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A Taste of China's Sauces - Part II
Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices
Fall Volume: 1997 Issue: 4(3) page(s): 17 and 20
Early on, my sisters exposed me to a variety of ethnic flavors. For that, I am lucky, also extremely grateful, because I grew up with an open mind about food. While I nibbled no sushi and sampled spicy Indian food, my friends were pigging out on hot dogs an pizza. My reward for good behavior was a night out on the town with my big sisters. When we went out to dinner they didn’t treat me as a tag-a-long; my age didn’t matter, we bonded and I became ‘one of them.'
Going out to eat was exciting especially when we were trying a cuisine new to us. Since my sisters were usually willing to try just about anything at least once, I enjoyed one culture shock after another. I always felt like I was going on a trip to some exotic faraway place where I would discover new and interesting things. My ticket to China was one of these first culinary expeditions, and until this day I can’t seem to get enough of the foods of this cuisine. My weakness for these foods is due entirely to the sauces they use. It is they that keep luring my taste buds to indulge in one Chinese feast after another.
Soy Sauce: I think it safe to say soy is one of the first Chinese sauces that most American palates experience. Everyone loves soy sauce–it is simple yet tasty. But most don’t realize the complexity of this ‘simple’ seasoning; there is definitely more than meets the eye. Soy sauce has graced the Chinese kitchen for at least three thousand years, changing in character with the progression of time. In an ancient state, it was a thin salty liquid in which fragments of fermented soybean floated. Today, it is strained to remove any traces of bean solid, and it’s processing is more involved. Aspergillus mold is injected into a mixture of cooked soybeans and wheat and is left to grow for several days. It is then mixed with a briny solution and placed in tanks where it is fermented and aged for six to twenty-four months after which the liquid is drained off.
Differences of flavor and texture are due to several factors ranging from the amount of wheat used in the original mixture to the temperature control or lack of it. Now, there is also more than one variety of which to choose from, and there are a few differences in types available that can alter the flavor as well as the consistency of your dish depending upon which you chose. Although there is essentially one type of soy sauce manufactured in the United States, Canada and Japan produce a number of varieties ranging in color, texture and flavor. The two standard categories of soy sauce are dark soy sauce and light soy sauce; which is not longer called light but rather thin soy sauce.
Light or thin soy sauce, also known to many as ‘superior’ soy sauce is lighter in color but definitely not in flavor. It delivers more salt than its darker counterpart and is the more commonly used soy sauce in Chinese cooking. It is often used as a table condiment, used in stir-fried dishes, and for soups where a light color and delicate taste are desired.
I find that dark soy sauce, also called ‘superior soy sauce’ has a thicker, more robust quality about it. I like to use it because it imparts a richer flavor and color to sauces. The darker variety is actually a light soy sauce with wheat flour, molasses and/or caramel added to provide a darker coloring and thicker texture. The dark sauce is also aged longer than the other which also contributes to the dark, almost black color. However, it is not to be confused with thick soy sauce or soy jam, also referred to as ‘heavy’ or ‘black’ soy. This has more of a syrupy consistency similar to that of honey.
Japanese soy sauce, called shoyu, is yet another type you might want to experiment with. The making this sauce was introduced in Japan by the Chinese over one thousand years ago. Despite the fact that the aging and fermenting process is similar to that of the Chinese soy; it contains more wheat and tastes sweeter which is why many people prefer Japanese over the Chinese varieties.
Soy sauce has certainly come a long way! Originally, one function was to preserve food so that it might be kept over the cold winter months. It remains an indispensable ingredient in Chinese cookery (and in my kitchen, as well) but for very different reasons. Now it is used primarily as a flavoring ingredient and acts as the base for many other Asian sauces. An extra benefit is the wonderful color and texture it provides. It is also very easy to find. It is available in most supermarkets and Asian grocery stores, but do avoid the American brands. Opt for the Chinese of Japanese varieties, they are of better quality and have a more authentic flavor. At home you can keep the sauce at room temperature (unless the bottle advises otherwise). I keep it stored away from direct light or heat as I do with other sauces. It should keep indefinitely without and change in quality or flavor.
Plum Sauce: Most people can not imagine eating at an Asian restaurant without dipping their spring roll or dunking noodle after noodles into some sweet and tangy duck sauce (also known as plum sauce or mei zi jiang, in Chinese). My friends and I have become so accustomed to starting off our Chinese meal with a bowl of crunchy noodles with hot mustard and plum sauce, that it has practically become a religion.
The Chinese have been growing and enjoying plums since ancient times. They even found a way to preserve the sweet, luscious fruit by combining them with a few odds and ends to create the fruity-jam-like sauce we know and love. Often it is made from a combination of dried plums and apricots, ginger, chili, vinegar, sugar, and other spices. It has the consistency of chutney and is often used as a table sauce for appetizers such as egg rolls and spring rolls, as well as barbecued meats.
Many times people are served duck sauce made from a mixture of apricots and some other fruit, not always ones made from plums. I know most of the Chinese restaurants in my neighborhood serve duck sauce made of a combination of apricots and peaches. Often people do not have the opportunity to experience the flavor of a true plum sauce unless they purchase a bottle of it themselves. Plum sauce can be found in Chinese supermarkets and grocery stores in cans or jars. I prefer the Chinese brands---the ones from Hong Kong are particularly good although they are a little harder to find but well worth the effort. If you purchase the sauce in a can, transfer to a jar and store it in the refrigerator, where it will last indefinitely.
Chili Bean Sauce: Chili peppers were introduce into the western regions of China some few hundreds of years ago, and they gained immediate popularity in the Chinese kitchen. The peppers were often prepared in the same manner as soybeans–-ground, salted then fermented into rich fiery pastes. Now there are many varieties of which to choose from, the basic ingredients include chilies, salt, oil, and often garlic. Of course, every Chinese chef has his own special variation of the sauce, adding ground soybeans or black beans, ginger, preserved radishes and vegetables, and other spices and condiments. This can make it quite an adventure when trying to find one that suits your needs. I always like to keep a bottle on hand for those times when I want to add a little ‘heat’ to my meal. However, I do take great caution when sampling a new brand for the first time. The labels usually do not indicate if the sauce is of a hot or a mild variety, so unless you already have a favorite, you should definitely sample a little before adding some to your recipe. Then you can always adjust the amount you use to your taste. Also note that soybeans predominate in the hotter pastes.
The first time you purchase this sauce, it may be a bit of a challenge what with all the varieties available. The flavor can differ dramatically from brand to brand, some possessing a spicy, slightly fruity flavor and others tasting simply awful with no balance of flavors. I prefer the Chinese brands, particularly the ones from the Sichuan province; and it is a good idea to experiment with different types to find ones that suits your taste. I also avoid pastes sold in plastic because I find that the packaging has a negative effect on the flavor. Chili bean sauce or paste can be found in most Oriental markets or grocery stores. It should be stored in the refrigerator after opening where it should keep indefinitely.
Overall: One can experiment and create one's own recipes when using these sauces. Once you find brands with the tastes and textures you prefer, you will want to use them regularly. Since every sauce has its own distinct wonderful flavor, the possibilities are endless, which is why I always find some way to incorporate one or another into my everyday meals. And, you will have no problem finding a way to add them to your regular menu items. Stay tuned for more on Chinese sauces!
Eva Koveos is an enthusiastic consumer, a food writer, and one with expertise in nutrition. This article is in four parts, check them all out.