Authenticity isn’t something I often prioritize when I’m cooking, as long as the flavor is pleasing. That said, cooking and eating in China has opened my eyes to some easy ways to imbue my cooking with more of the qualities that I love about Chinese food. Here are some ingredients I’ll be keeping around to season my Chinese inspirations from now on:
Finely Ground White Pepper
Previously I always associated white pepper with fussy French chefs who don’t want any black flecks in their béchamel, but I’ve come to learn it’s the standard seasoning in China. White pepper (which is essentially black pepper with the outer skin removed) has a rounder, earthier flavor than black pepper. Using white pepper in place of black makes a noticeable difference in the overall taste of the dish.
Black Rice Vinegar
The light-colored version of rice vinegar has been my preferred weapon in salad dressings and quick pickles for some time. The dark version, though, seemed an unnecessary addition to my crowded pantry. Now I’m making room. Rich, syrupy, and slightly sweet, black vinegar is similar to balsamic but without the distinctive fruitiness that balsamic has. Perhaps this is why I’ve seen Chinese chefs finish so many of their dishes with a spoonful of the stuff. It also makes an excellent dipping sauce for dumplings.
Dark Soy Sauce
Most of us already keep a bottle of soy sauce around. However, chances are it’s not the dark variety. In Chinese cooking, the thicker dark soy sauce is primarily used to add a depth of flavor and enhance color. It’s used in conjunction with lighter soy sauce, which enhances saltiness. For those who can’t tolerate gluten, tamari is a good compromise between the two because it falls somewhere in middle on the scale of flavor and color.
These peppercorns aren’t spicy in the sense that most of us are used to. Rather than burning your throat, they create a tingling sensation on your lips and tongue. They also contribute a distinct flavor that I can only describe as being similar to anise, but better. After enjoying Sichuan pepper so many times here in China, I find them strangely addictive and absolutely essential for Sichuan dishes like Ma Po Tofu.
Many years ago, I bought a jar of five-spice and was a little put off by its overwhelming anise flavor. After Jesse surprised me one night with his creative use of the offending spice mix in macaroni and cheese, it was banished from our kitchen. Now that I’ve learned some more successful uses of five-spice, I’m ready to invite it back into my life. The standard blend includes star anise, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, cloves, and fennel seeds (I like to mix my own to avoid too much of the anise flavor). A pinch or two of five-spice adds an interesting, subtly sweet spiciness to meat and noodle dishes.