By Xiyuan Sun
Food is definitely an essential part of all human lives. As Chinese, it even means more to us. Whenever we want to celebrate, rather than party, we EAT! Gathering around a big round table full of wonderful Chinese meals is our most comfortable way to socialize and relax.
But for many of you who just came to the States for college or graduate school, perhaps the first difficulty you encounter in life is eating. As you explore the taste of every kind of American food, your stomach will constantly remind you “hey buddy, feed me some rice or I won’t work”. Yet it won’t take you long to find that American Chinese food almost looks NOTHING like authentic Chinese food.
Lucky for me who wind up living in Los Angeles – home to over 6000 Chinese restaurants, I can treat myself with all types of authentic Chinese cuisines at any time. But for those of you who live in somewhere as remote as Wyoming or Dakota, it can be quite a challenge to find a decent Chinese restaurant offering authentic and quality Chinese cuisines. In this case, you probably need to revive your nostalgia by making your own Chinese recipes at home. When preparing to make a hometown recipe in another country, one of the first things you will want to know is whether you can find all the ingredients at the local supermarkets. Some times they are not hard to find, especially in big cities like LA and NYC where ethnic supermarkets dot the multicultural landscapes. However, for those of you who live in the rest of the areas in the States, you might want to consult this post: our guide to some handy substitutes for Chinese food ingredients.
A lot of you who just came to the States may find American supermarkets so disorienting – full of unrecognizable and unmanageable produce and ingredients -that you would rather go to a more navigable Chinese grocery store even it is ten miles farther. However, the fact is that cooking is a FUN, CREATIVE human activity. Part of the creative experience is shopping for ingredients, which may entail exploring new recipes and bridging cultural barriers. Need some inspirations?
Here I will introduce some handy ways to substitute basic Chinese food ingredients with condiments and produce that can be obtained at practically any American supermarket. Here we go.
- Peanut oil: Chinese recipes normally use peanut oil for stir-frying due to its high smoke point and bland flavor. However, for those who have a peanut allergy, other light oils such as vegetable oil and sunflower oil are just as effective as peanut oil in stir-frying.
- Ginger: Ginger is used a lot in Chinese recipes, especially in seafood dishes. It’s hard to find a totally different ingredient to substitute for it. By far, the best substitute is ginger powder.
- Mirin (sweet rice wine): Putting a small amount of table sugar in white wine works well.
- Scallions: Another common aromatic ingredient in Chinese cooking. Thinly sliced onions, leeks or shallots can all be used as stand-in ingredients for it, though each has a slightly different effect on the final flavor.
- Rice wine: I always substitute it with white wine or beer. But be careful with the amount since western spirits are usually stronger than rice wine.
- Rock sugar: Try brown sugar or a small amount of white table sugar.
- Chili powder: This is an easy one. Cayenne pepper works well.
- Chinese cabbage: I seldom find bok choi or Napa cabbage in American groceries. But round cabbages and lettuce can be your guy when cooking soups.
- Sichuan peppercorn: A nice flavor enhancer in Sichuan cuisines. But if you prefer a little less spicy and numbing in the taste like I do, you can substitute black peppercorn for it.
- Chinese chive pancake: One of my favorite staple foods! The tip is to use uncooked tortilla as a quick stand-in ingredient so you don’t need to tackle dough. Yeah!
- Chow mein (Chinese fried noodles): Another lazy recipe – strongly recommend angel hair or thin spaghetti as your perfect substitute for Chinese hand-rolled noodles.
Chinese food varies greatly from region to region. This quick list of ingredients probably does not even begin to cover the produce and condiments out there in Chinese kitchens. I hope it’s a helpful primer. Don’t just limit yourself to Chinese supermarkets when shopping for ingredients. Instead of always sticking to conventions, why not getting out of your comfort zone and embracing creativity when preparing for your next Chinese recipe? I am also happy to recommend the book Easy Chinese Recipes In 30 Minutes to all of you who want to make authentic home-style Chinese dishes with ingredients that can be found at any large supermarkets.
If you think you have better ideas of substituting Chinese ingredients or there are any questions or comments you want to share with us, we’d love to hear from you! In the coming days we’ll look at some interesting spring break destination options. Stay tuned!