Discover the flavours of some of the most popular East Asian cuisines.
According to a recent survey, one in four Brits names Chinese as their favourite takeaway. But it’s actually not that difficult to create fabulous Chinese-style dishes at home. When cooking Chinese food, try to remember that classic Chinese food strikes a perfect balance between hot, sour, sweet and savoury. To help achieve this balance, there are a few ingredients that are key to authentic Chinese cooking. Of course, since China is such a huge country, there are some big differences between regional cuisines, but there are some ingredients which are common to most.
Soy sauce is probably the ingredient most people think of when it comes to Chinese Cookery. Light soy sauce is thinner and saltier than dark soy and is typically used for seasoning or as a dipping sauce. Dark soy sauce is aged for longer and is richer and more robust than the light variety. It’s used in marinades, stir-fries and to add flavour to rice dishes.
Sesame oil is one of the most recognisable flavours in Chinese cooking. When choosing your oil, look for a dark amber colour and rich aroma. It can be quite an overpowering flavour though, so use it sparingly!
CHINESE FIVE SPICE
Usually, a mix of star anise, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, Sichuan pepper and fennel seeds, this all-purpose seasoning has been designed to be a perfect balance of hot, sour, sweet and savoury. It’s ideal as a dry rub for meats like pork or beef.
Made from a mixture of cornstarch, salt, sugar and oyster essence, oyster sauce adds a distinct savoury, umami flavour to dishes.
SHAOXING RICE WINE
If you’re wondering why your homemade Chinese food doesn’t taste like the stuff you get in restaurants, Shaoxing wine might be the answer. Although in some areas of China it’s used as table wine, any sold outside China has almost certainly been brewed for cooking rather than drinking.
Wasabi is known for its pungent heat which develops rapidly and rises up the sinuses where it dissipates quite quickly, rather than getting held in the mouth. This is because in wasabi, the irritating compounds (isothiocyanates) are volatile which means they evaporate when they leave the food and travel up into the nose where they activate pain receptors. It is thought the isothiocyanates then react with other compounds in the nose and change structure into something that doesn’t sting. In contrast, the irritant in chili (capsaicin) which provides its heat, is not so volatile and so goes where the food does, on the way scorching membranes in the mouth and throat. Because capsaicin readily dissolves in oil and the cell membranes in the mouth tissue are oily, the pain remains for a longer time. The wasabi rhizome must be grated in a circular motion to instigate the chemical reaction which produces the heat, and The Wasabi Company also sells the specialist grater required.
Miso is produced by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji and is a traditional Japanese seasoning. Rice, barley, or other ingredients are added to influence the flavouring. The result is a thick paste used for sauces and spreads, pickling vegetables or meats, and mixing with dashi soup stock to serve as miso soup.
Soy sauce is made from fermented soya beans and gives a salty umami flavour to food and comes in a wide variety of colours and textures from light to dark, and thick to light. To make soy sauce is a lengthy process that can take years: soya beans are cleaned and soaked, then steamed, mixed with a yeast culture and wheat flour before being fermented for a minimum of two years and then filtered and bottled. Japanese soy sauce is distinctly different from Chinese soy sauce: Usukuchi is light and less salty than Chinese light soy sauce. Tamari is dark, thick and less salty, yet still strong in flavour and Shoyu is aged for up to two years with a full flavour.
Ponzu is a citrus-based sauce commonly used in Japanese cuisine. Tart, thin and dark brown it delivers a distinctive umami flavour. ‘Pon’ in Japanese means ‘punch’ and ‘su’ is vinegar so the name literally translates as ‘vinegar punch.’ Ponzu is made by simmering mirin, rice vinegar, katsuobushi flakes (tuna) and seaweed. Once cooled and strained, the juice of either yuzu, sudachi, daidai, kabuso or lemon is added. Ponzu is used as a dressing for salad, grilled meat and fish, or a dip for sushi and sashimi. It also works very well as a marinade for fish, steak and ribs. Chefs from The Fat Duck, Sat Bains and Mark Hix use The Wasabi Company’s ponzus and vinegars on their menus in a variety of ways: marinades, dips, dressings and sauces.
The best way to round off a Japanese meal is with a glass of sake. Sake is classified in several ways, including the rice and yeast that are used and the geographical provenance. The defining classification, however, results from how ‘polished’ or milled the rice grains are that have been used to make the sake and whether or not a small amount of brewer’s alcohol (distilled alcohol) has been added to heighten the flavour and fragrance characteristics.