Chinese food staple: Soy Sauce
Invented in China by Buddhist monks as an inexpensive veggie substitute for a meat-based sauce, soy sauce is made by fermenting a mixture of boiled soybeans, grains, and salt. Light soy sauce is thinner and saltier than dark soy sauce, which has added caramel flavours and is used mostly for its colour. Equivalent to the Japanese word "Umami" and known as the fifth flavour, "Xian wei" is the Chinese term that describes savoury and meaty flavour, and soy sauce enhances those flavours.
What to look for: A good soy sauce is bright and sharp in flavour. If shaken, there should be bubbles in the bottle.
How to use: Use it to marinate, season, or dip to add saltiness and depth to savoury dishes. Avoid adding soy sauce into a dry hot pan, as the sugars in soy sauce can scorch the pan.
Chinese food staple: Szechuan peppercorn
Berries of a deciduous prickly ash shrub, and not actually a peppercorn, only the husks are used. These pellets are capable of sending your taste buds into a state of complete confusion. Used sparingly, the husks add a muted and woody, lemony and floral aroma. However, if the whole peppercorn is bitten into, it numbs your tongue better than Novocain, and then overpowers your palate with extreme mouth-watering saltiness.
What to look for: Red husks that are bright in colour.
How to use: Szechuan peppercorn warmth and fragrance is traditionally used to take out bloody- or fishy-tasting in meats or seafood. It is most commonly used in soup bases and chicken stir-fries.
Chinese food staple: Five Spice Seasoning
Five Spice Seasoning is a popular blend of Szechuan peppercorn, cinnamon, fennel seeds, star anise, and one of or a combination of citrus peel, nutmeg, or cloves.
What to look for: Every manufacturer has a different ratio of spices for Five Spice Seasoning. It is dependent upon your own preference as to which offers the best flavour.
How to use: This is a very common spice for seasoning poultry, in braised beef dishes, and in soup base.
Chinese food staple: Star Anise
Dark brown with eight prongs, each with a black shiny seed, the star anise is a dried flower of a variety of magnolia tree that is widely used in Chinese cuisine. It has a stronger flavour than fennel, so only a few are needed.
What to look for: Unbroken star anise pieces that can be removed from sauces easily.
How to use: Except when used in Five Spice Seasoning, it is used whole to season stocks and sauces, and removed before serving.
Page 1 of 2Chinese food staple: Oyster Sauce
As the name implies, oyster sauce is derived from oysters and their juices, with additives such as soy sauce and sugar. It should be deep brown, smooth and glossy, with the oceanic briny flavour of oysters.
What to look for: For a superior product, look for brands made without MSG, or monosodium glutamate.
How to use: Like soy sauce, oyster sauce is quite the multi-tasker in the Chinese kitchen - it can be used to dress steamed veggies, added to noodle and meat stir-fries, and used with a cornstarch slurry to make a pan sauce.
Chinese food staple: Black Bean and Garlic Sauce
Traditionally, dried black beans are a staple in Chinese meat stir-fries and commonly used along with minced garlic. Commercial black bean and garlic sauce is a convenient concoction for the home cook. It has a bold flavour that is quite salty, so use sparingly.
What to look for: A glossy and well-mixed sauce, with black beans broken into smaller piece.
How to use: This is very salty and is blended in stir-fry dishes, not as a dip or condiment on its own. Add a dollop of this to hot oil when stir-frying noodles or meats.
Chinese food staple: Soybean Paste
Compared to Japanese Miso paste, the Chinese variety is more oily and salty. The colour of Chinese style soybean paste is usually dark brown, with a layer of oil in the jar.
What to look for: A glossy and peanut-butter-like smooth consistency.
How to use: Unlike Miso, it is never used as a soup base. Add to heated oil for stir-fries or in braising liquids for rich winter dishes.
Chinese food staple: Hoisin Sauce (pronounced "hoy-seen sauce")
Literally, hoisin sauce means seafood sauce; however, this is not made with seafood at all. Mostly known as a condiment with Peking duck, this sauce is made with soybeans, sugar, sweet potato, salt, wheat flour, and other spices and is used primarily to add sweetness to dishes.
What to look for: Some manufacturers add colouring to this sauce. Choose one that is brown without red food colouring.
How to use: Use as a dipping sauce, on noodles, or as a basting sauce for barbecued meats.
Chinese food staple: Chili Sauce
Chinese Chili Sauce is different from other Asian chili sauces as it is are not a paste. Chinese Chili Sauce is commonly made by steeping chopped, dried chilis in heated oil to allow the heat and colour of the chili to penetrate the oil. Because the chilis are dried, the heat is concentrated and smoky, and is usually very spicy.
What to look for: Look for Chinese Chili Sauces with more pulp than oil, as they are more flavourful.
How to use: Use it for dipping dumplings or to add to fried noodles.
Chinese food staple: Sesame Oil
Sesame oil is rich in aroma and flavour; a little goes a long way. Dark amber in colour and intensely aromatic, it can be cloying if used too liberally.
What to look for: Look for clarity and fragrance. Throw out your sesame sauce if it has become rancid or if it has sediment in the bottle.
How to use: Use sesame oil in salad dressing, drizzle it over noodles, or to marinate meats.
Inspired to cook with your new Chinese spices and sauces?
Try our delicious step-by-step Sweet and Sour Pineapple Chicken
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