Over the ages, the Chinese have developed their own way of doing things, especially when it comes to cooking and eating.
They may serve soup at the end of the meal, for example, or offer noodles as a birthday dish. Some Chinese techniques run flat against Western practice, and none is more at variance with what we think of as good cookery than the use of prepared sauce concentrates.
In the West, we have such products, but those who resort to them had best do so on the sly or else forfeit any claim to "gourmet" status. The Chinese cook, however, uses purchased concentrates as a matter of course.
Over the centuries, the Chinese have developed several kinds, and the first job of any Westerner delving into the preparation of these dishes is to sort out one from another.
This task can leave the novice in a quandary, because terminology is confusing and the variations seem endless. We've put together this guide to help you sort through the choices.
Two general notes:
* Chinese sauces vary among manufacturers. Finding the ones you like best may take some trial and error. While most Chinese sauces are Asian imports, some very respectable products now are made here.
* Without exception, these products are concentrates: A little goes a long way. Be cautious until you learn your taste. All are high in salt indeed, one of their functions is to bring salt to the dish. Some low-sodium soy sauces are now on the market, but most authorities think you are better off by simply using less of the original item.
The idea of sauce concentrates probably originated in the ancient practice of preserving protein foods by fermenting them. The same notion then was carried over into that rich source of vegetable protein, the soy bean.
Black beans. Seniority among Chinese sauce concentrates probably belongs to preserved black beans (also known as Chinese black beans or sometimes simply salted beans). These have been partly fermented, then dried and salted.
This product seems not to have changed much in at least 1,500 years. The beans have a particularly pungent taste, similar in some ways to dry-cured Mediterranean olives.
They are available as loose beans, packed in salt, a basic of the Chinese larder. Repacked in a jar with a tight-fitting lid and
refrigerated, they will keep forever.
Soy sauce. What would Chinese cooking be without soy sauce? It goes into virtually every dish except sweets, and it takes a place on tables as a frequently used condiment.
To make soy sauce, the manufacturer mixes ground roasted beans with roasted grain, usually wheat. This ferments for a while before being augmented with brine, yeast and a lactobacillus starter, the same bacteria responsible for yogurt and sourdough bread. The mash may be aged for a year or two before being strained and bottled.
Soy sauce brings several benefits to a dish: It's a protein concentrate, so it adds nourishment. The dark color gives the food an appetizing brownness. And it contributes a depth of flavor and saltiness.
The Chinese generally distinguish between two types of soy: the light, which is roughly the color of very strong tea, and the dark, to which molasses has been added to give it slightly thicker texture and a more pronounced color. Generally dark soy is used in heavier dishes .
Not all soy sauces on the American market are true fermented products. The La Choy brand, for example, is made by the process of hydrolization.
Japanese soy sauce (shoyu) is comparable to a light Chinese soy, but the flavor is somewhat different due to the use of a higher proportion of wheat. It can substitute for the Chinese variety .
The Kikkoman brand, made in Wisconsin, is the most widely distributed here, and it has a reputation for high quality.
Tamari often sells for high prices in health-food stores. If authentic, it is a dark soy made without wheat; there seems little objective reason to prefer it unless one has an aversion to wheat.
Indonesian soy sauce (ketjap) comes in two types: asin (salty) and manis (sweet). Very dark and rich, it brings an individual character to recipes and is perhaps best limited to Southeast Asian dishes that call for it. Incidentally, ketjap may have been the origin of our word "ketchup."
Bean sauce (also known as yellow bean sauce, brown bean sauce, ground bean sauce or sometimes bean paste). The origin of this paste of fermented soy beans goes back into the mists of time.
OC Hoisin sauce. Americans have taken such a liking to this sweet,
spicy, pungent sauce with its deep red-brown color that Chinese restaurants serve it as a table condiment, for example with northern dishes like moo-shu pork with its tortilla-like wrapping. (In China, a sweetened bean sauce would be used.)
Fish sauce (nuoc mam in Vietnamese, nam pla in Thai). Though primarily identified with Southeast Asia, where it takes the place of soy sauce, fish sauce sometimes appears in Chinese dishes.
It resembles light soy sauce in color, but it has a distinctive aroma and taste that may take getting used to. We mention it here because it is probably the direct ancestor of more specifically Chinese sauces.
Historical aside: The ancient Romans used vast quantities of a fish-based sauce that they called liquamem or garum, both in pTC dishes and as a table condiment. Though its recipe has been lost, chances are that it was very like today's Asian fish sauce.
Oyster sauce. We're in Cantonese territory with this deep-flavored sauce, made from oysters, water and salt, with cornstarch to give it a ketchup-like consistency and caramel to ,, impart a rich brown color. Prices vary greatly, and so does quality since manufacturers may use more or less expensive oysters in making a given product. Oyster sauce is fundamental to the Cantonese kitchen.
Barbecue sauce. Confusingly, several Chinese preparations go by this name. Some are similar to hoisin but spicier. Others consist of a paste of ground dried fish, dried shrimp and peanuts, among other things. Not an essential, such products are fun to experiment with, used either as a coating of meat to be barbecued or as a sauce ingredient in stir-fried dishes.
Chili sauces. The Chinese took avidly to the hot chilies of the New World, and they have incorporated them in a number of preparations. Some are flavored with garlic, and yet others have soybeans in them.
Plum sauce. Despite its name, plum sauce is traditionally made from a kind of apricot, and that accounts for its golden appearance. The fruit is cooked with sugar and spices into a kind of chutney.
Different brands vary a good deal in flavor and consistency. Plum sauce is not used in the kitchen but served as a table condiment, often with duck dishes.