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A Taste of Chinese Sauces - Part I

by Eva Koveos

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Summer Volume: 1997 Issue: 4(2) page(s): 7, 8, and 18

If I had to choose what my favorite element of Chinese cookery is, the answer would be the sauces. No way could I enjoy eating a Chinese meal half as much as I do if there was no dunking of noodles in a little duck sauce (really made from plums and used with duck) nor would enjoyment exist without the tang of soy sauce even in my Chop Suey. The beauty of it is needed to make food burst with flavor--a little goes a long way. However, too much can overpower a dish rather than complement it, so beware of a heavy hand. Here is the first in what I hope will be a series of articles dedicated to classic Chinese sauces in honor of the pleasure they bring to palates throughout the world. For this issue, three favorites start things off, they are hoisin, oyster and black bean sauce. All are used throughout China, but they are especially popular in southern China.

Hoisin Sauce: On occasion, you can fine me yearning for sizzling spareribs smeared with hoisin sauce. That is when I know it is time to call a friend and indulge together in a Chinese feast. Chinese spareribs just would not be the same without friends and this classic sweet and spicy blend of ingredients. This rich, thick, reddish-brown sauce is actually a combination of whole or ground bean sauce mashed with garlic, chili peppers, salt, and various other spices and ingredients. It is sometimes referred to as barbecue sauce but is in no means similar in taste to any barbecue sauce popular in the West. It would be unwise to substitute one for the other and expect a comparable flavor. After brushing some of this sauce on meats ready for grilling, people would not want to go back to the typical American barbecue flavor because it lacks much when compared to hoisin.

Ironically hoisin means 'sea-freshness' sauce in Chinese, but it contains no trace of seafood and usually is not served with it; rather it is popular in Chinese dishes containing poultry and pork. As mentioned earlier, it is best used as part of a paste or marinade for meats to be grilled or roasted. If you have eaten Spareribs or Roast Duck in a Chinese restaurant, you know its sweet, tangy flavor, and can recognize when hoisin sauce has been used on meat because of the bright red color it imparts. This color is due to natural red rice which is usually an ingredient in the best of brands.

Due to increasing popularity, hoisin sauce is no longer limited to Chinese groceries. It is fairly easy to find and I have seen it in international food sections at various supermarkets. Look for it in cans or jars and be assured that it can be kept indefinitely if stored in the refrigerator. If you buy the canned commodity, place it in a jar with a tight-fitting lid to protect against drying. Keep in mind that ingredients and flavor vary from brand to brand as does texture. The best thing to do is experiment with different brands until you find a texture and flavor you want to stick with.

Oyster Sauce:
Oyster sauce is very different in character from hoisin but it is delicious, too. You may have tasted this rich, thick dark brown sauce in a stir-fry dish or one coupled with beef or shrimp at your favorite Chinese Restaurant. If you never experienced this fine sauce, be sure not to miss it again.

In the past, fresh oysters were boiled, seasoned with soy sauce, salt and other spices and preserved. Together, these ingredients created this ancient flavor. Although the cooking process did get rid of the fishy flavor, some kinds of oyster sauce are on the salty side while others have much less salt than soy sauce. Today, if the label says "oyster flavored sauce" and the ingredients mention water, oyster extractive, sugar, cornstarch, and monosodium glutamate, caramel coloring, and as a preservative 0.1% sodium benzoate. Oysters themselves are missing, the protein content confirms this with zero grams of protein and everything sodium; that comes in at seven hundred forty milligrams per tablespoon in one premium brand on our shelf.

The Chinese use oyster sauce as a seasoning in stir-fried dishes, with seafood and poultry, and in soups. Its rich, savory flavor is perfect when combined with a bit of oil or water and used as a dipping sauce. It can be found in Chinese supermarkets and groceries, and usually is in bottles. Opt for more expensive brands, they are of better quality and often not as salty as cheaper varieties that contain more flour and less cornstarch. Oyster sauce should always be stored in the refrigerator after opening. There, it has a long shelf life.

Black Bean Sauce: Do you think that Chinese black beans are the very black beans used in Western cooking, well they are not. They are actually black soybeans that have been boiled until soft and inoculated with some Aspergillus oryzae mold. They are then stored in brine for about six months. Later they can be flavored with orange peel, shreds of ginger or even five spice powder, should the manufacturer so desire. Have you heard them referred to as fermented black beans, salted black beans and occasionally ginger black beans? They are all one and the same. Called shi in early texts, these beans are about the oldest recorded soy food. At one point, they were the only soy food used throughout China. Much has changed since then; now they are especially popular in the south and widely used in Cantonese cooking.

If you have not cooked with Chinese black beans, you should try them steamed, braised or in stir-fried dishes using meat, poultry or vegetables. For maximum aroma and flavor, the beans should be crushed or chopped slightly and added to food. Some people rinse them first, I find this step unnecessary, so do many Chinese chefs. If you purchase the dried salty kind, be cautious when adding other salty ingredients, that can make a dish much to salty.

Black beans can be found in Chinese supermarkets or groceries, usually in eight-ounce plastic bags, they can also be found in cans. I prefer those in bags inside a yellwo cardboard container. Feel through the bag before purchasing choosing beans soft to the touch. For maximum shelf life, store yours in the refrigerator or in a cool place away from light, heat, or moisture.

Do not limit the use of these sauces to Chinese cooking, experiment and create your own recipes. Using these savory sauces as a base, they are sure to deliver on flavor, compliments too. Look for more Chinese sauce information in future issues of Flavor and Fortune. Three recipes follow adapted from An Encyclopedia of Chinese Food and Cooking by Wonona and Irving Chang and Helene and Austin Kutscher. They are rewritten in the style of recipes in this magazine.
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.
Chicken Wings with Hoisin Sauce
3 Tablespoons peanut oil
1 scallion
3 slices fresh ginger
1 clove fresh garlic, minced
8 chicken wings, disjointed with tails discarded
1 and 1/2 Tablespoons hoisin sauce
3 Tablespoons soy sauce
2 teapsoons sherry
1/2 teaspoon salt
1. Heat oil and fry sacllion, ginger, and garlic for half minute.
2. Add wings and brown for about three minutes.
3. Add the rest of the ingredients, cover and cook over low heat for twenty minutes, stirring occasionally, until wings are tender.
Shrimp Balls in Oyster Sauce
1 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined
6 water chestnuts
1/4 cup bamboo shoots, chopped
1 egg white
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 Tablespoon dry sherrry
1/2 teaspoon salt
dash of ground white pepper
1/4 cup oyster sauce
2 cups corn oil
1 scallion, choopped
1. Chop shrimp and mix with all but the last three ingredients. Let rest half an hour in the refrigerator.
2. Heat oil in a large saucepan to about 350 degrees F. Then using tow spoons, make balls of the shrimp mixture and deep fry them until golden; drain them on paper towels then put them on a serving plate.
3. Heat the oster sauce (the microwave oven works wonderfully for this) and pour it over the shrimp balls, then garnis with the minced scallion.
Serves six.
Beef with Bitter Melon and Black Beans
1/2 pound flank steak, sliced into thin strips
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
2 teaspoons dry sherry
dash of sugar
1/4 teaspoon peanut oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons corn oil
2 Tablespoons salted black beans
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 small bitter melon, seeded and sliced thin
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 scallions, sliced
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 cup chicken stock
1. Mix meat, cornstarch, soy sauce, sherry, and the dash of sugar. and let this stand for fifteen minutes.
2. Heat oil and lightly brown the black beans and the garlic.
3. Add meat mixture and brown lightly. Then add the bitter melon and fry for two minutes.
4. Add the soy sauce, sugar, scallions, and stir-fry another minute or two. Mix cornstarch and stock and add stirring until the mixtuere clears and thickens, then serve.

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