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How to navigate a Chinese supermarket

For a lot of Westerners, the Chinese supermarket is a formidable prospect. There’s writing you don’t know how to read, products you don’t know the use of and ingredients you’ve never seen before. And when it comes to buying something, a two litre bottle of soy sauce seems so intimidating that you just give up. But feat not! Here is a handy guide to the different uses of products you might find in a Chinese supermarket, so that next time you can breeze in there with confidence.

Soy sauce

Way more adaptable than you think

Ok, so you probably know soy sauce, but you might not have considered the fact that it is much more cost effective to buy soy in bulk from a Chinese supermarket than it is to grab a smaller bottle elsewhere. Soy makes for an awesome umami flavour in marinades, and jazzes up an ordinary salad dressing. In fact, soy sauce makes a pretty good replacement for salt – use one teaspoon for every generous pinch of salt you would use.

Fish sauce

Just don’t smell it

This sauce doesn’t smell that great, so don’t linger over the bottle for too long, but it adds an awesome depth of flavour to your dishes. Similar to soy, fish sauce can amp up a marinade, and make your curry that bit more tasty. If you want to get creative, try replacing the Worcestershire in your Bloody Mary with fish sauce – both are made from anchovies, after all!

Coconut Milk

A tasty dairy replacement and a versatile ingredient

Coconut milk is a must-have for a number of Thai and Malay dishes, particularly their curries. Flex your foodie capabilities next time you have a dinner party and serve up a big bowl of green curry, or maybe a laksa – both are easier than you think and work well in large quantities. If you’ve got any coconut milk left over, pour some into your morning coffee or substitute into a dessert recipe for mini vacation.

Pixian Bean Paste

Feelin’ hot hot hot

This is an absolute staple for anyone wanting to recreate tasty Sichuan cooking in their own home. The paste is spicy, with a note of tangy sourness, and lends itself to enriching the flavour of meat and veggies. Simply stir in to a stir-fry, or add a couple of teaspoons (depending on your spice tolerance) to the pot before you braise. Once you get confident, push the boat out and experiment – pop a little bit into an Italian pasta sauce for a boost!

Hong Kong-style Coffee Milk Tea

coffee milk tea

Can’t decide? No problem!

This one is far from the “essentials” category, and more under “just for fun”. This Hong Kong hybrid does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s halfway between a coffee and a tea. Weird? Kind of! It’s super sweet and super addictive, and when you bring it to the checkout, you’ll look like a true local.

Now go, journey onwards with confidence into that Chinese supermarket.

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