The authentic Chinese dishes are known to deliver a balance of flavors, defined texture and perfect color. All these thanks to the right choices of seasonings and ingredients we use.
In addition, let’s not forget the cooking skills passed down to us from generation to generation.
Ours is a history of articulation in the way we prepare our food because we have a great history for each meal.
Each ingredient we choose is also because we are looking for balance or what we best refer to as yin yang.
The article here is going to show you our seasonings and hopefully help ease the process of making Chinese meals at home.
What Is Seasoning?
Most people just think that seasoning is just salt and pepper but its more than your regular salt. In a nutshell, it includes all the spices, salt and pepper. The major thing is that it creates a balance and deep flavors for your meals.
In fact, the seasoning is what will differentiate a beginner from a novice cook.
Let’s start with the obvious which is salt. This is probably the most popular of the seasonings that cut across every other meal across the globe. In China, however, the common feature is that our meals use a lot of salt.
- The rock sugar
From the name, this is basically the crystallized sugar that you use in various Chinese recipes. It’s opaque and normally golden in color. The other feature is that it comes in varying sizes. Its taste is not as sweet as the regular granulated sugar.
Most Chinese prefer it to other granulated sugar because it never influences the flavor of the meal or drink. Since we loved and still love food and herbs as medicine, we use rock sugar as a sweetener.
Today, we use it to braise meat and sweeten stir-fries. The reason why it doesn’t break easily is that the sugarcane is cooked to a point where it begins to color.
- White sugar
This is your regular sugar that is made from sugarcane. It has a high level of sweetness which is essential for reducing the sourness of your meals. It further will sweeten any meal you desire. Moreover, it aids in the coloring of your meal.
The sugar is an essential piece when you are making pastries and sweets. It adds luster and adherence to the meal.
- The five-spice powder
This is a must-have in most of the meals. The five-spice powder is basically a blend of cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise and Sichuan peppercorns. This powder is mostly used when you need to marinate your meats or braise them.
Remember to add only a little bit at a time especially if you are new to the recipe. Some people will even add the ginger, licorice and nutmeg to the five-spice recipe. I like making my own from scratch but if you wish you can buy them in all Asian stores.
Although it’s part of the five-spice powder, there are some recipes that call for the single ingredient. Sichuan peppercorn is a popular ingredient among the Sichuanese.
In fact, before the Portuguese docked into the country, the peppercorns were the source of hotness in various Chinese meals.
The peppercorn is popular for giving you the numbing sensation which is also called Ma sensation. They further give you that extra kick, color and balance. My favorite dish that uses this ingredient is ma po tofu.
- Star anise
Whenever you are going for the slow cooking process, the star anise is the best choice to go for. This product has the shape of an eight-pointed star. The star anise is rich and it has the licorice aroma.
Star anise will bring out the flavors of the meat when you are braising it. This is a traditional Chinese herb that was used in Chinese medicine. Its essence is to cure common colds and flu. It works the same way the five-spice powder does.
There’s a difference between the regular cinnamon and the Chinese one. It’s thicker and greyer in color. You may confuse it for tree bark. It, however, doesn’t have the strong aroma that other cinnamon sticks do.
The sticks are used in braised dishes, stews and marinades. You may have it in its whole form or powder state. I like to grind my sticks before using them in the meals.
- The cloves
This is one of the five spice powder and it has a very strong and pungent flavor. The cloves have a sweet aroma and you may use it in both its ground state and the whole state. Cloves are commonly used in western and Asian recipes.
Basically, you pick the cloves by hand and then dry them before you can use them in your food or medicine. Cloves work as your source of warmth in a yin deficient body.
- Fennel seeds
This one is another one of the Chinese five spice powder ingredients. Your fennels bulbs, stalks and fronds are all edible. It will season all your blends and meals from the Mediterranean and different parts of China.
You may decide to roast the seeds before you blend them into your food. I specifically love its flavor in meat dishes. Its flavor is like that of aniseeds and it can be described as warm and sweet. In fact, it’s less pungent.
- Monosugar glutamate
This seasoning enhances the freshness of your meal. It’s basically a white crystalline seasoning that is also soluble in water. Monosugar glutamate has the essence of enhancing the flavor of different kinds of food as well as the processed ones.
The flavor it adds is mostly referred to as the umami flavors. You will find MSG in most of the fermented foods and sauces. Nevertheless, there are a number of people who react to the use of MSG.
Such people should opt for other alternatives to give your food the same effect MSG does.
- White pepper
White peppers and black peppers come from the same seeds except for white pepper the seed coats are removed. Notice that when the outer skin is removed, it delivers a totally different flavor.
The seasoning is more popular in the Chinese recipes than the black pepper is. It’s mostly used in soups and sauces. In addition, the ingredient is used in any white dishes like potatoes and eggs.
The characteristic we are reaching for when using the white pepper is its spicy and fruity nature that isn’t overpowering. Both the white pepper and black pepper may substitute each other when the ingredients aren’t calling for a lot of spiciness.
It’s a herb seasoning that is amongst the most popularly used ingredient in the Chinese cuisine. It’s particularly effective because it not only adds some level of heat to your meal but also enhances its flavor.
The herb is often used to season meat, fish and different kinds of veggies. My favorite Chinese recipe that uses ginger is ginger milk pudding. Ginger is sold in powdered form, dry or pickled form.
I like using the fresh ginger because it gives you the rich and authentic flavor with some flowery taste and scent.
Garlic is another must have seasoning herb for most of the Chinese meals. If there are two ingredients that you will never miss in all the Asian cooking styles its garlic and ginger. Garlic normally infuses a pungent flavor to your food.
Aside from enriching the flavors of your food, garlic has long won hearts over for its medicinal properties. It’s mostly used to cure colds, lower your blood pressures among others. Whenever you need to cook with garlic, you need to crush it into a paste.
Although you may find it being sold in powder form, this one is not as rich as the fresh one. Lucky for you the herb will last so long on your pantry.
- Dried red chili pepper
The Chinese like most other Asian countries like their meals being hot and spicy. This small dried version is quite hot and suits most of the Hunan recipes. For most of the people looking for the hot and spicy meals, its color matters in cuisines like the Sichuan cuisine.
A good sauce/condiment that requires the solid use of the red pepper is the Sichuan oil. When you take good care of them your results are nicely hot and spicy.
You will also find fresh coriander in most of the major recipes in China. This is a herb that has all its parts being edible. It comes in form of leaves and seeds and they are both usable in the major recipes although the leaves are popularly used than the seeds.
The coriander or parsley or cilantro has a pungent flavor with a peppery accent. It further normally has the curry and citrus flavor. It has hints of nuttiness. The leaves are the best for garnishing while you may add the seeds to various recipes.
It’s easy to mistake the galangal for ginger. They, however, have the feature difference in that galangal has various rings around it that ginger doesn’t. The herb has an aromatic bitterness for the flavor.
Although it’s not as common in China as it is in Thai cuisine, you will find it being used in various recipes.
This is more popular across China as a seasoning agent. Although I love it in its powdered state, you will find it being used as whole seeds. It comes in orange color with an earthy flavor. It further has a bitter and spicy taste. It’s mostly used in making the Chinese lamb skewers.
- Black cardamom
Although this is quite popular in Indian cuisine, it’s also popular in Chinese cuisine. The black cardamom is black in color and has a rich flavor which you may use for your soups and sauces.
While you may use it with all the dishes that require green cardamom, it doesn’t work with sweet dishes. It comes with a strong, smoky flavor which is a result of the smoking done to it during the drying.
- White cardamom
It’s equally common in Chinese cooking. You may attribute this to its floral aromatic flavors. When ground you may use it for your curry powder. This cardamom is used for braising your liquids and making other aromatic soups.
The white cardamom has a menthol flavor which you use in various dishes.
- Licorice roots
Although this is popularly used for Chinese medicine, it’s also popular with your broths and sauces. It further flavors the braised dishes. When it comes to Chinese medicine, the roots were used to sweeten it.
For your food, remember to use it in minimal amounts since it has adverse effects on your body.
- Sesame seeds
We love the nutty flavors that the sesame seeds deliver. In fact, it’s the most essential type that you should have on your list. This seeds you may use in almost all kinds of meals. However, you want to remember that the sesame is generally so strong that it may overpower your meal.
You can use it on your sweet treats, pastry and bakery but you may also use it to garnish your food. You will find it in black or white and luckily, they are heat tolerant. You can further get them in their toasted form or untoasted ones.
Use it to make the Chinese sesame balls.
- Dried orange/tangerine peel
You will normally see the Chinese people saving the peel from either oranges or tangerine. They later dry them and the result is used in the different meals. It’s mostly used when making braises and stews amidst other spices.
When drying the peels don’t you worry when you notice that the peels have darkened further because this leads to the enhancement of flavors to the meal. You may also buy them in the Asian stores if you like.
Use the peels to make meals like orange chicken.
- Prickly ash seeds
This features the reddish-brown cones that come from the prickly ash tree. It causes the ma la sensation to your mouth. The seeds are used when you want to get rid of the fish odor. The seeds are popular in the Sichuan cuisine.
When you want to use the seeds, you should heat your wok with oil and when it’s hot enough put the seeds and then remove the seeds when they turn black. Aside from enriching your meal flavors the seeds also help to dispel the cold, remove your dampness and get rid of the pain.
- Soy sauce
Soy sauce is a must-have in the Chinese and other Asian styles of cooking. If you won’t use any other seasoning at least make sure you have the soy sauce as it packs different flavors.
Soy sauce comes in different types. There are the light and dark soy sauce, thick and thin soy sauce et cetera. All the different kinds are used in your different meals. You may use soy sauce as a dipping sauce, for your marination and stir-fries among others.
One thing you should know however is that soy sauce normally has sodium which means that you should limit your use of salt in your meal when using it.
- Oyster sauce
This is made from the oysters and that’s where the name comes from. This is to say that if you aren’t a fun of oysters, the sauce may not be a good option for you. People love it because of its rich umami flavors.
This will make the dish taste even better with only a few drops. You may use it in almost all kinds of dishes but especially fish or seafood meals. I like it in the steamed garlic pork ribs meals.
- Sesame oil
Although this is a kind of oil, it works more as a seasoning agent than the regular oil. Note that, you add it towards the end of your cooking process. It will deliver a rich nutty flavor. Just know that the oil has a strong flavor that may overpower your meal flavors.
Since it has a low heating point it shouldn’t be used for high heat cooking.
This one is mostly used in the Sichuan style of cooking. Its essence is to improve the flavors of your meal. It has anise level of spiciness which means that the paste may act as a great option for the spiciness when you are looking for an alternative.
It’s made using fermented beans and it comes in spicy and salty. Use the paste in the twice cooked pork or mapo tofu.
- Sweet and sour sauce
This one will excite your taste buds because it blends two different flavors in one sauce. It’s best known for minimizing the greasy flavors while it improves your meals delicate texture. The sauce is thick and cherry red in color.
You can buy the sauce in the shops although making it at home is equally easy as long as you know which ingredients gives you which flavors. You may use vinegar and specifically the red wine vinegar and rice wine vinegar for the sourness of the sauce.
On the other hand, sugar, corn syrup, jelly, marmalade and fruit juice are responsible for the sweetness of the sauce. Use this sauce for the sweet n sour pork spare ribs.
Of course, there are a number of meals that call for the use of vinegar. You prepare the vinegar when you ferment the rice, corn or broomcorn. There are the black or reddish-brown vinegar and other colorless types.
The black vinegar is often used where you want to enrich the color and you are looking for stronger flavors. You will find it mostly used in marinades. White vinegar on the other side is used on almost every meal that calls for vinegar.
It helps to reduce the saltiness of the meal and therefore balancing the flavors.
- Chinese cooking wine
This comes in a yellowish-brown color and it’s mostly made using the sticky rice and millet. The wine is great when it comes to increasing the sweet aroma of the meal. The other advantage is that it will keep your food fresher for longer.
For effectivity add your wine when the food and wok reach its highest heating point. It further acts as a tenderizer in your meat marinades. It works even better for your aquatic meals. for substitutions, you may use beer.
- Hoisin sauce
The best way to describe this sauce is that it’s a thick, dark brown sauce that is pungent with a sweeter flavor. The sauce is great for marination and making your different sauces as well as acting as a dipping sauce.
You may also use it in your stir fry meals. If you love the Peking duck you will know why I’m talking about the hoisin sauce. while the sauce has a little bit of the spiciness to it, people take it for its sweetness.
- Chili sauce
You should know by now that the Chinese love it hot and spicy and for this reason, the chili sauce is a must-have sauce. It’s made using chilis, salt and pepper. Other ingredients may include the garlic and ginger et cetera.
The sauce is used when cooking different foods but you may also use it as a dipping sauce. Its essence is to give your meal the heat.
- Dried shiitake mushroom
Another one of the must-have ingredients in the Chinese cooking is the shiitake mushroom. The ingredient is used because it will add umami flavors to your meal. The flavor of the dried version here is so concentrated that you can’t even use the fresh version.
Whenever you are making the hot and sour soup, remember to use the dried shiitake mushroom as this will give you a big difference in flavors. You may further use it in your clay pot rice and noodles.
- Peanut oil
You should know that we like to use different kinds of oils for different meals. Peanut oil is good for high heat cooking which means that you may use it for your stir fries to enhance the flavors. There’s a complete difference when you use the peanut oil in dishes like stir-fried cabbage.
Although vegetable oil is more common, using peanut oil makes it tastier.
- Bay leaves
Last on our list is the bay leaves. This features an aromatic spice that you may use to flavor your soups and sauces. It further has the mild menthol scent which you use to round up your soup’s flavors.
All you need from the leaves is its aroma and flavors, therefore, you should remove the tough leaves after your food is cooked.
These aren’t the only seasonings used in Chinese cooking. Rather they are the most common ones. If you know how to use the seasonings, then you will know when to use whichever seasoning you use.
Otherwise, the whole Chinese cooking process may seem daunting. Remember, you are reaching for the yin yang balance in each meal.