Below are my notes, which I’ll add to as and when I gather more information. Please click thumbnails for larger images and do leave a comment if you have any information to share.
On Chinese/Japanese equivalents
The Chinese and Japanese equivalents below can be used as substitutes. You may also find the flours from the same plants/grains produced from specialist millers, such as Bob’s Red Mill from the US (some products are wholegrain, some are organic, but not all – read label carefully).
However, there may be differences in the strain of plant used to produce the flour, whether the whole grain is used, the manner in which the flour is produced and the final texture of the flour. For example, Chinese rice flour is made from long grain rice, whereas Japanese rice flour is milled from Japonica/calrose short grain rice. When cooked, these two types of rice are quite distinct in texture and taste so their flours can be expected to be a little different as well.
So if you are concerned to get the exact results then use Japanese-produced flours for a Japanese recipe, and Chinese flours for Chinese dishes. Personally, my priority is to learn about different ingredients and simply produce something palatable to myself rather than worry about culinary purity.
Quality of alternative flours
These flours provide opportunities for food rotation and finding flours that won’t produce an intolerance reaction. However, it can be difficult to find all of them in a health food store or be able to obtain organic versions. Bob’s Red Mill produces quite a lot of these speciality flours but not all are organic, and in Singapore they are ridiculously expensive and the more unusual varieties are not widely sold here. Flours for Chinese snacks are produced for commercial retail in various Asian countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and China, and it’s hard to know if there have been any chemicals or bleaches used in the processing. “Hong Kong flour“, for example, is a highly-bleached wheat flour to help produce very white coloured bao.
Buying flours in Singapore
All flours for Chinese snacks are available at Phoon Huat, a large variety at NTUC, and limited types at other supermarkets. For Japanese flours, head to Isetan Scotts and Meidi-ya supermarkets and even Daiso (only $2 a packet!). The widest selection of Bob’s Red Mill I’ve seen is at Vivocity’s Naturally Marketplace (run by Cold Storage).
I have not listed all the uses of the flours as Jo’s Deli Bakery has already done an excellent job, see this page on flours for baking, Chinese dim sum & Southeast Asian desserts.
Many of the Chinese flours function as thickeners, so do have a look at Cook’s Thesaurus on starch thickeners.
For a detailed description of Japanese flours and ingredients, see Konny’s page.
Baking911.com on flour has detailed explanations of flour for baking, both wheat and non-wheat, with more information on the former.
The Wikipedia entry on flour also includes a basic description of non-wheat flours.
If you read Chinese, 阿春 explains a wide range of different flours used in Chinese cooking.
Reading what the food experts and enthusiasts at e-Gullet have to say can be very enlightening, see:
a) e-Gullet forum on Southeast Asian kueh/cakes
b) e-Gullet forum on Japanese wagashi
(and too many threads on individual Chinese dim sum dishes & snacks)
Check out also these gluten-free baking tips (uses soy flour, potato flour, tapioca flour, rice flour and corn flour).
And always useful is this Chinese-English baking glossary.
1) Low-protein flour/ cake flour
Hakurikiko 薄力粉 [Japanese]
Notes: wheat flour, 6-8% protein
2) Medium-protein flour/ all-purpose flour
Notes: wheat flour, 10-12% protein
3) High-protein flour/ bread flour
Notes: wheat flour, 13%-14% protein
5) Agar-agar powder
大菜粉 [Cant.] dai choy fun
瓊脂 [Mand.] qiong2 zhi1
6) Glutinous rice flour/ sweet rice flour
Shiratamako 白玉粉 [Japanese]
Notes: Cooked, or dry-fried, glutinous rice flour is sold as a different product called 熟糯米粉／糕粉 gao fun [Cant.]. According to Kuali.com, “You can dry-fry glutinous rice flour yourself but it will not be as fine as the commercialised kao fun. Those that are imported from China are very fine. Try looking for this item in provision shops around your area.”
7) Rice flour
Jyoshinko 上新粉 [Japanese]
Notes: Chinese rice flour is made from long grain rice, Japanese rice flour from short grain rice. Rice can be made from cooked or raw rice and can be dry-milled or wet-milled. Read more about the rice products and their methods of production here.
8) Corn flour/ cornstarch
Notes: In the book, Dim Sum by Chan Chen Hei, the corn flour used is specifically Kingsford brand of high-quality cornflour. In some recipes, such as Sweet Bean Cake with Ginseng 高麗參眉豆糕, the recipe says using other kinds of cornflour will not work. However, I checked a packet of Kingsford cornflour in a Hong Kong supermarket and found that it contains sulphur dioxide, a preservative that may cause food sensitivity reactions, see more information from the Food Intolerance Network here.
9) Water chestnut flour
Notes: Gourmet Sleuth entry
10) Tapioca flour
11) Potato flour
12) Sweet Potato flour
蕃薯粉 fan1 shu3 fen3
地瓜粉 di4 gua1 fen3
14) Soya bean flour (toasted)
[Read my entry on making roasted soya beans, which you can then grind to make your own kinako.]
15) Sago flour
16) Arrowroot flour
17) Bracken flour
Notes: Research shows bracken to be carcinogenic, read here.
18) Mugwort flour