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Seasonings, Spices, and Other Flavorings

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Fall Volume: 2018 Issue: 25(3) pages: 34 to 37

Confucius did say he would never eat anything not well seasoned; and he meant not seasoned with a good sauce. Those who want well-flavored Chinese food should take his words to heart. All Chinese cooking should have ‘deep penetrating flavor.’ It should use one or more seasonings, cooking methods, sauces, spices, herbs, and when appropriate, one or more reconstituted dried foods drained well. All seasonings can enhance the flavor of a dish, and here are some thoughts about them.

In China, the practice of using herbs or other seasonings probably did begin more than five thousand years ago. Then, they were used medicinally. That was long before Fo Hi, a Chinese emperor, knew he and his people were using thousands of them as remedies. They did so early on, probably long before 2700 BCE. Why that year? Because then, a Chinese book translated as The Classic Herbal mentions one hundred spices and herbs for medicinal purposes. Some were also added to foods as were essences or extracts of ground spices mixed with alcohol as were emulsions or spices mixed with essential oils. One of the most distinct and appreciated was from an evergreen tree and called star anise. Botanically known as Illicium verum, the Chinese like it in soups, stocks, and main dishes as it has a taste similar to licorice or anise seed and they do use it to flavor marbled eggs and other foods, herbal teas, many foods, and many medicines, too.

We recommend storing it in small glass containers. That is better than keeping it in plastic ones. Some Chinese also chew it as a digestive or use it to sweeten their breath. It can also be found in many Chinese bakery items, fruit dishes, and liqueurs. It is also one ingredient in five-spice powder; the others often are cassia, cloves, fennel, and Sichuan peppercorn known botanically as Zanthoxylum simulans>/i>. Some call it fagara, wild pepper, Chinese pepper, flower pepper, or anise pepper. It is the dried berries of the prickly ash tree; tastes sharp, numbs the tongue, and is best when reddish brown. There are other popular Chinese flavorings, and we suggest you get to know and use them all. Below we group them for convenience and use.

Basic Chinese Seasonings include salt, pepper, vinegar, regular and sesame oil, wine, soy sauce, sugar, flavored oils, various starches called flours such as cornstarch, water chestnut flour, lotus, sweet potato, and other flours. Try them and others, one at a time of course, and not in the same dish each time. Their thickening abilities and their flavors are all different.

Spices include whole or ground star anise, Sichuan peppercorn, five-spice powder, cassia or cinnamon bark, chili peppers and chili powders, curry powder, orange and tangerine peel, nutmeg, mustard seed, saffron, sesame seeds, turmeric, allspice, cumin, fennel, cloves, and various spice blends. They can be used for stewing, red-cooking, stir-frying, and with other cooking techniques.

Herbs include fresh and dried ginger, garlic and garlic chives, the latter some know as Chinese chives, cilantro, onions, chives, and sweet basil. These are the most common ones used for marinating, stir-frying, and garnishing, and in dipping sauces.

Sauces includes soy sauce, oyster sauce, fermented black bean sauce, chili bean sauce, yellow bean sauce, sa cha sauce, sweet and sour sauces, wine sauces, and Hunan sauce, Sichuan sauce, and other sauces.

Dried Items such as shrimp, scallops which the Chinese call conpoy>/i>, fish, squid, many different mushrooms, cabbage, cured meats, and more all need soaking, squeezing excess water out, and reserving this liquid for other uses. It can be set aside or used in total in soups and sauces that are then stir-fried or steamed in many different preparations. Regionally, northern cuisine generally uses one or more bean sauces with or without garlic, onions, leeks, and/or scallions. Eastern cuisine uses red-cooked sauces marinated before or after cooking alone or with cut meats, and in making snacks and pastries. Cantonese cuisine uses many seafood sauces in casseroles, stir-fried dishes, and snack foods alone or mixed with other foods, or with oyster sauce, black bean sauce, sa cha sauce and others.

All Chinese cooking uses seasonings before or during the cooking of a dish. They rarely use them after their foods are cooked. Meats are often marinated before cooking to tenderize them and/or increase their taste. When dishes have light tastes, they can add soy sauce or sesame oil, a teaspoon of sugar and/or a little chicken broth to increase their taste. Half teaspoon of black bean sauce with or without sesame oil is another possibility, as is some five-spice powder.

Five-Spice Powder

3 to 5 whole star anise
1 Tablespoon fennel seeds
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
2 three-inch pieces of cassia or cinnamon
½ teaspoon coriander seeds
½ teaspoon cumin seeds


1. This can include small amounts of: ground licorice root, dried ginger, whole white peppercorns, dried thyme, seeded dried chili pepper or cayenne powder, coriander seeds, a bay leaf or two, salt, black onion seeds, and/or brown sugar.
2. Grind selected items and store in a glass jar.
3. Shake the mixture before using it. It can keep for two to four months.

Lamb Patties

½ pound minced of finely chopped lamb
2 medium potatoes, boiled and mashed
5 water chestnuts, smashed well
1 egg
4 Tablespoons cornstarch
3 scallions, slivered
salt and pepper, to taste
1 Tablespoon black bean sauce
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil


1. Mix lamb, mashed potatoes, smashed water chestnuts, egg, cornstarch, slivered scallions, and salt and pepper, to taste, then shape into five meat patties.
2. Mix black bean sauce and the soy sauce and brush a little on each side of each patty.
3. Heat wok or fry pan, add the oil, put the patties in the oil and fry until golden on each side.

Frizzled Leeks

½ cup vegetable oil
2 large leeks, each cut in half, then into five-inch lengths, and finally in very thin strips
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
dash of coarse salt


1. Heat a wok or fry pan, add the oil, and fry the matchsticks of leek until golden brown. Next remove to paper towels.
2. Sprinkle on five-spice powder and serve.

Eggs and Loquat Conpoy

3 conpoy, soaked for two hours, steamed with one tablespoon rice wine and one slice fresh ginger slivered for one hour, cooled and torn in thin shreds
2 Tablespoons water chestnut flour
1/4 pound crab meat
1 scallion, slivered
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
6 eggs, beaten well


1. Steam and prepare the conpoy; and when dry, shred it.
2. Mix water chestnut flour with crab meat, shredded conpoy, and the slivered scallions.
3. Grease two or three ceramic soup spoons with oil and then add beaten eggs to the conpoy mixture. Steam it in these spoons over boiling water for six minutes, cool slightly, then remove these spoon-shaped items.
4. Heat a wok or fry pan, add the remaining oil, and panfry these pieces on each side until lightly colored, then se as is or in other dishes.

Sesame Noodles

½ cup smooth peanut butter or sesame paste
3 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
3 Tablespoons minced fresh ginger
2 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 Tablespoon Chinese black vinegar
2 Tablespoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon honey
3 Tablespoons lotus flour
½ teaspoon chili pepper flakes
½ pound thin wheat or rice noodles, cooked and drained
3 scallions, slivered
1 red pepper. Seeded and slivered
3 Tablespoons toasted sesame seeds


1. Put peanut butter or sesame paste, thin soy sauce, fresh ginger, garlic cloves, black vinegar, sesame oil, honey, lotus flour, and chili pepper flakes into a blender and blend until smooth, then transfer to a glass bowl or jar.
2. Mix drained noodles and rinse quickly under cool water, then mix with the scallions, red pepper slivers, and the toasted sesame seeds.
3. Put some blended sauce on some noodles and toss them, then serve to each person.

Chinese Spice Rub

1 star anise, broken in pieces
1 Tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1 Tablespoon ground smoked paprika
½ teaspoon cayenne powder
½ teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns


1. Put all ingredients into a dry clean spice grinder. Turn it on an off until no large pieces are visible, but do not grind it too finely.
2. Then store it in small glass jars in a cool dark location, and use when and as needed. We use several small jars so it is not exposed to too much air by their frequently being opened.

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