10 Chinese Sauces You Need in Your Life

When it comes to Chinese food, one of the most important aspects in determining taste is the sauce. The sauce transforms any meat, seafood, noodle or rice from plain to fantastic. In Chinese food culture, there are 4 main sauce flavors: sweet, savory, sour, and spicy. Each regional cuisine in China utilizes the sauces and flavors differently, so it’s good to know which is which!

Sweet Sauces

Sweet Bean Sauce 甜面酱

What is it? If you’ve had Beijing Roast Duck, you’ll know what sweet bean sauce is. Popular in Northern China, Sweet Bean Sauce is a dark brown color with a thick paste consistency. It’s special fermentation process includes glucose, making it taste sweet.

What it’s made of: Wheat flour, sugar, salt, and fermented yellow soybeans

Dishes it’s in: Beijing Roast Duck 北京烤鸭, Shredded Pork 京酱肉丝, Jianbing 煎饼, Zhajiangmian 炸酱面

Hoisin Sauce 海鲜酱

What is it? Hoisin Sauce is fairly similar in look, taste and use to Sweet Bean Sauce, but not as thick. While typically found in dishes special to Southern China, such as Guangdong, it is popular in stir-fries, meat glazing and as a dipping sauce. The Chinese name 海鲜酱 actually means seafood sauce, but it is not solely reserved for seafood, nor does it contain any seafood. In the UK, it’s called plum sauce, even though it doesn’t contain any plums either.

What it’s made of: soybeans, white distilled vinegar, sugar, salt, garlic, red chili peppers, and wheat

Dishes it’s in: Beijing Roast Duck 北京烤鸭, Spring Rolls 春卷, Mushu Pork 木须肉, Char Siu 叉烧

Sour Sauces

Black Vinegar 醋

What is it? There are many different kinds of vinegar, but the most common found in China is Black Vinegar. Most Chinese restaurants have this sauce on their tables to add flavor to noodles, rice and dumplings. It has an inky black color, malty flavor but very watery consistency. It’s more in line with the sharp flavor of Western vinegars than the other Chinese vinegars.

What’s in it: Fermented black glutinous rice, wheat, millet or sorghum (depending on region).

Dishes it’s in: Sweet and Sour Pork 糖醋里脊, Hot and Sour Soup 酸辣汤, Hot and Sour Shredded Potato, Vinegar Soaked Chinese Cabbage 醋溜白菜, and dipping for dumplings

Rice Vinegar 米醋

What is it? White rice vinegar is similar to it’s black counterpart but is distinct in color, ingredients and taste. Made with huangjiu, white rice vinegar tends to be more acidic but milder in taste than black vinegar.

What’s in it: yellow wine (huangjiu 黄酒)

Dishes it’s in: Cold Noodles with Shredded Chicken 鸡丝凉面, Korean Sushi 紫菜包饭

Savory Sauces

Soy Sauce 酱油

What is it? Soy sauce comes from 2nd Century AD China and eventually spread to all parts of East Asia for use in cooking and as a condiment. Soy sauce was historically an expensive ingredient used to salt food. Today, soy sauce is very common in Chinese cooking, especially in stir-fries. It can either be brewed or blended, resulting in different levels of savory, salty tastes.

What’s in it: soybeans, wheat, brine

Dishes it’s in: Beef Chow Fun 干炒牛河, Soy Sauce Chicken 酱油鸡, Braised Pork Belly 红烧肉

Oyster Sauce 蚝油

What is it? Oyster Sauce was invented by Lee Kam Sheung in Guangdong in the late 1800s. The story goes he was making oysters in boiling water, he left them in too long and when he lifted the lid, the soup was brownish and had a fragrant aroma. Unlike soy sauce, oyster sauce has a much thicker consistency and is used in cooking to add savory flavors to a dish.

What’s in it: Oysters essence, sugar, salt, cornstarch

Dishes it’s in: Hainan Chicken Rice 海南鸡饭, Buddha’s Delight 罗汉菜, Wonton Noodles 云吞面, Lo Mein 捞面

Sesame Paste 芝麻酱

What is it? One of the most popular fragrant flavoring in China, Sesame Paste has a thick consistency similar to peanut butter. Made from roasted sesame seeds, there are two different types of sesame paste: White 白麻酱 and Black 黑麻酱. With a different taste than Tahini sauce (also made from sesame), Chinese sesame paste is nutty, dark, rich and savory. It goes perfect as a hot pot dipping sauce or on cold noodles and salad.

What’s in it: 100% pure sesame seeds

Dishes it’s in: Hot Pot Dipping Sauce 火锅, Cold Sesame Noodles 芝麻酱凉面, Hot Dry Noodles 热干面, Salad 沙拉

Spicy Sauces

Sacha Sauce 沙茶酱

What is it? Popular in Guangdong and Taiwan, Sha Cha sauce has many different uses in Chinese cooking beyond just sauce. It can be used as a base for soups, marination for meats, seasoning for stir fries, and dipping sauce for hot pot. While it originates from Southeast Asian Satay sauce (from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore), it is quite different from the peanut based Satay as it is savory and spicy.

What’s in it: Soybean oil, garlic, shallots, chilis, brill fish, and dried shrimp

Dishes it’s in: Beef with Shacha Sauce 沙茶牛肉, Shacha Pork 傻叉猪肉, Shacha Noodles 沙茶面

Doubanjiang 豆瓣酱

What is it? If you’ve been to any local Chinese restaurant, you’ll recognize this Spicy Sauce. Most restaurants make their own spicy sauce or provide the most popular Chinese brand of Doubanjiang: Lao Gan Ma 老干妈. Popular in Sichuan, the spicy version of this sauce contains peppers as well as soybeans, salt and rice. Just like sriacha or hot sauce, Chinese people like to put doubanjiang on almost everything.

What’s in it: Chili peppers, soybeans, broad beans, salt, rice and spices

Dishes it’s in: Mapo Tofu 麻婆豆腐, Twice Cooked Pork Belly 回锅肉, Fish-Flavor Shredded Pork 鱼香肉丝, Braised Fish 红烧鱼


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