SPICES can be mild, subtle and complex, or they can be spicy, hot, and tingling. Gao Ceng talks to Chinese chefs who are masters of the art of seasoning and she shares their latest aromatic menus.
Sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy are the five basic flavors in Chinese cuisine. However, there are other distinctive Chinese spices - some mild, some hard to describe, some with real kick - that make dishes distinctive.
"It is the art of using spices that widens the gap among Chinese restaurants," says David Du, chef de cuisine at Hyatt on the Bund.
Some time-honored restaurants rely on signature dishes that are hard to replicate, such as Quan Ju De in Beijing, established in 1864 and known for its Peking Roast Duck. In Chengdu, Sichuan Province, Chen Ma Po is a big food destination founded in 1862.
"The secrets of those dishes are the spices," chef Du says.
Many seasonings can be easily detected by experienced chefs, but even for them some spices are nearly impossible to precisely identify, since they interact with ingredients and each other.
Even if a spy from another restaurant could see and record all the seasonings in a kitchen, it would be useless in identifying how a particular dish is seasoned.
"The amount of seasoning and the time when it is added can be accurate to a gram and second. These are what are locked in a chef's brain," Du says.
The aroma and flavor of spices cannot be fully released if they are added too late. By contrast, if they are added too early, they may overpower other ingredients, he says.
In world of spices, a miss is as good as a mile.
These two months, the transition from spring to summer, are a good time to eat dishes with spices, says Dicky To, executive Chinese chef at The Peninsula Shanghai, who has launched a new menu of eight aromatic courses.
"There's much less variety in food at this time of year, and flavors can be too simple. Using spices not only adds flavor, complexity and intensity to a dish, but also helps work up an appetite, which can be lost when weather turns hot and humid," To explains.
From the perspective of traditional Chinese medicine, most Chinese spices are warm (yang energy) in nature and it's traditional to eat pungent foods at this time of year. Spices also promote perspiration and help remove "damp" from the body.
Spices boost flavor
"After it is heated, spice has a distinctive aroma and turns into a new and complex flavor with depth and layers. This gives the ingredients a new character. A subtle relationship between aroma and flavor, enhancing each other, is inspiring," says chef Du from Hyatt on the Bund.
Huajiao yan (pepper salt 花椒盐), a Chinese seasoning made from Sichuan pepper and salt, is a classical example. When stir-frying Sichuan pepper with salt, the salt absorbs all the aroma and flavor from the pepper, so that it becomes tingling, buzzing and pungent. This seasoning is widely used to flavor chicken, goose, duck and pigeon.
The enhancing effect is also obvious when cumin meets mutton, and ginger meets chicken.
There are general rules for using spices:
Delicately aromatic spices such as cardamom can be used with seafood. Moderately aromatic spices, such as Chinese cinnamon and ginger, go well with meat such as pork and chicken. Strong spices, such as cumin go well with beef and mutton.
When spices are mixed, the flavor becomes deeper and more powerful, which is why most Chinese chefs prefer using mixed spices to a single spice.
"But spices cannot be mixed freely. A harmonious combination sparks new flavor and aroma while the wrong mixture leads to flavors conflicting with each other. Basically, we follow the old recipes left by our ancestors based on their thousand times of practice," says chef To from The Peninsula Shanghai.
"There's a misconception that the more varieties of spices used, the better the flavor. But combining too many spices may lead to unpleasant bitterness," says Sam Gao, Chinese executive chef at Pudong Shangri-La, East Shanghai.
Wu xiang (五香) or five-spice (mixture of star anise, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, Sichuan pepper and fennel seeds) and shi san xiang (十三香) or thirteen-spice (mixture of 13 spices such as cardamom, nutmeg and cinnamon) are both considered classic spice mixtures in a Chinese kitchen.
"Sichuan pepper is a perfect match for star anise. The pepper brings out the sweetness of the star anise and highlights its aroma," says To.
Spices are also used to cover less pleasant aromas, such as that of offal, the fishy taste of seafood and the earthy smell of some lake fish. Some people don't care for the aroma of mutton, so garlic and ginger are sometimes used.
Moreover, the taste of spices changes with heating and cooking. Before cooking, clove smells floral and tastes bitter, while after cooking it tastes sweet.
Star anise, cinnamon and bay leaf smell strong yet taste mild.
Sichuan Province in southwestern China is famous for spicy foods that are hot, peppery and tingling. Chili, cumin and Sichuan pepper are often compounded.
Heavy use of spices largely results from geography and climate, according to chef Gao from Pudong Shangri-La.
The Sichuan Basin in southwestern China used to be fairly inaccessible, so that it was difficult to get fresh produce. The climate is predominantly wet.
Sichuan chefs use spices to cover and enrich the taste of ingredients and to stimulate the appetite.
Nine spices are commonly used, including chili, cinnamon, star anise, bay leaf, black cardamom, white cardamom, nutmeg, Sichuan pepper and clove.
Hong tang (red stock 红汤), gan bian (stir-fried with spices 干煸) and pao jiao (marinated spices 泡椒) are common uses of spice in Sichuan.
Hong tang is undoubtedly the most popular. The red stock - bright, shining and slightly oily - is decocted from stewed pork bone (sometimes chicken for a lighter flavor) and the nine spices, Gao says.
The meaty and savory stock absorbs the taste of the spices, making the taste full-bodied, complex and deep.
Nearly half of the Sichuan dishes are adapted from the stock, from classical cold dishes fuqi fei pian (thinly sliced beef offal in chili sauce 夫妻肺片) and hong you chaoshou (wonton topped with red stock 红油抄手) to hot dishes such as shui zhu yu (thinly sliced fish boiled in red soup 水煮鱼).
Stir-frying with spices (gan bian) quickly brings out flavor and aroma of spices, so the flavor is comparatively simpler and drier, yet intensely hot and spicy. A representative is la zi ji (辣子鸡), chopped chicken stir-fried with spices, spring onion, garlic and peanuts.
In pao jiao dishes, spices such as chili and Sichuan pepper are first marinated in vinegar and sugar for days and then used as seasoning to flavor ingredients. The taste is milder than the original. Popular dishes made in this way include pao jiao feng zhua (泡椒凤爪), or chicken feet marinated in spices and pao jiao niuwa (泡椒牛蛙), stir-fried bullfrog with marinated spices.
Spices in Shanghai and Canton
Compared with middle China, spices are less popular in eastern and southern regions where chefs tend to highlight the original flavor. There are some exceptions.
Hong shao (braised food, usually pork, in soy sauce 红烧), a traditional Shanghai cooking technique, imparts a deep-red color, sweet-and-savory flavor and slight oiliness. Spices are a must.
Chef Du from Hyatt on the Bund is known for his authentic Shanghai dishes.
"Usually we use comparatively milder spices, including star anise, cinnamon, and bay leaf together, to give the soy sauce more depth and complexity in flavors, without overpowering other ingredients," he says.
Classic examples are si xi kaofu (a spongy soybean product braised in sauce 四喜烤麸) and jiang ya (duck stewed in soy sauce 酱鸭).
Five-spice powder is popular to flavor boiled eggs, beef and various soybean products and imparts a rich, lingering flavor.
Many Shanghai chefs prefer a single spice in some dishes, such as xiang you shansi (river eel stir-fried with white pepper 响油鳝丝), featuring a silky texture and peppery flavor. In chenpi niurou (beef braised with orange peel 陈皮牛肉), the fruity peel cuts the fattiness of the beef, producing a balanced flavor.
In Cantonese cuisine, lu wei (internal organs such as duck tongue and chicken heart and bean curd simmered in stock 卤味) expresses the art of using spices. It requires long cooking to fully release all aromas and flavors.
"Internal organs inevitably contain some unpleasant smell, which needs to be covered by spices. If the stock is made in the authentic Cantonese way, at least six different spices are added," says chef To, who is Cantonese.
Cantonese chefs frequently place spices in a filter bag, ensuring all the flavors are released, while preventing sediment.
Aba zhou yangpai (Ngawa-tyle lamb chops 阿坝州羊排)
The dish originated in the Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province, where people typically use many herbs and spices.
Lamb chops from the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, marbled with fat, are marinated in herbs and spices including funnel, cumin, onion and ginger.
They are then coated with soy sauce and finally deep-fried with hong tang made from spices such as chili, star anise, funnel, Chinese cinnamon and cardamom.
The taste is intense and spicy. It's crisp outside and juicy and flavorful inside, with a long, complex aftertaste.
Chuan xiang pian pian Yu (fish in spicy sauce 川香片片鱼)
Bright red chili and white fish are appealing to the eye and have a hot, spicy flavor.
Boned and thinly sliced Mandarin fish (river fish with firm meat and sweet flavor) is poached in sauce made from chili, star anise, Chinese cinnamon and cardamom.
Spices cover the earthy taste of the river fish and bring out its natural sweetness.
Venue: Gui Hua Lou, Pudong Shangri-La, East Shanghai
Address: 1/F, 33 Fucheng Rd, Pudong New Area
Tel: 6882-8888 ext 220
Xiang su ya (deep-fried duck 香酥鸭)
When Chinese spices meet Chinese wine, the aroma and flavors change. In this dish, the duck has been marinated in spices for 12 hours and then steamed for two hours before it is deep-fried, to ensure the meat is tender and fully absorbs all flavors.
Chef Du uses hua diao, a yellow wine made from glutinous rice and wheat, to enhance the spices, including star anise, Chinese cinnamon, bay leaf, cardamom and small fennel seeds. The aroma is richer and the flavor is mellow.
Duck is crispy outside, tender and juicy inside. It's served with sweet and sour plum sauce, which cuts the fattiness, and huajiao yan (salt fried with Sichuan pepper), which gives each bite a deep, savory and lingering taste.
Venue: Xindalu China Kitchen, Hyatt on the Bund
Address: 1/F, 199 Huangpu Rd
Tel: 6393-1234 ext 6318
Dingxiang niurou (beef in clove sauce 丁香牛肉)
Pan-fried, thin-sliced beef, which is red in color, is served with a bowl of light brown clove sauce and white slices of guo ba (scorched, crunchy, toasty rice 1?°í) are displayed in contrasting colors.
It would seem the clove sauce is for dipping, but instead it's used to release the intense fragrance of clove. Chef To has already topped the beef in clove sauce made with sweet-and-sour tomato sauce.
"The dish presents a contrast between the smell and taste of clove," says the chef.
The beef melts in the mouth.
Rougui xueli (cinnamon with pear 肉桂雪梨)
This is a fragrant warm dessert that not only soothes the throat, but also makes diners perspire.
A whole peeled pear is double boiled with snow fungus, cinnamon and honey, and topped with mint leaf before serving.
The mixture of cinnamon and honey has a rich and strong fragrance, though the taste is mild and clean. Refreshing mint with cinnamon creates a distinctive cooling-and-hot aftertaste.