The basics of Chinese cuisine

Things you need in your kitchen for northern Chinese cooking:

The Basics

Salt & White Pepper - yan, bai hujiao fen
White pepper is more common in Chinese cooking than black pepper, which is mainly used in certain Cantonese dishes.

White sugar - bai sha tang
Unlike in western cooking, where sugar is used mainly in desserts, sugar plays a balancing role in many Chinese entrees.

Leek, ginger, garlic - cong, jiang, suan
Most Chinese dishes use at least two, or all three, items, and so they are often said together like a rhyme by cooks.

Seasonings, sauces, etc

Cooking oil - caocai you
Most Chinese use peanut or soybean oil - huasheng you or dadou you. Feel free to substitute canola or other vegetable oils, and olive oil can be used in most recipes, except for those that call for deep-frying.

Cooking wine - liao jiu
The higher-grade rice wine we use at the cooking school is called huadiao; it's available in the liquor section of Chinese grocery stores. In a pinch, sherry or white wine also works.

Soy sauce - jiang you
Soy sauce comes in different forms in China, including laochou (dark soy sauce that's less salty and used for coloring) and shenchou (light colored soy sauce that's salty).

Chinese black vinegar - cu
The best brand is called Lao Chen cu, a variety from Shanxi province.

Sesame oil - xiang you
The fresher, the better. In Beijing, vendors sell freshly squashed sesame oil at local wet market stands.

Rice - dami
We like Thai Jasmine rice.

Cooking Equipment

  • 14" Iron Wok - a good wok is one you can lift with one hand
  • Cleaver - select a blade that is 4-inches tall and pre-sharpened
  • Cutting Board - usually in China, we use round, tree-stump thick boards, also available at kitchen supply stores in
  • America or over the internet
  • Curved Spatula - standard stir-fry equipment


  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1/4 pound ground beef
  • 2 tablespoons minced leek or scallion
  • 1 teaspoon minced ginger
  • 1/4 cup broadbean paste
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 package firm tofu, cut into 1?4-inch cubes
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine

Add the oil to a wok and place over high heat. When the oil is hot, add the beef, breaking it into small pieces and stirring until it begins to brown. Add the following ingredients, stirring for a minute between each addition: leek and ginger, broadbean paste, soy sauce, rice wine, salt, and sugar. Add the water, reduce the heat to medium, and simmer for 4 to 5 minutes. Add the tofu, raise the heat to high, and stir for another 2 to 3 minutes. Sprinkle in the ground Sichuan peppercorns and remove from the heat. Serve immediately.

About the book, "Serve the People":
In her new memoir SERVE THE PEOPLE: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China, Jen Lin-Liu tells how she attended a vocational cooking school in Beijing's back alleys and worked alongside chefs in restaurants ranging from a humble noodle shop to a swanky restaurant on Shanghai's riverfront, rubbing elbows with ordinary Chinese in a way that few journalists ever have. She chronicles the lives of noodle makers, dumpling wrappers, and stir-fry chefs, and offers rare insight into a country poised to be the world's next superpower.

Buy the book on Amazon: Serve the People

About Jen Lin-Liu:
Jen Lin-Liu is the food correspondent for Time Out Beijing, editor of the new Zagat Guide to Beijing, and is the cofounder of a Beijing cooking school, Black Sesame Kitchen.

For more information, visit

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