The art of balance is apparent in every authentic Chinese dish — the cold and the hot, the sweet and the sour, the subtle and the pungent. And while the exotic, full flavors of Chinese cooking make a dish seem indulgent, at its core it's a frugal cuisine — making use of local, in-season foods and on-hand ingredients.
Chinese specialties vary according to geographic regions--hearty root vegetables, cabbages and grains in northern China (Beijing); sweets and seafoods in Shanghai on the eastern coast; exotic vegetables and fruits in Guangzhou (formerly Canton); and spicy hot pork, poultry, and vegetarian fare in the western Sichuan area. All are beautifully seasoned with what always seems to be exactly the right combination of spices.
Essential Spices for Chinese Cooking
Here are the spices most commonly found in Chinese cooking:
- Five-Spice Powder: Also called five-flavor powder or five-fragrance spice powder, this aromatic, exotic blend is both pungently spicy and slightly sweet. The number five has special medicinal implications for the Chinese. In this case, it signifies five ingredients: cinnamon, star anise, cloves, fennel and peppercorns.
- Ginger: Fragrant and sweetly spicy, ginger has been used in Chinese cooking since ancient times. You'll find it in Chinese soups, dressings, sauces, relishes, marinades and pickles, and with poultry, vegetables, meats and seafood. It's used in "thousand year old" duck egg recipes and a variety of other traditional fare. Some Chinese recipes call for powdered ginger, for others you can grate your own ginger root as needed.
- Star Anise: These lovely, star-shaped pods have a warm, spicy, licorice-like flavor — more robust than anise seed. The pods aren't eaten whole but are used to infuse dishes (like sauces and soups) with flavor. It's often used to season pressed bean curd, as well as meats and poultry, stews and braising sauces.
- Chilies: While these hot peppers are relatively new to Chinese cuisine (they originate in the Americas), they're now very popular with Chinese cooks, especially in western and northern China. They're used to season oil for stir-fries, and to make chili and other sauces.
- Chili Powder: This pungent powder is often combined with Szechwan peppers in Chinese dishes. It's a spicy, aromatic blend of chili peppers, cumin, salt, garlic, coriander, allspice, cloves, and oregano.
- Cinnamon: Wonderfully aromatic and rich, cinnamon is enjoyed in a variety of Chinese recipes, and in particular braised dishes. It's also a crucial ingredient in five-spice powder. Chinese recipes often call for cinnamon sticks or bark; be sure to remove them before serving.
- Hot Mustard: The sharp, horseradish-like taste of dry mustard can be used to add kick to sauces and marinades, relishes and condiments. It works well with other strong spices. Brown mustard seed is hotter than yellow. Toasting the seed brings out a nutty (rather than hot) flavor.
- Cilantro: A staple ingredient in southern China, this pungent, fragrant seasoning is the leaf of the coriander plant. It's also called Chinese parsley, and it's similarly used to garnish as well as flavor foods. While the flavor is pungent, it dissipates a bit with cooking.
- Curry Powder: Chinese curries tend to be a bit milder than Indian curries. Use a ready-made blend for convenience, or develop your own mix of spices (like chilies, cumin, ginger, celery seed, pepper, cloves, caraway, turmeric, paprika, fenugreek, garlic, mace, and/or lemon peel) to customize your dish.
- Orange Peel: Fresh citrus peel (orange and tangerine) is found in Chinese markets; dried can be used to add the same fresh zest to recipes. To use, rehydrate the peel in warm water for about 20 minutes.
- Garlic: Chinese cooks use garlic to flavor oils and sauces, and you'll find it in most any stir-fry. Garlic works well when paired with another strong ingredient, like scallions, ginger, or curry. Garlic flakes, powder, and granules offer convenience.
- Salt: Much of the saltiness of Chinese recipes comes from the liberal use of soy sauce, but Chinese cooks also use sea salt, which is found in many Chinese markets. The minerals in the salt (which are taken out of common table salt) are thought to contribute to the flavor of the salt.
- Onions: Like garlic and scallions, onions are used in a wide variety of Chinese dishes, and stir-fries in particular. Onion flakes, powder, and granules are convenient ways to stock up.
By the way, you'll find MSG (monosodium glutamate or wei-ching) in a number of Chinese recipes, but good spices make the crystalline chemical — used to enhance flavors — unnecessary.
Other Key Ingredients
- Agar Agar: A flavorless, dried seaweed, agar agar is used much like unflavored gelatin to make desserts and salads. To use, cook it in water until dissolved, then chill.
- Chicken Broth: Clear broth is often used as a base for soups and sauces in Chinese fare. Chicken broth powder is a convenient way to keep delicious stock on hand.
- Cornstarch: Traditional Chinese cooks use bean flour, but modern cooks rely on cornstarch or arrowroot to thicken and bind sauces. Usually, the cornstarch is blended with cold water to form a smooth paste and then added to the sauces. While it's milky white to begin with, it soon turns clear and shiny as the sauce thickens. Cornstarch is also used to coat foods (and give them a velvety texture) for deep-frying. It results in a crisper coating than flour.
- Arrowroot: Modern Chinese cooks use arrowroot or cornstarch to thicken and bind sauces. Arrowroot thickens sauces immediately, and it doesn't need to be cooked to remove its raw flavor. To use, combine well with a small amount of water and add to your stock. Cook, stirring well, for about a minute. Continue until desired thickness.
- Sesame Seeds: Popular in northern and western China, sesame seeds are often toasted in a dry skillet to enhance their nutty flavor. They're also made into a paste or oil, and they're used in both hot and cold dishes, as well as a topping for pastries. In southeast China, the sesame is used primarily in sweets.
- Chinese Teas: China green tea and China black tea are enjoyed with Chinese meals and on their own.
Chinese Cooking Accessories
You might find ginger graters and mortars and pestles helpful while making Chinese cuisine.