10 Essential Chinese Spices and Sauces

To get real flavor, you have to use the real thing. See more pictures of spices.
©iStockphoto.com/marrygbg

If you want to create an authentic Chinese dish, you have to use authentic ingredients. Some recipes will suggest substitutions, like using black pepper instead of Szechuan peppercorns or employing allspice in place of five-spice powder, but using the real thing makes a big difference. Although Chinese spices and sauces are usually used in small amounts to enhance recipes, they offer subtle flavor, depth and sometimes a unique kick that you can't get from anything else.

If you're thinking of stocking your kitchen with a few Chinese cooking essentials, most of the seasoning staples you'll need will keep for a long time and can be mixed, matched and used in lots of different Chinese recipes. Keep reading to learn more about the 10 spices and sauces we think are crucial to the art of Chinese cooking.

10
Duck Sauce

Duck sauce suffers from an identity crisis of sorts, considering that it's actually made primarily from plums -- not duck, as its name implies. The sauce does have a relationship with the delicious fowl, though, since it was developed for dipping bites of roast duck. But you don't need to stifle the possibilities of duck sauce with its namesake bird, since it's actually also commonly used with chicken and beef dishes. In fact, most Americans recognize the sweet and spicy orange sauce as the substance eggrolls are commonly dipped into.

Typically, plums are the main ingredient, though many recipes also incorporate peaches, dried apricots, bell peppers, vinegar, ginger and sugar. Combined, the ingredients give duck sauce its trademark sweet, tangy taste that Americans and lovers of authentic Chinese cuisine have grown to love.

9
Oyster Sauce
Duck sauce is fowl-free, but oyster sauce is actually made from oysters.
Duck sauce is fowl-free, but oyster sauce is actually made from oysters.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Most commonly, oyster sauce is used to add a briny twist to noodle dishes and vegetable stir-fries. Known for its dark brown color and smooth consistency, the main ingredient of this flavorful sauce is minced oysters and the juices contained therein. Extra ingredients typically include sugar and soy sauce.

Although oyster sauce is prized for its seafood friendly flavor, experts recommend avoiding the cheaper, plastic-bottled variety in favor of higher-end versions in glass containers. Simply put, the less you spend; the "fishier" you can expect the sauce to taste. Once the bottle has been opened, be sure to store it in the refrigerator to help it last longer.

8
Five-Spice Powder
The amount of each spice that goes into your five-spice powder is flexible and can be adjusted to taste.
The amount of each spice that goes into your five-spice powder is flexible and can be adjusted to taste.
©iStockphoto.com/clearandtransparent

Five-spice powder packs a powerful flavor wallop. It has a simple base -- just five ingredients -- but a couple of them are unusual in most Western cooking. You can't get the punch of five-spice powder with any substitution, and a small amount can wake up the flavors in vegetables, meats, starches and fruits.

The basic blend is comprised of star anise, fennel seed, Szechuan pepper, cinnamon (or cassia) and cloves. Although you can make a serviceable five-spice powder by using equal amounts of all ingredients, there are a number of variations that use more of one or less of another to create subtle differences. Some blends even incorporate other common Chinese flavors like garlic and ginger to save you the trouble of having to add them to your recipes as a separate step.

7
Hoisin Sauce

Lovers of Peking duck or mu shu dishes have already developed a healthy appreciation for hoisin sauce, also known as Peking sauce. Thicker than your average sauce (think a ketchup consistency) hoisin sauce is extremely versatile and is commonly used as a dipping sauce, marinade for barbecued meats or an ingredient in stir-fries.

Although it does have a slightly spicy kick to it, hoisin sauce is beloved for the sweetness it lends to dishes, thanks to ingredients like sugar, sweet potatoes, soybeans and wheat flour. Garlic, chiles and five-spice powder are also common inclusions.

6
Ginger

Ginger is an indispensable spice that can add heat and delicate flavor to meat, vegetable and fish dishes. A rhizome from the Zingiber officinale plant, ginger is sold fresh, powdered, pickled and candied.

For a subtle, fresh flavor with a peppery aftertaste and flowery aroma, pass on the dried variety and choose a chubby fresh specimen from your local produce market. Ginger is like a knobby beige root with a papery covering. Once you've stripped off the outer layer, the light yellow, fibrous flesh can be grated or finely chopped and included in either cooked or cold foods.

To preserve fresh ginger for later use, slice it into half-inch pieces and place them in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Cover the ginger completely with sherry or white wine and refrigerate. Ginger freezes well, too -- just tightly seal it in plastic wrap.

5
Black Bean and Garlic Sauce

When it comes to Chinese black bean and garlic sauce, a little goes a long way, thanks to the salty, bold flavor it's known for. Most amateur chefs prefer to purchase the pre-packaged variety because the preparation is quite lengthy. In fact, the black soybeans used in most recipes are fermented for about six months before they can be pureed and seasoned with other ingredients, like flour and ginger.

In general, only a spoonful or so of the sauce is necessary when preparing your favorite stir-fry recipe. Once opened, the contents of the can should be refrigerated to prevent spoilage.

4
XO Sauce
XO sauce traditionally contains cognac, but don't worry -- the brands sold in grocery stores are nonalcoholic and safe for kids.
XO sauce traditionally contains cognac, but don't worry -- the brands sold in grocery stores are nonalcoholic and safe for kids.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

XO sauce probably isn't something you're going to find in a typical fast-food Chinese restaurant. Instead, it's considered to be one of the nation's more highbrow condiments. Originally developed in southern China, the "XO" name can be attributed to XO Cognac, a well-known, high-end liquor, which happens to be a main ingredient in authentic, homemade versions. Don't worry too much about letting the kiddos enjoy the manufactured variety, however. Most commercially produced XO sauces mimic the taste without any of the actual alcohol.

The sauce can also include red chili pepper, ham, dried scallops and dried shrimp, depending on the chef's or manufacturer's recipe. It's generally enjoyed with a variety of dishes, including dim sum, sushi, squid, vegetables and many types of stir-fry recipes.

3
Sesame Oil

A couple of drops of light, fragrant sesame oil can add a lot of taste and aroma to wok dishes. It's also light enough to work well in cold dishes, dressings and dipping sauces.

Sesame oil is available in both cold-pressed and toasted varieties. Cold-pressed oil has a lighter flavor and is almost colorless, making it a good addition to salad dressings, while the toasted variety has a nuttier, smoky flavor.

Use sesame oil sparingly. Its flavor is distinctive and can easily overpower other ingredients.

2
Sweet and Sour Sauce

Sweet and sour sauce awakens your taste buds by incorporating two strong flavor perceptions into one sauce. Thick, rich and often a vibrant cherry red color, sweet and sour sauce can minimize the greasy flavor of fried foods, enhance the delicate texture of vegetables and boost the flavor of mild meats.

If you want to make this traditional sauce, there are a number of options available to you. Although most recipes will use some form of vinegar -- like white vinegar, red wine vinegar or rice vinegar -- for the sour side of the sauce, the sweet contribution can come from sugar, corn syrup, fruit juice, marmalade or jelly, depending on the recipe involved.

1
Soy Sauce
Soy sauce has been around longer than most condiments -- including ketchup.
Soy sauce has been around longer than most condiments -- including ketchup.
©iStockphoto.com/Shingopix

Widely considered one of the world's oldest condiments, soy sauce is a fermented soy bean product. It was probably first discovered more than 3,500 years ago in China as part of the process of preserving fish. It's used in seafood, meat and vegetable dishes and as a base for other sauces, like teriyaki. It may also be the precursor of the ketchup we know and love today.

Soy sauce is available in a number of varieties: light, dark, low-sodium and blended. Blended soy-based sauces incorporate other Asian herbs and spices, like garlic, five-spice powder and ginger for added flavor.

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