Chinese cooking encompasses thousands of sauces and condiments, and thanks to your supermarket’s Asian food aisle, many classic Chinese sauces and condiments are readily available. Some of these flavors are strong, some are subtle. Either way, it’s fun to experiment with these intriguing ingredients.
Black bean sauce: Made of salted black beans and rice wine; has a savory, slightly salty flavor that sometimes gets a little kick from garlic and hot chiles. If you find only "black bean garlic sauce" at your store, you can use it — just reduce (to your taste) the amount of other garlic in the recipe.
Char siu sauce: A combination of fermented soy beans, vinegar, tomato paste, chile, garlic, sugar, and Chinese spices; used on Chinese barbecued spareribs and roast pork.
Chile pastes and sauces: Come in a range of flavors, degrees of heat, and consistencies, but most are made from a blend of fresh and dried chiles and vinegar.
Chile oil: This reddish orange oil comes from infusing whole, dried red chiles or crushed red pepper flakes in oil.
Hoisin sauce: This dark, rich, pastelike sauce has a spicy-sweet flavor and reddish brown color. It’s normally made from fermented soybeans, vinegar, garlic, sugar, and Chinese spices.
Oyster-flavored sauce: The name of this sauce is a little deceptive: It really doesn’t have a flavor much like oysters. Instead, the thick, brown, all-purpose sauce made from oyster extracts, sugar, seasonings, and cornstarch has sweet and smoky notes.
Plum sauce: Made from a combination of salted plums, apricots, yams, rice vinegar, chiles, sugar, and other spices. It can run the gamut from sweet-tart to salty, and from smooth to chunky and jamlike.
Rice wine: An amber-colored liquid from the fermentation of glutinous rice and millet.
Sesame oil: A dark amber, aromatic oil pressed from toasted sesame seeds used on a finished dish.
Sesame paste: A thick, peanut buttery paste, made from toasted white sesame seeds.
Soy sauce: The best-quality soy sauces, made from traditionally fermented soybeans and wheat, have a dark color and a slightly sweet, mildly salty flavor that isn’t overpowering.
Dark soy sauce: The addition of molasses and a bit of cornstarch gives a sweeter, more full-bodied flavor and a syrupy consistency to dark soy sauce.
Rice vinegar: Mild, not pungent, and relatively sweet.
“Seasoned” rice vinegars are spiked with sugar, which adds an even stronger sweetness.
Black vinegar: Made from the fermentation of a mixture of rice, wheat, and millet, black vinegar has a bold, sweet-tart, and smoky flavor and a deep, dark color.
Red vinegar: Has a mild, light, and smooth flavor.