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13 Groceries These Chinese Grandmas Always Have on Hand

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Some of my favorite childhood memories involve visiting my Aunt Marilyn at her home in Maui. Hawaii’s food culture has so many influences, including indigenous ingredients and flavors from the Far East and Portugal. My aunt was also an avid home cook and world traveler, so she was always cooking up something new to me. Eating during those visits was always an adventure.

No longer called just “Auntie” by the younger kids in the family, she’s now “Popo” to her three grandkids. And I’m no longer one of the younger kids in the family, but a mom myself. I recently returned to her home with my own family in tow to relive those food memories. While we were there, I asked her to share some of her staple ingredients she keeps on hand. As a fifth-generation Chinese American living in a multicultural locale, her favorites — like canned San Marzano tomatoes and local honey — come from different cuisines. But many of her favorites aligned with those of Wanda Cho.

Wanda is a Chinese immigrant and mom to Kristina Cho, food writer and author of Mooncakes and Milkbread. “Pretty much every instinct I have in the kitchen is because of her,” says Kristina. While Wanda is only a grandma to Kristina’s dog, Olive, she grew up a restaurant kid. Helping out at her parent’s Chinese restaurant in Cleveland means she’s been cooking and serving others for a huge part of her life.

What are the must-have items in each of their carts? You’ll find a mix of fresh produce, flavor enhancers, and bulk pantry staples (including a three-liter bottle of mirin), to name a few. Whether you’re cooking classic Chinese food, Chinese American food, or are just looking for versatile ingredients to keep on hand to boost your everyday cooking, these two know what they’re talking about!

1. White Pepper and Specialty Salts

Auntie Marilyn uses kosher salt for cooking, and Hawaiian sea salt when she needs a larger volume for things like brines. Kristina’s mom Wanda prefers the pungent kick and finer texture of white pepper over black pepper. 

Kristina’s mom uses this as a flavor enhancer. Despite the name, it’s not overtly chicken-flavored; rather, it just provides salty roundness to broths and stir-fries. “It just makes everything taste good,” she says.

Chinese sausage keeps forever in the fridge and is an easy way to impart a salty-sweet flavor to dishes. Kristina’s mom favors Kam Yen Jan brand and keeps it in the refrigerator for easy meals. She adds a few links to steam with her rice or slices it up to throw in a hot pan with some vegetables or leftover rice.

Mirin is a Japanese sweet rice wine. My aunt uses it for marinades and dressings for both salads and cold noodles. Like many of her staple ingredients, she buys in bulk!

Shoyu is the generic term locals in Hawaii use for soy sauce. Auntie Marilyn buys Kikkoman by the gallon. (And reuses the bottles to fill with water to rinse off after the beach.) She uses it both to add flavor and as a salt substitute. It’s good in everything: fried rice, ponzu sauce, noodles, all gravies for Chinese dishes, marinades, over tofu or rice with raw egg.

Both my aunt and Kristina’s mom named olive oil as one of their top ingredients. My aunt buys bulk olive oil from Costco and uses it for so many different things. Kristina’s mom names olive oil as “debatably the most important ingredient.” She wouldn’t be able to cook at all without good-quality olive oil. (In Wanda’s opinion, good-quality olive oil is the one with the best-looking bottle.) Marilyn will pick up fancier California olive oil when visiting her daughter in Los Angeles or me in the Bay Area. She also keeps flavorless oil on hand for frying, as well as Kadoya sesame oil for seasoning.

Dinner isn’t served until Wanda adds a sprinkle of green onions on top. She does cook with other types of alliums, but green onions are tender, aromatic, and just a little bit sweet, which makes them perfect for her everyday cooking.

Marilyn buys big knobs of fresh ginger and stores it in the refrigerator door. She treats it like garlic and onion. It’s the flavor base for so many things. She especially likes it with pork and shoyu chicken and adds it to dipping sauces for tofu or dumplings. She also makes a cleansing tea with it.

Buy: Ginger, $1.99 per pound at Weee!

Auntie buys her rice from the Rice Factory in Honolulu. She buys pounds at a time when she visits her grandchildren on Oahu and brings it home to Maui with her. The varieties offered are always changing, so she likes to go in and see what is grown where and the different flavor and texture profiles, but keeps both white and brown rice on hand. 

Corn starch is a classic thickener for Chinese-style sauces. My aunt also keeps potato starch on hand, which she uses mostly for fried foods, typically chicken. She says it’s the secret to the crunchiest coating!

Buy: Argo 100% Pure Corn Starch, $2.79 for 16 ounces at Amazon

Oyster sauce is Kristina’s mom’s secret ingredient for just about everything. Her everyday stir-fries and marinades include oyster sauce to enhance the sweetness and saltiness of the dish. But she also adds a spoonful to her pasta salad and pico de gallo, deepening the flavor in a way that isn’t obvious.

The Cho family loves eggs. Even though Kristina’s parents are empty-nesters, her mom always keeps two-dozen eggs in the fridge because they are constantly going through them. Egg drop soup, steamed eggs, and extra-crispy fried eggs make frequent appearances at their house. 

13. Gailan and Other Fresh Greens

My aunt uses all kinds of greens for both hot and cold vegetable dishes. Eaten hot, they can be steamed or simmered in broth. Cold greens can be a straightforward salad, or eaten with cold noodles. Kristina’s mom favors gailan, which is sometimes called Chinese broccoli or Chinese kale. It’s her go-to easy vegetable when she doesn’t have the bandwidth to think too much about what to make for dinner. It’s hearty yet tender and not as bitter as other greens. She keeps it pretty simple, steaming and tossing it with a drizzle of oil and oyster sauce (of course).

Buy: Gailan Mieu, $2.99 for 1 pound at Weee!

Don’t see your grandma’s grocery staple above? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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