Ten Things to Bring With You for Cooking in China

By: Amanda Roberts

Food is cultural. When living in a new country it is great to experience their culture through their food. But what about your own culture’s food? Don’t be so quick to abandon it for something new. In America, we have an abundance of foods from all over the world to choose from every day. From Italian, to Mexican, to Brazilian, to Indian and more, America’s restaurant choices are among the most diverse in the world. But many other countries are not like that. In countries with fewer and more recent immigrant cultures, there is not so much selection.
Living in China means either eating Chinese food every single day, three meals a day, or cooking at home every once in a while. But I enjoy cooking and I love sharing my food with my Chinese friends. I often am told “I never liked American food until I had yours!” But it isn’t easy. In fact, many of the tools I need for cooking American food here in China aren’t available or aren’t very good quality. So here are a few things I have brought over with me or had sent to me after I arrived and I couldn’t live without.

Here is my top 10 list for things you need to bring with you if you plan on cooking while living in China.

  1. A high-quality garlic press. I use garlic a lot in my cooking because it just adds so much flavor to any dish. Freshly pressed garlic will bring out those flavors much better than just chopped. However, it is really hard to find a garlic press here in China, and, if you do find one, they don’t actually work. They just smash the garlic down in the well without pressing it out through the little holes which is pretty pointless. I recommend Pampered Chef’s garlic press. This is the best press I have ever found and it even peels the garlic as it presses it!

  2. A can opener. I cried tears of joy the first time I found refried beans at an import supermarket in China (it had been 8 months since I had had Mexican food). Then I cried tears of utter despair when I got back to my home 4 hours away and realized I didn’t have a can opener. Canned goods are very rare in China. The few you do find have pop-tops. But the refried beans I found were imported and not actually made for Chinese consumers so the can wasn’t designed with the Chinese kitchen (and its lack of a can opener) in mind.

  3. A vegetable peeler. You can find vegetable peelers in China. But it is the lack of good quality peelers that makes me put this on the list. Chinese vegetable peelers are made of very cheap plastic and metal. They will rust, dull, and break after only a few uses. I recommend you bring an OXO serrated peeler. I love the way the serrated edge creates small groves in the vegetables for you to grip on to. This is essential for peeling potatoes.

  4. A salt mill. For some reason, black pepper can easily be found sold in pepper mills, but salt only comes in bags. This is problematic because Chinese kitchens get very humid due to their small size and poor ventilation. Your salt will get damp and clump very quickly. Salt shakers are very hard to find and, like the vegetable peelers, when you do find one they are terrible quality and will rust from the humidity and corrosiveness of the salt. I recommend bringing a salt mill and filling it with coarse salt.

  5. A citrus squeezer. This is something I have not been able to find in China and I’m not sure why. You can make lots of great dishes like orange chicken, lemon chicken, and guacamole very easily with ingredients found at your local market, but you won’t find a citrus squeezer. Now, of course, you can just squeeze the fruits by hand, but you will get a lot more juice from each fruit and can avoid getting the seeds in the food by using a good citrus squeezer. I recommend OXO’s citrus squeezer.

  6. Measuring cups/spoons The Chinese don’t own ovens so they don’t bake. As a result, it is nearly impossible to find measuring cups and spoons. But I can think of lots of times I need to measure out ingredients besides when I bake. And after 2 ½ years here, I did buy an oven so I also need them for measuring baking ingredients as well.

  7. Oven mitts. Even if you don’t have an oven, you will need to grab the hot handle of a pot and one point or another while cooking in China. But like the measuring cups, since they don’t have ovens here, they don’t have oven mitts. So bring one or two with you.

  8. Mexican chili seasoning. OK, this one might not be a necessity for everyone, just for people who love Mexican food (that does include most people anyway, right?). In America, we just call it “chili seasoning,” but in China if you buy “chili seasoning” it is actually ground red pepper and it hot as the dickens. I have only found one small bottle of actual Mexican chili seasoning in China once at a tiny, obscure import store and have not seen it again since. If you like Mexican food, bring chili seasoning. Better to be safe than sorry.

  9. Grape Jelly. Again, this isn’t for everyone, but I know a lot of people who can’t live without it. There is nothing better than a PB&J every once in a while, but, apparently, Americans are the only people who eat grape jelly. You can find strawberry, blueberry, mixed berry, peach, and even orange marmalade pretty much everywhere in China, but you will never find grape jelly (apparently you won’t find it anywhere in Europe either). I recommend Welch’s squeezable Concord grape jelly mainly because the bottle is so convenient.

  10. Any other food item you can’t live without. For me, Gates BBQ sauce and Griffin’s syrup are two things I can’t live without. While I can find other brands of BBQ sauce and syrup here, these specific brands are regional to where I grew up so I can’t find them at a Chinese import store or on Taobao. Food is cultural, and sometimes something from your own culture can be really comforting when you are thousands of miles from home.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingAmanda Roberts is an American expat living in China. Blog description: Amanda had a minor in Chinese language and always dreamed of teaching in China but never thought it would actually happen. With her husband's support, her dream and their new life began in China in August of 2010
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Contest Comments » There are 6 comments

Aidan Larson wrote 10 years ago:

Hi Amanda, How lovely that you get to live your dream. I hope you are very happy. I enjoyed your post and was very surprised by the no ovens in China thing. I can't imagine a life without a Sunday roast. And, like you, my husband and I miss grape jelly; but much more than that, we miss the big jars of American peanut butter! Sante from the South of France, Aidan

Larissa wrote 10 years ago:

Great article! As an expat who spends a lot of time cooking and has also had those head-scratching moments when some utensil or kitchen item is so difficult to find in my new country (Iceland, where large ice cube trays are just not in existence, go figure), I can relate on a lot of points, even if life in China must be, quite literally, worlds away from life in Iceland. And there are a lot of surprising and interesting details about Chinese life throughout these points--no canned goods, no ovens (or mitts) (people have ovens in Iceland, but I was really surprised at how many rental properties do not have ovens in the kitchen)...and clever point about humidity and salt in bags. Really interesting stuff!

Seth wrote 10 years ago:

To anyone else who reads this, I will agree with #10. Bring your comfort food. Even getting to the big cities there is no certainty that you'll find that sweet treat from back home. While Tao Bao (if you can get an account up and running) tends to have a decent selection, it doesn't have everything. If there is a favorite snack food you love, take it with you, and hoard it until the day you really need it.

Holly Nelson wrote 10 years ago:

Really lovely, informative blogpost - moving to Canada sounds relatively easy, at least our cooking utensils are the same!

Katie Allen wrote 10 years ago:

Amanda - When I was teaching in China I also brought a lot of the things you mentioned - I would like to add 2 more to your list - 11. a large container of Italian seasonings 12. a couple of plastic bottles of sweet pickle relish - so I could make a good tuna fish sandwich and cole slaw Katie PS - and even though it is not a food - don't forget a good lint brush or roller

Bennett wrote 10 years ago:

On my list is: 1. Cinnamon 2. Black peppercorns to refill said salt/pepper mills! 3. Couscous!

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