To try reducing the myriad sauces of China to a few representatives is an exercise in futility. There are just too many to choose from, for China is as big and as complex as Europe, with thousands of years of culinary experience under its belt. In other words, Chinese sauces go way beyond soy; think echoes of caramel, lychee, pickled chile, and toasted scallion, each ingredient lending depth and sophistication.
But that doesn’t mean that the sauces of this country should intimidate you. Yes, there are a lot of them, and while the flavors or complex, they are simple to make and luscious beyond reason. These six sauces will allow you to put together a whole bunch of insanely delicious meals quickly, without breaking much of a sweat.
These recipes are from my cookbook All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China, where you can learn more about the spectrum of sauces that make China’s foods so varied and amazing. Try to get to the level where making these sauces is intuitive, because once they are a part of your life, there are endless possibilities for customization.
We’ll start out with the simplest sauce, which is nothing more than sliced scallions slowly cooked in oil, and then progress to Fish Fragrant Sauce—a classic that requires a bit more time and effort, but not by much. The latter, along with Lychee Flavor Sauce, work as stir-fries that you cook along with a protein of your choice. You will need to visit a Chinese grocery store for some of these ingredients, but you can also buy them online and even make some of them yourself. Once you find how much you love the sauces—and you will—stock up on these ingredients so that you can whip up a sauce or two over the weekend in anticipation of a week’s worth of fine eating.
- Scallion Oil: scallions + oil
- Red Chile Oil with Toasty Bits: ground chiles + oil + Sichuan peppercorns
- Sweet Soy Sauce: caramel + spices + aromatics + Chinese soy sauce
- Red-Cooked Sauce: soy sauce + rice wine + caramel + aromatics
- Lychee Flavor Sauce: vegetables + aromatics + chiles + sweet soy sauce + vinegar
- Fish Fragrant Sauce: vegetables + pickled chiles + aromatics + sugar + soy sauce + vinegar + Sichuan hot bean sauce
What it is: This is the signature flavor of the Shanghai metropolitan area, along China’s central Pacific coast. In fact, nothing says “Shanghai” like scallions. But this iconic seasoning is more than just raw or cooked scallions, for the green and white parts are slowly toasted in oil to turn them nutty and enticing. Once the scallions are fully browned, drain off the oil and use the crispy bits as a scrumptious garnish on noodles or rice. This oil should be clear, with only the tiniest motes of toasted scallions floating around.
How to use it: Put the cooled oil into a squeeze bottle and use it liberally on just about anything. It is fabulous as an unpretentious sauce when tossed with hot noodles, broth, and a touch of soy sauce. Brighten your scrambled eggs or poached chicken with drizzles that will drip down the sides and puddle around the edges, adding lots of gloss and toasty onion flavor. Make a steamed fish glisten. Just be sure to dust the tops of everything with those toasted scallions as your final fillip. Perfection achieved.
Scallion Oil (Chinese Mother Sauce #1)
- 12 scallions
- 1 1/2 cups peanut or vegetable oil
How to change it up: Different aromatics and spices can be subbed in for the scallions with equally addictive results. For example, try thinly sliced shallots or finely julienned ginger—just be sure to toast these slowly in the oil so that you achieve caramelization, rather than blackened bits. Sichuan peppercorns, likewise, can be turned into a toasty seasoned oil in this same way and have million uses, from stir-fry oil to a final garnish.
Red Chile Oil with Toasty Bits
What it is: Chile peppers are not native to China. They made their way across the Pacific only a couple of hundred years ago, but they are now an integral part of the country’s foods, especially in the hot and humid Central Highlands that range from Sichuan to Hunan. If your experience with chile oil up to now has been limited to supermarket brands, you are in for a real treat here. The spices slowly crisp up in the oil, tamping down their fiery natures and resulting in a crunchy, delightful gravel topped with a deliciously scented oil.
How to use it: This is like a perfect string of pearls, because it connects all the dish’s flavors and makes just about anything seem a thousand times more wonderful. Toss it in your noodles, dip your dumplings in it, spoon it on top of eggs or chicken or fish, or build upon it to create even more luxurious sauces. Simmer it with things like soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and whatever else grabs your fancy. This is amazing stuff.
Red Chile Oil with Toasty Bits (Chinese Mother Sauce #2)
- 2 cups peanut or vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup toasted sesame oil
- 1/2 cup finely ground dried chiles
- 1/4 cup coarsely ground dried chiles
- 1/4 cup whole Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 whole dried or fresh orange peel, removed in a single strip, if you can
How to change it up: Chile oil is a true culinary chameleon, as you can season it with a spectrum of ingredients and take it to wherever your heart desires. My absolute favorite variation is also in All Under Heaven (page 436): a flavor bomb of orange and lemon peel dancing around with nutty fermented black beans, ginger, and garlic, to give you a sauce that is beyond delicious.
Sweet Soy Sauce
What it is: Popular throughout China’s south-central region, this turns plain old soy sauce into the food of the gods through caramelization and a perfect balance of spices with aromatics. Caramelizing the sugar first keeps it from overwhelming the sauce with sweetness, since this amber liquid offers a slightly bitter edge and more complex flavors. Plus, your house will smell like heaven when you make it, so consider whipping it up before a romantic night at home.
How to use it: Drizzle sweet soy sauce over things like steamed or braised meats, give appetizers like toasted nuts a bit of oomph by tossing this in with a handful of shredded scallions, or sneak it into other mixtures (such as Lychee Flavor Sauce) to provide a truly rich and smooth texture that amplifies deeply savory flavors.
Sweet Soy Sauce (Chinese Mother Sauce #3)
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 3/4 cup water, divided into 1/4 cup and 1/2 cup
- 1 bottle (500 ml) regular Chinese soy sauce (Kim Lan or Wan Ja Shan recommended)
- 1 teaspoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
- 2 slices licorice root
- 2 pieces star anise
- 2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
- 5 thin slices fresh ginger
- 1 splash boiling water, as needed
How to change it up: Any of the spices can be swapped out to fit your taste and your menu, like black pepper for the Sichuan peppercorns, fennel seeds or stick cinnamon instead of the licorice or star anise, and scallions instead of (or in addition to) the garlic.
What it is: This dark, glossy sauce is the backbone of many luscious dishes from Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces near the mouth of the Yangtze River. Many parts of China offer red-cooked sauce in dishes, but none are as gloriously rich and sticky as this one. When done correctly, the sauce has the consistency of honey and is just as aromatic.
How to use it: This is mainly deployed as a secret weapon in braises. Pork and chicken are the usual suspects, but vegans revel in these delightful flavors, too, by tossing things like sturdy vegetables, bean curd, or gluten in the mix to make a meatless dish worthy of the Lord Buddha himself. The key to this dish is using good Chinese soy sauces, mushroomy Shaoxing rice wine, and that touch of caramel. Reduce the sauce to an irresistible shiny slick at the very end—this little trick makes all the difference in the world because it is what gives you that perfect texture.
Red-Cooked Sauce (Chinese Mother Sauce #4)
- 5 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
- 16 thin slices fresh ginger
- 5 scallions, trimmed and chopped into 1-inch pieces
- 7 tablespoons regular soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
- 1 cup Shaoxing rice wine
- 1/2 cup caramel (see the recipe for Sweet Soy Sauce, Chinese mother sauce #3), or rock sugar to taste
- Boiling water, as needed
- Optional 3 whole star anise or 1/2 stick cinnamon
How to change it up: Rock sugar can definitely be used here instead of the caramel, if you want a faster route to dining Nirvana. White sugar is acceptable, but not as good as brown sugar, in a pinch. Whatever you decide on, try using caramel and rock sugar when you make your Chinese dishes, since they have no sour aftertaste and are famous for inserting seductive gloss and smooth mouthfeel into every bite. Add as much ginger and scallions as you like, some plumped-up dried mushrooms, fresh garlic—whole cloves for long braises, thin slices for short ones—and consider whole leaves of basil at the last minute for an inspired Taiwanese note.
Lychee Flavor Sauce
What it is: If you’ve ever enjoyed a great plate of Kung Pao Chicken, you’ve tasted Lychee Flavor Sauce. Like the recipe below for Fish Fragrant Sauce, this is a Sichuanese creation that shows how powerful an intricate bundle of flavors can be. This sauce is a tumble of minced, aromatic vegetables set off by tart and spicy flavors, and then bookended with sweet and savory notes. Magic comes into play when piney, numbing Sichuan peppercorns and crunchy toasted peanuts blast this into an explosion of aromas and textures.
How to use it: Almost always found in stir-fries, Lychee Flavor Sauce should be made with whatever protein you are planning to cook and then served hot. Prawns, scallops, squid, shrimp, pork, and chicken are generally lightly browned before they are tossed with the sauce. Deep-fried batons of eggplant or bean curd will be delicious here, as well, and simply need to be heated through with the sauce for a minute or two.
Lychee Flavor Sauce (Chinese Mother Sauce #5)
- 12 black mushrooms, fresh or dried and plumped up
- 4 stalks Chinese celery
- 3 tablespoons peeled and finely minced fresh ginger
- 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 6 scallions, trimmed
- 1/2 cup dried Thai chilies, broken in half, seeds shaken out and discarded, and caps removed
- 1 1/2 tablespoons Sweet Soy Sauce (Chinese Mother Sauce #3), or 1½ tablespoons regular soy sauce and 1 1/2 teaspoons (or more) sugar
- 2 tablespoons black vinegar
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1/2 cup peanut or vegetable oil, or as needed
- 2 tablespoons (heaping) whole Sichuan peppercorns
- 1/2 cup fried or toasted peanuts
How to change it up: This is one of those sauces that is very forgiving and also very adaptable. You don’t have to worry too much about the ratios here, since you can easily employ a bit more sugar or vinegar or chiles to either emphasize different aspects of the sauce or complement the weather. For example, whenever you plan to toss something inherently sweet in the dish, like pork or shellfish, a tad more sugar will help boost their natural flavors. A late summer dish of eggplant will prove more appealing, though, if a tangy undercurrent of good vinegar is there to wake up the appetite.
Fish Fragrant Sauce
What it is: This final sauce is another taste of Sichuan and contains so many of its iconic ingredients: dried chiles, Sichuan peppercorns, hot bean sauce, pickled red chile peppers… there is absolutely nothing subtle at all going on here. This is pure edible fireworks! It is called yuxiang in Chinese, which literally means “fish aroma,” because the traditional recipe calls for chiles that were fermented with crucian carp, which gave it a deep anchovy flavor, much like the Vietnamese fish sauce called nuoc mam.
How to use it: This sauce is best enjoyed as part of a stir-fry. It can be combined with any number of delicate proteins, including shelled prawns, cubed chicken meat, julienned pork, or bean curd.
Fish Fragrant Sauce (Chinese Mother Sauce #6)
- 4 fresh or frozen water chestnuts (please don’t use canned)
- 4 black mushrooms or wood ear fungus, fresh or dried and plumped up
- 2 to 8 pickled red chiles (storebought or homemade)
- 8 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 4 scallions, sliced into thin rings
- 2 tablespoons peeled and finely chopped fresh ginger
- 5 teaspoons sugar
- 4 teaspoons black vinegar
- 2 teaspoons regular soy sauce
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1 pound protein of some sort (see headnotes)
- 2 teaspoons Sichuan hot bean sauce
How to change it up: Make this as hot or as sweet or as tangy as your heart desires. The water chestnuts add a subtle crunch and sweetness to the dish, so don’t use canned ones, which have zero flavor. If you can’t find the right water chestnuts, get a jicama, peel it, and cut it into a fine dice, which does a fine job of imitating water chestnuts.