My Dad Used to Own a Chinese Restaurant — These Are the 5 Pantry Staples He Always Had on Hand

published May 5, 2022
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Ask anyone who cooks: Certain brands can make all the difference. In some cases it’s a matter of taste, like when you pit Skippy peanut butter against Jif or pick Applegate bacon over every other brand. In others, it’s backed by study and science, like the precise and lower protein content in White Lily flour for the fluffiest Southern biscuits. Most often, it’s a combination of both — especially with global ingredients, where a lot can be lost between brands.

When making Chinese food, there are certain ingredients you can safely sub as long as you get the type right (Shaoxing wine, for example). Others, however, you cannot. The specific brand you choose can make the difference between restaurant-quality at home or a milquetoast imitation that tastes like the ghost of a flavorful memory. It can make or break your dish.  

I learned this the hard way when I moved to New Orleans, a city rich with Vietnamese presence but sparse in Chinese influence. Making do with what I could get, by virtue of necessity, I made swaps from brand-specific ingredients my Chinese chef father always used. As a result, many of my dishes came out a little “off.” So take it from me and my firsthand experience — if you’re trying to recreate Northeastern American Chinese flavors, these are the five pantry staples you should buy by name. They’re the ones my dad always bought in bulk.

1. Lee Kum Kee Panda Brand Oyster Flavored Sauce

Oyster sauce is a key and critical ingredient in Chinese cooking, particularly Cantonese style. It’s sweet, earthy, syrupy, thick, gooey, and distinctive in flavor. Like fish sauce, it doesn’t taste like the titular ingredient it’s distilled from, taking on its own savory umami characteristics in processing.

When I was growing up, we used Lee Kum Kee’s pricier Premium Oyster Flavored Sauce (with the picture of a woman and child in a rowboat), and we used it more sparingly. But cheaper and better for sauce blends (and therefore more common for commercial use) is the company’s red-label Panda Brand line. This option features a smoother, milder formula that incorporates well with other ingredients. The difference between the two is like that of the olive oil you cook with or whisk into a salad dressing as opposed to what you’d dip your bread into.

Buy: Lee Kum Kee Panda Brand Oyster Flavored Sauce, $4.99 for 18 ounces at Asian Mart

2. Kikkoman Soy Sauce

Yes, it’s mainstream; the number-one brand in America, even. But guess what? This classic soy sauce is also the preferred pick for nearly every Chinese restaurant I’ve ever stepped foot in. We bought this specific brand’s all-purpose soy sauce by the actual bucket.

It’s made simply, with water, soybeans, wheat, and salt, and aged for only a few months — just long enough for it to develop its reddish-brown hue and a mellow umami. It’s a bit on the thinner side and salty without being deep. This makes it considerably less complex than dark soy sauce, thick soy sauce, mushroom soy sauce, or tamari. And like Lee Kum Kee’s Panda Brand oyster sauce, that’s exactly what makes it a crowd-pleaser and why it works harmoniously with the other ingredients in your sauces. 

Buy: Kikkoman Soy Sauce, $2.39 for 15 ounces at Instacart

3. Koon Chun Hoisin Sauce

In my dad’s Chinese kitchen, we use Koon Chun, which omits the sweet potato found in some hoisin sauce brands. It’s jammmier, plummier, and overall richer than other bottles I’ve tried. While its aftertaste is sweeter and its consistency is much, much thicker, it also tastes a little cleaner due to a brighter, more acidic finish. And because of its viscosity and concentration, it’s tremendously bold. I, personally, won’t even touch any other brand for dipping — it’s Koon Chun or nothing at all.

Buy: Koon Chun Hoisin Sauce, $4.39 for 15 ounces at Instacart

4. Javin Brand Curry Powder

Curry powder is an Indian staple, but it also has its solid place in Chinese food, especially in Southern Chinese cuisine. We had curry-laced white sauce dishes on our menu, and one of my favorite entrées ever is Singapore Chow Mei Fun, which I love making in enormous batches and with a lot of curry flavor.

This curry powder is a little sharper than others and less flowery than some American brand gourmet blends I’ve tried. Plus, it’s a heck of a lot more affordable than other options, giving you (and me!) all the freedom in the world to curry noodles liberally.

Buy: Javin Brand Curry Powder, $17 for 16 ounces at Amazon

5. Kokuho Calrose Rice

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If you think white rice is boring, you just haven’t had the right rice. It’s a nuanced grain, and when you have it steamed plain with nothing but water and chemistry magic, unmixed with your entrée’s sauce, the differences in quality and variety are unmistakable. 

My dad always put the extra effort into his restaurant, which is why our house white rice was actually a blend of several. Central to his formula was Kokuho’s Calrose Rice, with the yellow label. Longer grains can disintegrate over time when kept warm and get mushy by themselves, but this medium grain cooks up fluffy, tender, and clean-tasting, holding its form well. And unlike some other varieties of rice, this California-grown type is never bitter and has less arsenic than brown rice and rice from other parts of the U.S.

Buy: Kokuho Calrose Rice, $21.99 for 15 pounds at Weee!

Did your favorite brands make the list? Tell us in the comments below.