Chinese cuisine is too broad and rich to quantify in any meaningfully compact terms, but there are some flavors that are just too ubiquitous and too popular to not be associated in the popular imagination with Chinese cooking. And there are some sauces that are simply too good, and too versatile, to not keep in your fridge or your pantry. Some of them are old staples, while others take fascinating spins on old favorites. Here are the five Chinese sauces you should always have on hand.
1. Soy Sauce
It goes without saying that soy sauce should be in your diet, but you should also be considering what soy sauce you use. While many of the cheaper generic brands of dark soy sauce you’ll find on supermarket shelves simply taste like sodium, there’s actually a rich complexity to soy sauce recipes. That’s to say, you should have at least one bottle of soy sauce on hand at all times. But once you start to work more with soy sauce, you might find yourself mixing different variants into your dishes. Take the time to visit your local Asian market and explore. A good soy sauce will bring elements of saltiness, umami, bitterness, and even sweetness into the formula.
2. Zhong Sauce
If you’ve ever had the privilege of trying Zhong dumplings, the flavor probably continues to haunt your imagination. The rich umami of mushrooms and ginger is incredible on its own, but it really reaches a sense of harmony when combined with the dichotomy of chili and garlic. Zhong sauce condenses all of those flavors into a single jar. It’s impressive how well it manages to blend together so many traditional flavors in a way that genuinely works.
3. Chili Crisp
That mixture of chili and garlic in a thick and velvety oil isn’t just reserved for Zhong dumplings. In fact, if you like spice at all, we think it’s just as important to have in your refrigerator as sriracha. Chili crisp is simplistic in the way it contrasts two very strong flavors, but the results have more complexity than you might think. A good chili crisp is easy to find, but a great one is harder. Look for options like Fly by Jing’s Sichuan chili crisp, which offers a nice amount of kick without being overpowering or completely tongue-numbing.
4. Rice Wine Vinegar
Rice wine vinegar is one of the most subtle flavors that you can add to your kitchen, and it can have uses that go well beyond Chinese food. Rice wine vinegar isn’t quite as bitter and actually has elements of sweetness underscoring it. It’s a far more subtle taste than a lot of other vinegar, and that means that it can soften harsh flavors aptly without overpowering them. While you’ll find it used quite obviously in hot and sour soup, smaller doses of it can be used effectively to temper, texture, and complicate the existing flavors in a dish.
5. Mala Sauce
Like chili crisp, chilies are the anchor of mala sauce. But rather than pairing it with garlic, the not-so-secret ingredient is Sichuan peppercorns. The unique numbness they lend to your palate adds an interesting texture to the inherent heat, but you can’t really understand what it’s like until you try it. Those two ingredients are the two core ingredients in mala sauce, but perfecting the right combination of secondary ingredients can be difficult. For that reason, keep some mala powder in your pantry. It gives you an easy opportunity to stir up a batch of mala sauce in a pinch, and it’s one of our favorite Chinese sauces.