it’s typically added during the last stage of cooking or used in marinades. sauces, and dips.
Even though sesame oil is tasty, you do have to pay attention to how much you’re adding, as the pungent sesame flavor can easily overpower a dish. That aside, sesame oil is an essential item to have in your pantry for Chinese cooking.
Kadoya sesame oil is a solid brand that we’ve used more often than not over the years. The oil is pure (not blended) and has a strong, nutty sesame flavor. Sesame oil keeps well and does not spoil easily, so the 11-ounce size is the more economical choice than the 5.5 ounce bottles. In fact, we buy it in a large metal can–really a jug–and use it to refill our bottle. Yes, we are very committed to our sesame oil needs.
Red Chili oil (红辣椒油)
Red chili oil or 红辣椒油, pronounced hóng là jiāo yóu in Mandarin Chinese is a very popular condiment for Chinese food but also used in cooking. This red chili oil is pure infused oil only and does not contain any red pepper flakes in the oil and is a good choice if you don’t ant any chili flakes in your dish or simply need the convenience of red chili oil in a bottle. If you are new to our family blog, then you will soon learn that we all prefer our own homemade chili oil that has lots of chili flakes in it! We make red chili oil regularly and we want pure red chili oil, we simply add a little more oil to the recipe. After the red chili oil flakes settle, you can decant clear oil from the top of the batch.
Kaitlin’s homemade chili oil pictured here is much better than store-bought chili oil and you know exactly what went into it! And yes, those small chunks of toasted red chili flakes are the bomb!
Rice Wine (米酒)
Chinese rice wine, mǐ jiǔ, (米酒) or yellow wine, huang jiu, (黄酒) is used frequently in marinades and sauces. The most famous rice wine comes from the Shaoxing region in northern China. There are even some varieties that people drink, although I have not seen any outside of China. I would NOT recommend drinking any of the wines you find at the Asian grocery stores; if you give it a try, you’ll know what I mean! That said, the old saying for red and white wines of “don’t cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink” does not apply here. While rice cooking wine may not be pleasing to the palette, it adds excellent and crucial flavor to many Chinese dishes.
Rice wine is generally used in meat and fish marinades (especially for Shanghai cuisine), but, more often than not, it’s added to stir-fries, coating the perimeter of an intensely hot wok. This method helps to cook off the mildly alcoholic edge and helps to create that highly sought after wok hay flavor.
So, now to address some of the pressing questions that swirl around the question of rice wine on this here blog. Many of you readers have asked what can be substituted for Shaoxing wine. Our answer is that if Shaoxing is unavailable, a good quality pale, dry sherry can be used as a substitute. But the reality is that there’s no true substitute for the unique and slightly briny flavor of Shaoxing wine. You can also try other rice wines, but be aware that rice wines made for sipping will be quite a bit sweeter; adjust your recipe to compensate for the extra sugar in the wine, or you may simply have to settle for the fact that rice wine substitutes simply will not work for some dishes.
Another question that comes up is if Mirin (sweet cooking Japanese rice wine) can be substituted for Shaoxing rice wine; unfortunately, the answer is usually no. Mirin is quite sweet and has a distinct flavor that will sometimes overpower other flavors. Of course, that’s ok if that’s your intention or if you really enjoy that flavor; but if you want the authentic taste of a Chinese dish, save the Mirin for Japanese recipes.
Rice cooking wine is clear and has purer taste that the Shaoxing wine we use in most of our recipes. We should probably use the clear rice wine more often for steamed dishes and some seafood and fish dishes but we have been using the Shaoxing wine for so long, it has become automatic when we need wine. we have a bottle in the pantry and will start using it more often when appropriate so refer to this page if you see one of our ingredients is “rice cooking wine”.
Shaoxing Wine (绍兴酒)
So, what exactly is the difference between the clear rice cooking wine and the darker Shaoxing wine (Shào xīng jiǔ, 绍兴酒)? Described simply, I would say that the Shaoxing wine has a more complex and deeper taste than the clear rice wine. It is a bit like using salt versus light soy sauce where you get sodium and saltiness from both but one adds a rich taste of soy. The same is true for lighter flavor of rice wine versus the stronger taste of the Shaoxing wine. The Shaoxing wine is essential for Hong Shao or red-cooked dishes like the Chinese Braised Fish (Hong Shao Yu) and Shanghai Style Braised pork belly (Hong Shao Rou).
This Huatiao wine below is a higher quality Shaoxing wine that is less briny, has a much less of a bite to it than the larger and cheaper versions and also comes in smaller bottles. We use the Huatiao higher quality wine for dishes like Chinese Drunken Chicken where the taste of the wine is very important to the dish.
Shaoxing wine can be commonly found at most Chinese grocery stores and there are quite a few brands so bottom line is buy and try and switch if you’re not happy but we found these brands pictured here are fine. We sometimes buy the gallon jugs at our local Asian store to fill a smaller bottle used when cooking since it is more economical and keeps well in the pantry.
Bai Jiu (白酒)
Bai Jiu (白酒) is a strong distilled spirit that is colorless, clear, and made from sorghum. It varies from 35 to 60% alcohol and has a very fragrant taste. Bai Jiu, literally translated as “white Spirits” or what I call Chinese White lightening, is very common in China and there are many types and varieties. Mao Tai (茅台), a type of bai jiu was first popularized in the west and in the US after Mao Tse Tung served it to President Nixon during his first visit to China. Still, bai jiu is not very well known nor a popular drink in the US today but while we stayed in Beijing, we did drink quite a bit of it at many dinners. A bottle of Mao Tai jiu is rare these days as it runs up to and over 300 USD per bottle although there are many less expensive copycat brands available that are pretty nice and close in taste. The bai jiu of choice for Bejingers is Er Guo Tou (二锅头) and is relatively inexpensive and popular among most people.
We also use bai jiu for preserving meats and eggs including Chinese Cured Pork Belly and the er guo tou we use adds a special flavor to preserved meats.
Rose Wine Mei Gui Lu (玫瑰露酒)
Rose Wine or Mei Gui Lu (玫瑰露酒) like many wines comes in versions for cooking and for drinking. The Rose wine made for drinking is similar to Bai Jiu that is not a wine at all but a spirit that is generally over 50% alcohol. The version we use in the kitchen is similar to other cooking wines like Shaoxing wines with an alcohol content between 13 and 18 percent like the bottle pictured below.
Mei Gui Lu jiu gets its flavor from the addition of fresh rose, giving the wine its fragrant and sweet flavor. We use rose wine in our recipe for Soy Sauce Chicken yielding a superior and complex fragrant flavor.
Jiu Niang (酒酿)
Jiu Niang (酒酿), or fermented sweet rice, is made with a yeast starter and sweet rice and has a low alcohol content of 1 to 2%. Like any type of fermented food or alcohol, it seems that you either like it or you don’t but over the years, one seems to develop a taste for it. Jiu Niang is often served with Tang Yuan by simply placing a spoonful in the soup. There are many other ways to cook with and enjoy Jiu Niang including using it to make bread so stay tuned and subscribe to our email list for new recipes!
Jiu Niang is readily available in Asian markets and as you can see from the photo below, there are usually different brands. Some people who love their Jiu Niang and have it often make it from scratch. It’s actually pretty easy and Judy has a great recipe for Homemade Jiu Niang – Sweet Fermented Rice and you can make it whenever you feel like having it!
Jiu Qu (酒曲)
Jiuqu (酒曲), sometimes also referred to as jiu yao (酒藥) is a Chinese starter yeast that comes in the form of solid dried white balls and used commonly in the production of Chinese alcoholic beverages and foods. We are not sure what types of yeast or fermenting agents are contained in these dried yeast balls but we do know that they have been used for as long as this family can remember. We have friends and family who use this jiu qu yeast often for making rice wines, sweet rice wines and homemade jiu niang.
We have friends and family who use this jiu qu yeast often for making rice wines, sweet rice wines and homemade jiu niang with tang yuan.
Mirin is a type of rice wine that is similar to sake but is sweeter, almost syrupy in consistency and used in Japanese cooking. We don’t use Mirin at all in Chinese cooking but we wouldn’t use anything else for a good teriyaki chicken. Mirin comes mostly in a lighter in color but it does come in a dark version also. I have included an image an link for a brand we have used but you can check out other brands and see reviews to learn more.
Mirin is an essential ingredient for making the teriyaki sauce and glaze for our Salmon Teriyaki Bowls.
Everyone knows and loves Sarku Copycat Mall Chicken but did you know one of the ket ingredients for this dish is Mirin? Go out a buy a bottle and make this mall favorite at home!
Oyster Sauce (蚝油)
Oyster sauce (háo yóu, 蚝油) is a savory sauce made with boiled oysters and seasonings such as soy sauce and garlic. We know, it sounds disgusting. Funnily enough, though, it doesn’t actually taste like oysters at all. But it does pack a huge hit of delicious umami flavor and could be the king of Chinese sauces. I (Bill) remember my father used to say, “If you want to make any dish taste better, just add a little oyster sauce.” And I think he was right, so use this is the best of Chinese sauces when you’re looking for a simple flavor boost for your dish.
For vegans, some brands offer an oyster sauce using mushrooms in place of oysters. For a quick veggie side dish, take any leafy green Chinese vegetable, blanch or steam until vibrant green and tender, and serve with a drizzle of oil, a dash of sesame oil, and a light stream of oyster sauce. Just check out our simple recipe for Chinese Broccoli with Oyster sauce. It is also a heavy hitter in one of Sarah’s favorites: Quick and Easy Braised Tofu.
One quick and easy dish you can’t pass up is our One-Pan Roasted Chicken in Oyster Sauce.
Vegetarian Oyster Sauce
For vegetarians and Vegans, you can give the vegetarian oyster sauce a try which derives umami flavors from Chinese black mushrooms or the Japanese shiitake mushrooms. It’s not as easy to find as regular oyster sauce and quite a bit more pricey. Check out your local Chinese and Asian grocery stores!
Fish Sauce (鱼露)
Fish Sauce (yú lù, 鱼露) is one on those things that when you smell it from the bottle, you either love it or hate it. It’s a bit like anchovies on pizza–if you love it you adore it, and if you hate it you really can’t stand it. Fish sauce is not in the category of Chinese sauces but rather is an essential ingredient in many Southeast Asian countries (Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia, chiefly), and we love using it in our cooking. A touch of fish sauce in your eggplant with garlic sauce or Thai basil beef will elevate all flavors present. It’s quite salty, so use a light hand, but it’s also very flavorful.
Some of our favorite recipes on the blog use fish sauce: Thai Basil Shrimp Fried Rice, Pho Vietnamese soup, and Chinese Eggplant with Garlic Sauce. Judy likes to add a splash to fried rice, and it does wonders to the flavor!
If your eggplant with garlic sauce needs a little extra sauce after you taste it, just add a dash of fish sauce before you plate it!
Shrimp Sauce (虾酱)
Shrimp paste or shrimp sauce ( pronounced xiā jiàng in Mandarin or ha jeung in Cantonese) is made from crushed or ground shrimp and salt and fermented for weeks. The flavor of shrimp paste is similar to fish sauce except it is stronger and of course, different and shrimp flavored.
Many Cantonese dishes, most commonly clay pot dishes like stewed eggplant and tofu dishes use shrimp sauce as the primary flavor agent of the dish. Pungent and flavorful, these dishes are among our family favorites. The shrimp sauce our family has used in the past comes in a jar and does have a sauce-like consistency.
Shrimp Paste or Belacan
Shrimp sauce is often used a a condiment for many dishing such as stir fried conch with vegetables and fried tofu. Shrimp paste comes in different forms including the plastic container pictured below.
Shrimp paste also comes in semi-dried rectangular blocks which most often is the Malaysian version called belacan.
You’ll also find or hear of different versions of shrimp paste or shrimp sauce throughout southeast Asia including Thailand and Vietnam.
Rice Vinegar (米醋)
The three main types of rice vinegar (mi cù, 米醋) used in Chinese cooking are red, white, and black (see black rice vinegar). White rice vinegar comes closest in flavor to Western cider vinegar, except it’s slightly milder. It adds the perfect vinegar-y zing to the sauce in Cold Noodles with Shredded Chicken.
You should be able to find many brands of white or red rice vinegar, either in your Asian grocery or at your local supermarket, as it’s become quite common. If you can’t find any, an easy and reasonable substitution is regular white vinegar, cider vinegar, or even a light red wine vinegar.
Black Rice Vinegar (镇江香醋)
This is a tart, slightly sweet black Zhenjiang aromatic vinegar, Zhèn jiāng xiāng cù (镇江香醋) that originates from Zhenjiang, Jiangsu Province, China. One of the more popular brands is Chinkiang, which comes in a tall bottle with a yellow label. Locate it in the same aisle as the soy sauce in the Chinese grocery. Use it as a dip for dumplings. If it’s too strong for you, stir in a little soy sauce and water. (Though some of us could drink this stuff–lookin’ at you, Sarah!) It’s also used in braised dishes, where it cooks down to sweet black gold.
If you can’t find the vinegar in your Asian grocery store or if you live in one of those sad no-Asian-grocery zones, you can find it on Amazon. In a real pinch, I have used Italian balsamic vinegar, but if you do, be careful because some balsamic vinegars are quite syrupy and sweet.
Red Zhejiang Vinegar (大红浙醋)
Red Rice Vinegar or dà hóng zhè cù in Mandarin (大红浙醋) is a red rice wine vinegar that originates in ZheJiang 浙江 province China. The vinegar is mild with about half the acidity (2.47%) of your everyday white vinegar commonly found in US supermarkets. This red vinegar made from red rice yeast and other grains like sorghum and barley. The Koon Chun brand has a distinctly winey taste with hints of sorghum, is mildly acidic taste and is most commonly used for cooking. It is used in dishes like Chinese Fried Pigeon for flavoring and to help the skin crisp during frying
Maltose or mài yá táng in Mandarin (麦芽糖) is a sugar produced from fermented grains like barley, wheat, or other grains. As the name suggests maltose is a malt sugar that is often used in Chinese cooking for roasted meats and also for crisping up the skin on chickens, ducks and fried pigeon.
Maltose can be difficult to work with because it is quite dry and stiff compared to syrups and honey. As you can see from the photo below, maltose sticks together when you try to spoon it out so it is not the easiest ingredient to measure. It does dissolve easily in warm water after you work it in with your hands or heat it up on the stove. It can be used as a substitute for golden syrup for mooncakes, and is traditionally used for Chinese BBQ giving the meat that nice glossy sticky coating. Many recipes including our on pork char siu recipe use honey as a substitute since honey is more readily available. Maltose is also likely used in candy-making applications like the candied fruit we see in Beijing in while we visited Harbin for the Harbin ice festival. We are not sure, but it could also be the base for the candied animals you see at Chinese New year Temple fairs like the video we included in our Chengdu Temple Fair post.
Hoisin or Sweet Bean Sauce (甜面酱)
Sweet bean sauce (tián miàn jiàng, 甜面酱) is a thick, dark brown sauce made from wheat flour, sugar, salt, and fermented yellow soybeans. As the name suggests, the sauce is a bit sweeter than other salty bean pastes. Some brands and recipes use the terms hoisin sauce and sweet bean sauce interchangeably, but, generally, commercial Hoisin sauces are thinner, lighter and sweeter than a traditional sweet bean sauce. There are also some brands of sauce are not made with any beans but just wheat starch which can also be confusing.
Sweet Bean sauce is a mainstay of northern Chinese regional cuisine like Beijing Zha Jiang Mian which should have a sauce with darker and thicker consistency. Hoisin Sauce is used more commonly in Cantonese style sauces used for restaurant dishes like Chinese BBQ Spareribs. Seasonings like garlic and chilies give hoisin sauce its unique sweet and savory flavor. In Beijing, it’s most famously used as a condiment for Peking duck. There are plenty of brands of Hoisin sauce out there, but this one by Lee Kum Kee is often the most readily available; we’ve even spotted it in some non-Asian grocery stores!
Vegetable Moo Shu with Mandarin Pancakes is a great dish for you vegetarians or you can also try our Moo Shu Chicken. Either way, make the homemade moo shu pancakes to have with both and apply hoisin sauce liberally to the pancakes before adding the filling and wrapping it!
Bean Paste (豆瓣酱)
Bean paste also comes in non-spicy and non-sweet versions as well. The plain bean paste is pronounced “douban jiang” or 豆瓣酱. You can look for it on the jar labels in your local Chinese grocery store or ask a floor person. Bean paste if one of those Chinese sauces that can be confusing since there are many different types including a wheat paste that tastes quite a bit like bean paste and for most, can be used interchangeably.
Broad Bean Paste or Spicy Bean paste (辣豆瓣酱)
Red chili when salted or milled with broad beans produces a seriously tasty spicy bean paste that is the foundation of many great Chinese dishes (Mapo Tofu, anyone?). There’s a pretty large variety of chili bean pastes out there, made different by the addition of ingredients like minced garlic, preserved beans, beef, peanuts, chicken, almonds…the list goes on. Kinds sold at your average Asian grocery are typically made via a fermentation process and will be bright red or reddish-brown in color. Look for the Chinese characters 辣豆瓣酱 or “la douban jiang” which means spicy bean paste and has the Chinese character for spicy, 辣 or “la” before the “douban jiang”.
Broad bean paste is the king of Chinese sauces in Sichuan cooking and can be eaten with food directly as a condiment, or used as a seasoning in various marinades. In China broad bean paste made in Guilin is most renowned, reputed as the ‘Three Treasures of Guilin, along with Guilin pickled tofu and Guilin Sanhua Jiu (a kind of rice liquor). (Your Chinese fun fact for the day!)
We like to use Chengdu Jiuanfei Pixian Broad Bean Paste with Chili oil pictured on the left. It has a richer flavor and color than the Lee Kum Kee Chili Bean Sauce (Toban Djan) (13 oz.) pictured on the right; hopefully you can find either one at your local Asian grocery store. We did manage to find a brand of Pixian broad bean paste on Amazon that comes in an airtight bag, similar to what you can find at grocery stores in China.
Sesame Paste (芝麻糊)
Sesame paste, or zhī ma hú(芝麻糊) richly flavored paste made from toasted sesame seeds, aka Tahini. If unavailable and you don’t have any issues with peanut allergies, peanut butter is a pretty decent substitute. This sesame paste is used often in sauces for cold noodle dishes and hot pot dipping sauce. We break out a jar when making our own hummus too. Though Chinese sesame paste and tahini are technically different; tahini uses sesame and a Mediterranean oil such as olive oil. We also find that Chinese sesame paste can be a bit denser than your average tahini, though this varies brand to brand. But Chinese sesame paste and tahini really are interchangeable for virtually all Chinese recipes.
Thai Curry Paste
Thai curry paste is so tasty and one of these days we’ll travel to Thailand to have freshly made curry paste but for now, ready made Thai curry paste is convenient and the way to deliciousness. This Maesri brand is one of our go-to brands so stock up on the red Thai curry paste for your weekly fix of Quick, Easy and Delicious Coconut Curry Noodle Soup!
Thai curry paste comes in red, yellow and green varieties so if you’re adventurous, just buy the variety pack and experiment with variations!
Thai red curry paste can really make a noodle dish great and this Red Curry Noodles with Chicken is a perfect example. Try using your Thai red curry in these easy-to-make Thai chicken noodles and you’ll know what we mean!
Coconut milk ads richness to sauces and is a must for your pantry if you cook curry dishes! We use it extensively including 15 Minute Coconut Curry Noodle Soup and Chicken Adobo dishes. The brand we use most often is pictured below whether you buy it online at the Amazon store or pick it up at your local Chinese or Asian grocery store. There’s lots of different brands out there so shop around and try different ones and let us know what you like!
Fermented Black Beans (豆豉)
These fermented black beans or dòu chǐ in Mandarin and dou see in Cantonese ( 豆豉) are made from soy beans fermented with spices and salt. Before use, they should be rinsed a couple times in water. Store them in an airtight container in your refrigerator and they’ll keep forever–well, we usually clean out our supply before too long, but we’ve never had a can of these go bad on us! They add a unique salty umami flavor that most people can’t resist! The picture below is the brand we usually buy at our local Asian grocery store.
We have been using this Chinese brand of dried fermented black beans for a long time and are quite happy with it. For those of you stranded in a no-Asian-grocery zone, however, our search on Amazon yielded some decent results. There are a variety of brands available and the one below looks like it has good ratings but it does have 5-spice (五香) added to it.
We have also used this brand below which has some added ginger flavor. As you can see from the package, these beans are sometimes called preserved black beans or fermented black beans. Some notable recipes that use fermented black beans are Clams in Black Bean Sauce, Steamed Pork Spare Rib Dim Sum, and Chinese Stuffed Peppers Dim Sum.
By the way, you are definitely paying a premium when ordering this from Amazon so our advice is to try to find it in an Asian grocery store first. Happy shopping!
Ground bean sauces and pastes
These are savory Chinese sauces and pastes made from fermented dried black beans and their other leguminous cousins. Varieties include good old black bean sauce, spicy bean sauce, and red bean paste, among others. Instantly adding amazing flavor to various stir-fries, stews and other dishes, they can all usually be found stacked side by side in any Asian grocery store. Just look for the aisle with a dizzying array of soy sauces, vinegars, rice wines, hot sauces, and bean pastes. This particular Koon Chun brand of ground bean sauce has been around for some time and in Cantonese, our family called it “meen see jeung” and use it in stewed dishes and in Chinese BBQ spare rib sauces like in the recipe for Take Out Style Chinese Spare Ribs.
Ground bean sauce is also made with fermented yellow soybeans rather than black beans, but the overarching theme is always salty rather than sweet. One of Judy’s signature recipes that uses ground bean sauce is Beijing Fried Sauce Noodles (Zha Jian Mian). Try it out and we’re pretty sure you’ll be left wanting an “I <3 Ground Bean Sauce” t-shirt.
Ground Black Bean Sauce with Garlic (蒜蓉豆豉酱)
Ground black bean sauce with garlic or suàn róng dòuchǐ jiàng (蒜蓉豆豉酱) is a quick and easy sauce to use for any fermented black bean sauce dish. The literal translation is actually “ground garlic black bean sauce” in case you start pulling your hair out about translations!
Typically, we like to use the whole fermented black beans but the ground bean version is a very convenient jarred solution. While this black bean sauce is easy to use, be aware that your sauce be dark because the beans are finely ground. In the case of dim sum dish, steamed spare ribs with black bean sauce, we prefer to keep the dish clean looking and also keep the pork and fermented black bean flavors separate so we the use the whole fermented beans. But for dishes like Periwinkle snails in black bean sauce or Stir fried clams in black bean sauce, this ground bean sauce with garlic is perfect!
Duo Jiao sauce – Chopped Chili Pepper (剁椒)
Duo Jiao (剁椒) literally translates to chopped (duo) chili pepper (jiao). Duo jiao is made of chopped red chilis that are then”pickled” in a brine solution. When we traveled to the Hunan region, where this sauce originated, we saw t0ns 0f street vendors with big cutting boards, wooden bowls, and buckets, chopping red chilis and putting them into jars for sale.
Duo jiao has a salty and slightly pickled taste and is most commonly used in China for Hunan steamed fish head. We have a version of this dish that uses filets, Hunan Steamed Fish with Salted Chilies and Tofu (Duo Jiao Yu) (a highly underrated recipe, by the way!). This dish looks intimidating with all of those bright red peppers on top, but they’re really not as spicy as you think.
In China, we used the TanTan Xiang brand as shown in our Duo Jiao Fish recipe, but here in the US, we found this brand which is also very good and is produced in the Sichuan province (a telltale sign of quality when it comes to anything spicy!).
Fermented Red Bean Curd (红腐乳)
Fermented bean curd is made by preserving fresh bean curd with rice wine (and some other magical ingredients unknown to we commoners). It is generally quite salty, and many Chinese people eat it at breakfast with rice congee, Mantou steamed buns, or a simple rice and water “pao fan” or porridge. I grew up eating this stuff (we called it “lom yee” in Cantonese), and still love cooking with it. Fermented Bean curd really adds a unique flavor to any dish and must be included in your repertoire of Chinese sauces!
We have used different varieties of red bean curd or hóng fú rú (红腐乳) in our recipes, including the traditional Buddha’s Delight (Lo Han Jai), eaten mostly during Chinese New Year, Fried Chinese Spare Ribs, and Panko-Sesame Chinese Ribs. This Wangzhihe brand is one we buy often at our local Asian grocery. We found it on Amazon, but it is quite a bit more expensive than buying it in store. Here is a picture and link for your reference so you can shop around!
We have also used this Fu-Chung brand, which is also pretty tasty.
Fermented White Bean Curd (白腐乳)
Fermented bean curd or bái fú rú (白腐乳) is best purchased in a local Asian grocery store since there is not much variety on Amazon and it is really expensive. We call it “fu yee” in Cantonese dialect. Here is a picture and link for your reference so you can search and shop around online.
Fermented white bean curd is my favorite when eating rice congee but it is very nice when cooked in certain types of stir-fried vegetables. In Chinese restaurants, you can generally order vegetables cooked three ways, plain with just salt and pepper, a garlicky version, or with fermented white bean curd. Some green leafy vegetables that are particularly good when cooked with white fermented bean curd are watercress, spinach, and water spinach.
Lao Gan Ma (老干妈)
Lao Gan Ma, (老干妈) or “old godmother” is a brand of chili sauce started in China by that very masculine lady pictured on the label (or so they say–it’s kinda like the Aunt Jemima of China). The sauce is very similar to chili black bean sauces we have had in Hunan province in China. Whatever its origin, this stuff is great and Sarah used it in our first ever recipe post, Simple, Spicy Pan fried Noodles. You can also see that someone sneaked a small spoonful of this sauce into the pictures for the Thai Basil Shrimp Fried Rice. The sauce in that post is a variety of the Lao Gan Ma sauce with added peanuts which we could not find online, but is usually stocked in Asian supermarkets.
And we really can’t talk enough about how much we LOVE this sauce–affectionately known around here and in our house as “lady sauce” (sounds a little wrong, but, observe, the lady, duhhh). It’s an awesome sauce that has helped the company that makes it grow from a handful of employees to thousands today. The Woks of Life clan uses this sauce for just about anything – think Oscar-Madison-in-The-Odd-Couple level obsession, though he used ketchup. In fact we’re going to be so bold as to proclaim that this beloved lady sauce is one of the BEST Chinese condiments ever invented–definitely right up there with Sriracha Rooster Sauce in the most popular Chinese sauces category, at least in our family! As we mentioned before, the company has since come out with two other varieties (one with peanuts and one other with crispy tofu bits) but we have the best, original, true blue one shown below.
Lao Gan Ma Noodles anyone? Judy says yes!
Chiu Chow Chili Oil (潮州辣椒油)
This authentic regional Chiu Chow chili oil or Cháo zhōu là jiāo yóu (潮州辣椒油) originates from Chiu Chow (潮州), China. It is prepared from preserved chilies and garlic blended with soy bean oil into delightful spicy sauce that is quite addictive and just makes everything taste that much better!We won’t make any judgement if you decide to buy it since the store-bought version is quite tasty and does not require any work except driving to the store or hitting a button and getting it shipped to you!
If you have not tried this sauce yet or even if you have, then you must try Kaitlin’s recipe for Homemade Chiu Chow Chili Sauce.
According to various sources, XO sauces seems to have been invented in Hong Kong in the 1980s. XO in the context of Cognac and spirit means eXtra Old and from the list of preserved ingredients it seems to makes sense. Also possible is that the use of the XO term which is associated with a special aged cognac simply elevates the level of this unique sauce.
Some of the main ingredients of XO sauce include dried scallop, Jinhua ham, dried shrimp and these ingredients can be quite expensive! The price of jarred XO sauce can vary widely due to the quality of the ingredients, brand name and size of the jar.
Make sure you check the ingredients list on the packaging before making your purchase decision.
If you know our family, we generally prefer homemade if we have the right recipe and we think that Kaitlin’s XO sauce recipe is spot on! Making a batch of Homemade XO sauce may be a bit costly but when you break it down, it is quite cost effective AND you know exactly what went into your XO sauce. No labels to read or worrying about preservatives an additives. Take a look at the finished product below if you follow the direction very carefully!
Chili Garlic Sauce
Made with chili pepper, garlic, rice vinegar, and salt, this sauce is spicy and fragrant, and will keep in the fridge for months, right alongside your mayonnaise and ketchup. We use it as an all purpose dipping sauce and to accompany dishes like Chicken Pan Fried Noodles, but it is also great for cooking.
We use all types of chili and chili garlic Vietnamese and Chinese sauces, but this Huy Fong Vietnamese Chili Garlic Sauce, 8 Oz is our favorite brand and can be easily found in Asian stores. It’s great for cooking or for dipping sauces.
Then there’s the ubiquitous Sriracha Rooster sauce by Huy Fong foods – no introduction needed here. You can see it used in one of our best recipes for Honey Sriracha Chicken Wings. This sauce can be found in virtually all grocery stores these days as it gained huge popularity in the mainstream of American spicy food lovers. In fact, we strongly believe that you can never have too much of this stuff–six-pack, anyone? Huy Fong Sriracha Chili Sauce, 28 Ounce (Pack of 6)
Sacha or Sha Cha Sauce (沙茶酱)
Sacha sauce (shā chá jiàng, 沙茶酱) is frequently used for barbecued meat as the label says but we use it mostly for hot pot dipping sauces and sometimes for a stir-fry dish. It is quite tasty, a little spicy and has garlic, shallots, chili peppers and dried shrimp. This brand is the most widely available and popular brand that we have seen and also comes in a spicy version. So many Chinese sauces to try with so little time! Try our Spicy Chicken Stir-fry which uses this Sacha sauce as the primary ingredient.
Try Sarah’s Sha Cha Chicken: A 10-Minute Stir-fry one of these weeknights for a quick and easy dinner and you may get hooked on this sauce!
Hot Pot Soup Base
Pre-packaged Hot Pot soup base makes a hot pot meal much easier because the soup is quite complex. We start with a mix like the one below and add spices to it. Of course, there are more uses for hot pot soup bases like using it to make an authentic Ma La Xiang Guo – Sichuan Dry Pot, one of most favorite things to eat!
If you have a well stocked Asian grocery store, you can find many varieties of these prepackaged Chinese sauces. One we have used before is the package pictured below:
Check out our post on how to have a Sichuan Hot Pot meal!
Plum Sauce （苏梅酱）
Plum Sauce is a slightly sour but mostly sweet sauce made from plums, apricots and sometimes pineapples depending upon the brand you buy. Plum sauce is called sū méi jiàng (苏梅酱-simplified characters and 蘇梅醬-traditional Chinese characters) in Chinese, so you don’t get too confused with the labeling on the jar!
Plum sauce is similar, or you could say it is the same, as the “duck sauce” you get in packets at your favorite Chinese take-out place. Plum sauces are used for dipping fried items like our Fried Wontons or Egg Rolls, but once in a while we use it for some special recipes like Sour Plum Roasted Duck. Koon Chun brand is what we use but there are other brands available.
Pickled Plum (苏梅子)
Pickled plums are sour and salted plums that are really sour and salty! We use Koon Chun brand of Chinese salted plums that come in a jar full of liquid that have been around since I was a toddler. If you have heard of Umeboshi or Japanese salted plums, I think they are similar.
Pickled Plum is called sū méi zi (苏梅子-simplified characters and 蘇梅子-traditional Chinese characters) in Chinese. Koon Chun is a very old brand that existed way before simplified Chinese characters were used as the preferred written form and they never changed. So again, I wanted to include both forms of Chinese writing as a public service announcement for everyone who is looking at character names for pattern recognition when shopping! We only know of one recipe we use for this ingredient – Sour Plum Roasted Duck.
Gochujang is a savory, spicy, and pungent fermented Korean condiment made from red chili, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans, and salt that is traditionally homemade and naturally fermented over years in large earthen pots outdoors. Luckily, this tasty paste is readily available for purchase in Asian grocery stores and online. Gojuchang is used in many Korean dishes and we do love Korean food! Check out our recipes for Salmon bibimbap, Kimchi Jigae Stew, and Crispy Kimchi pork belly bowl, just to name a few!
We use tamarind paste for Pad Thai and it is one of the essential sauce ingredients for our Shrimp Pad Thai.
Everyone who has eaten sushi knows that wasabi, a light green spicy paste that tastes a bit like horseradish, is served on the side with pickled ginger. Wasabi, when consumed in amounts larger than just a dab, can clear your nasal passages very effectively. It is also used as a condiment for other dishes and frequently as an ingredient in sauces and cooking. Wasabi is actually a stem which must be very finely grated in its fresh form but is usually found as dried powder in large quantities, or as a ready-to-use paste in tubes, similar to travel toothpaste tubes like the product pictured below. We highly recommend the tube product as it keeps well in the refrigerator and is very convenient to use whenever you need it.
Potassium Carbonate (碱水)
Potassium Carbonate or 碱水 and pronounced in Mandarin as jiǎn shuǐ, has a variety of food uses in Chinese cooking some of which include making alkaline noodles, fried you tiao (fried crullers) and jian sui zongzi (rice dumplings). Pronounced in Cantonese as “gan sui”, you can find this alkaline ingredient in Chinese and Asian grocery stored in liquid form which is what you will need for our recipes.
Here’s a good description of food-grade lye water, courtesy of the internet: “It’s a potent liquid alkaline (potassium carbonate) used in home brewing and baking, to raise the pH of dough. Lye water is also used to make traditional ramen noodles–it gives them their distinctive yellow colour, springy texture, and helps to prevent them from disintegrating in the broth. Lye water is also used to make Eastern European breads, such as bagels and pretzels and Chinese mooncakes to help them develop a richer brown surface during cooking.”
For us, one of our favorite uses for potassium carbonate is to use it for making Jiansui Zongzi (Mandarin) or Gan Sui Zong (Cantonese).