One of the reasons Chinese chefs can make the same essential dish taste completely different is how they use seasonings.
Rock Sugar 冰糖
Chinese rock sugar is crystalized sugar and has a long history in Chinese cooking. It was originally used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, but today it is used to braise meats and sweeten stir-fries. It is know for giving meats a shiny sheen glaze. While less sweet than granular sugar, it is typically used in cooking because it doesn’t break down as quickly.
Dishes Used In: Braised Pork Belly 红烧肉, Sweet and Sour Ribs 糖醋排骨, Baijiu 白酒, Vegetable Stir Fry 菜炒饭
Chinese Cinnamon 桂皮
Chinese cinnamon is much different than regular cinnamon. Chinese cinnamon is thicker, greyer and looks like tree bark and is not as fragrant as regular cinnamon sticks. Traditionally, it is used in braised dishes, stews, and marinades in Chinese cooking. When it’s used, it can be ground into a powder or the entire bark can be put into soups and stews.
Dishes Used In: Braised Pork Rice 卤肉饭, Big Plate Chicken 大盘鸡, Chongqing Hot Pot Broth 重庆火锅
Monosodium Gulamate — MSG 味精
Yes we are aware that MSG gets a very bad name in the health world, but the fact is that it’s an important seasoning to Chinese cuisine. MSG utilizes the “5th flavor” Umami and is used to heighten flavors in food. It is often used in stif-fried vegetable dishes and soup stocks. While a lot of (bad) chefs will use MSG as a flavor replacement, it’s really designed to compliment the existing flavors. Even soy sauce has a little bit of MSG in it.
Dishes Used In: Stir Fried Vegetables 炒蔬菜, Soup 汤…and pretty much everything
Also known as cilantro or Chinese parsley, coriander is one of those ingredients that people either love or hate. In fact, genetics may play a role in whether or not you like Cilantro or think it tastes like soap. In Chinese cooking, coriander leaves is the most common as it is a garnish, while the coriander seeds and powder are rarely used in Chinese cuisine. The seeds can be found in Thai cuisine to make curry.
Dishes Used In: Jian Bing 煎饼, Xihu Beef Soup 西湖牛肉粉, Liangban Beef 凉拌牛肉
Cumin is used as seasoning all over the world, and is popular in certain regional cuisines of China. In Chinese cuisine, both the whole seeds and the powder can be used as seasonings on dishes. It is thought to have been brought to China from the Middle East via the Silk Road. Cumin has an earthy, bitter, spicy taste and is known for it’s orange color.
Dishes Used In: Grilled Tofu Steaks 铁板豆腐, Xinjiang Lamb Skewers 羊肉串, Spicy Hunan Beef 湖南牛肉
White Pepper 白胡椒
White pepper is used in Chinese cooking like black pepper is used in Western cooking. White pepper and black pepper have very different tastes even though they come from the same plant. White pepper is actually hotter than black pepper and the taste goes to the back of your throat, so it’s often used in soups. Outside of Sichuan cuisine, White Pepper is used frequently to add spice.
Dishes Used In: Hot and Sour Soup 酸辣汤, Seafood Congee 海鲜粥, Boiled Sliced Beef 水煮牛肉
Sichuan Peppercorn 花椒
The signature taste of Sichuan comes from Sichuan peppercorns, which are actually berries from a prickly ash tree. While eating a peppercorn directly is generally unpleasant, the flavoring and numbness it brings when cooked in a dish is delicious. It can be added whole or ground up into a powder and added.
Dishes Used In: Mapo Tofu 麻婆豆腐, Chongqing Hot Pot 重庆火锅, Dan Dan Noodles 担担面
Dried Red Chili Pepper 干红辣椒
When it comes to dried chili peppers, the smaller they are, the spicier they are. In Sichuan, the peppers come in a deep, dark red color, but they can also be found in Hunan cuisine. They are the key ingredient in chili sauce but shouldn’t be eaten whole unless you want your mouth on fire. They are mostly used for aroma and flavor in cooking with small quantities.
Dishes Used In: Chongqing Chicken 重庆鸡肉, Fresh Eggplant 鱼香茄子
Star Anise 八角
Star Anise is a spice that is best used in China’s slow cooked dishes. It has a rich, licorice aroma and is shaped as an 8 pointed star. It is used to help bring out the flavors of meat when braising. It is native to China and has ties to Traditional Chinese Medicine where it was used to cure the flu. It is harvested when it is green and dried, when it turns brown.
Dishes Used In: Lanzhou Beef Noodles 兰州牛肉面, Braised Oxtail 红烧牛尾, Big Plate Chicken 大盘鸡
Five Spice Powder 五香粉
Five Spice Powder is China’s most famous seasoning worldwide as it contains many different flavors and goes with everything. It’s made of Sichuan peppercorns, fennel, cloves, star anise and Chinese cinnamon. It combines the 5 flavors of Chinese cuisine: sweet, sour, pungent, bitter, and salty. It can be used as a meat marinade or rub, but can also be put out on the table as a condiment like salt.
Dishes Used In: Cantonese Roasted Duck 澳门烤鸭, Hot Pot 火锅, Tea Steeped Egg 茶叶蛋
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