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What Is Chinese Cuisine?
Chinese cooking contains multitudes: In Beijing and Shandong, there are echoes of imperial cuisine and a focus on fresh seafood. There’s Cantonese, or Guangdong, cuisine, perhaps the most familiar to Westerners who frequent Chinese restaurants, with dishes like char siu and beef chow fun. To the west, Muslim influences and halal prevail. In southern regions, there’s a preference for tangy flavors shared by its South Asian neighbors, and the central regions feature spice-laden dishes of Szechuan and Hunan, like dan dan noodles.
Which Aromatics Are Common in Chinese Cooking?
Most cuisines have some version of a “holy trinity,” a combination of recurring base ingredients that form the foundation for many dishes. In Chinese cuisine, these ingredients include fresh ginger, fresh garlic, and spring onions (scallions), with the occasional addition of chiles. Dried aromatics like shiitake mushrooms and various forms of seafood, like scallops, are also a valuable source of flavor when added to soups, stews, and braises. The concentrated flavor of dried aromatics has an immediate impact on any dish—or, rehydrate shiitakes with a braise and serve them a dish with unmatched umami.
11 Traditional Chinese Ingredients
Fresh ingredients, a few staple seasoning options, and simple techniques—like stir-frying, braising, or steaming—tie homemade Chinese food together.
- Cooking wine. Shaoxing wine, or rice wine, is made from fermented glutinous rice and can be used for both drinking and cooking; higher-end bottles, which are notoriously difficult to come by outside of China, are reserved for the former. A good Shaoxing wine showcases all the nutty, caramelized flavors of oxidized wine, which is why dry sherry is a perfectly good substitution when steaming seafood, braising meat and vegetables, or making a broth for wonton dumpling soup.
- Fermented black bean sauce takes those flavors a step further into a potent, addictive cooking sauce made with dried chilies, cooking wine, soy sauce, brown sugar, and cornstarch (used as a general thickener) that complements everything from grilled meats to stir-fried vegetables like eggplant.
- Five-spice powder is an invaluable spice blend throughout Chinese cooking that hits on the full range of flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. The most common ingredients in Chinese five-spice blends you’ll find in grocery stores are star anise, cloves, ground cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorn, and fennel seed, but depending on where you are, you might find additions (or swaps) like ginger root, licorice, nutmeg, cumin, cardamom, dried orange peel, cassia, turmeric, and galangal. Five-spice is used across all regional Chinese cuisines, in dishes like stir-fry, rich stews, marinades, and roasted meats—it’s also what gives Peking duck its signature savory tang and brilliant color.
- Hoisin sauce is a dark, thick sauce that contains fermented soybean paste. Bolstered by starches like potato, rice, and wheat, as well as spices and sweeteners like fennel, chilies, garlic, and brown sugar, hoisin is a thick, sweet and savory sauce most used as a marinade or glaze, though it can also be used as a dip or condiment for dishes like Peking duck or cheung fan, rice noodle rolls.
- Oyster sauce is a thick, glossy sauce made with oyster extract that adds a sweet note of brine to steamed and stir-fried vegetables. Fermented black beans, much like the shrimp paste used in Thai cooking, are a secret, savory way to boost the complexity of any dish with salt and umami.
- Rice is a predominant ingredient throughout Chinese cooking, but even more so in the southern regions where it grows abundantly; in the north, wheat-based noodles are also a popular starch. Both long and short-grain varieties are eaten as sides and in dishes like fried rice.
- Rice vinegar, known foremost as a crucial ingredient in sushi, is a staple vinegar in Asian cuisines. It’s mild, delicate sweetness softens the edges on other flavors—from ginger to sesame to bright fiery chilies. (Because rice vinegar is technically made into alcohol before it becomes vinegar, you might find it labeled as both “rice vinegar” and “rice wine vinegar.”)
- Sesame oil. Toasted sesame oil is made from roasted sesame seeds. It’s thicker in consistency, darker in color, and has a more pronounced flavor that’s great for finishing stir-fries and raw applications like dressings. It loses its aromatic pungency when heated, so it’s most at home in chilled dishes and dipping sauce.
- Sichuan peppercorn is not actually a type of pepper at all, but the berry of the Asian prickly ash tree that, when dried, looks like a peppercorn. This centerpiece of Szechuan cuisine has a mild lemony flavor, floral aroma, and causes a slight tingling around the mouth when you eat it.
- Soy sauce is derived from a blend of cooked soybeans and roasted wheat grain. The bean paste is then added to a salt brine and left to ferment before being pressed to produce the thin, light, and salt-forward liquid condiment, typically with Aspergillus oryzae or sojae molds. Among the many variations, light soy sauce is used for dipping and seasoning, while rich, thicker dark soy sauces are ideal for braising.
- Zhenjiang vinegar. Also known as Chinese black vinegar, Zhenjiang or Chinkiang vinegar is made by adding acetic acid and bacteria to rice or a grain like sorghum or wheat. The result brings a toasty, smoked flavor to many dishes in China’s culinary canon, notably, with fresh ginger as a dipping sauce for xiao long bao.