The Holy Trinity of the Chinese Kitchen

In the cuisines of South Louisiana, cooks speak in reverential tones of three essential aromatic ingredients which they call, “The Holy Trinity:”onion, celery and bell pepper.

Nearly every recipe starts with the Holy Trinity being sauteed in a heavy-bottomed pan, where their combined fragrance and flavor can then infuse the finished dish deliciously.

Chinese cookery, too, has a Holy Trinity of aromatics, though perhaps it is silly to call it that. South Louisiana is an overwhelming Catholic culture; perhaps in the case of China the allusion has little to no meaning. Instead, I suppose I could call the Chinese Holy Trinity a Triad.

“Triad” can refer to Chinese organized crime elements, but in this context, I see it in a more positive light. I see it as three elements of flavor working together to create a synergistic effect that is essential to successful Chinese cooking.

The members of this flavor triad are fresh ginger, garlic and scallions, and they are the cornerstones of excellent Chinese food.

It is a rare savory Chinese dish which does not contain at least two and very often three of these pillars of flavor in some form or another.

When stir frying, these three intrepid aromatics are usually the very first ingredients to hit the hot wok where they bathe in the sizzling oil, flavoring it intensely, so that the ingredients which follow their lead are kissed by the scent and savor of ginger, garlic and scallion. How these ingredients are cut determines how much flavor they add to a stir-fried dish; in general terms, the smaller the cut, the more intense the flavor, because tiny pieces expose more surface area to the extracting influence of the heated oil.

Aromatics ground to a paste have the most flavoring power, with minced or finely chopped bits coming in second. Finely julienned pieces are the next most powerful flavor enhancers, while thin, broad slices add subtle flavor and chunks or crushed whole cloves and pieces add delicate whispers of aroma.

Care must be taken when working with ground or minced ginger, garlic and scallion in a hot wok, however. The smaller cuts do indeed impart the most flavor potential, but their large surface area also accounts for a tendency to burn quickly and easily. Burnt aromatics do nothing for a stir-fried dish but render it unpalatable, and the difference between pleasantly browned and bitterly burned is naught but a matter of seconds in a properly heated wok.

In order to correct this problem, I often counsel cooks new to the art of stir-frying to either add the minced or ground aromatics -after- adding the main protein ingredient, whether that is tofu, seafood, poultry or meat, or that they add the minced aromatics and then immediately add the protein ingredient, without allowing the aromatics to infuse the oil on their own.

The reason for this is simple. If you take the former path and add the protein first, while it is browning undisturbed on the bottom of the wok, you can sprinkle the minced or ground aromatics on the top of the protein. Hot oil will still come bubbling up to hit the aromatics, and thus the scent and flavor will be somewhat infused, but not by gaining instant, intimate contact with the very hot metal of the wok. The protein ingredient shields the tiny pieces, and are flavored by these bits of aromatic ingredient sitting on top of them. Once the protein ingredients are browned, and stir frying commences, the likelihood of burning the aromatics is vastly reduced.

If the second path is taken, the immediate addition of the protein ingredients lowers the temperature of the wok a good deal, which means that the tiny bits of aromatics trapped under it in the hot wok are not as likely to burn. This is a trickier technique, however, because there is the possibility that the aromatics will burn anyway while the protein stays stationary on the bottom of the wok to brown, so I generally suggest to timid beginning wok cooks that they use the former technique. They both result in great flavor–the protein browns and gets crusty, the aromatics turn golden and the entire dish is infused with wok-hay.

When cooking with thin slices, or julienne or crushed whole bits, however, I always advocate putting the triad of ginger, garlic and scallion into the wok first, as I find that the flavor of a stir fry is immeasurably improved by this one simple action.

These ingredients, however, are not only used in stir-fried dishes, but also in braises, red-cooked dishes, steamed dishes, soups, dim sum dumplings, breads and noodle dishes of all sorts. They are truly universal flavorings in the Chinese kitchen and are utterly indispensable. The balance between these three flavors (or between two of these flavors) is often the primary element of any given Chinese dish, and as such, it behooves a cook to learn as much as possible as she can about them.

Ginger is a rhizome, and is considered to be warming. Its flavor is sharp and intense, yet light and floral at the same time. It is often used with fish, lamb, beef and other strongly scented flesh ingredients, because it is considered to be cleansing of strong odors. It is believed to strengthen a lax appetite, and is given to those suffering of a queasy stomach. It has the power to cut richness in a dish, bringing a note of springlike freshness to it. It is a primary ingredient in Chinese soup stocks and broths, where its presence is gentle and comforting. In some stir fries, it is crisp and used with a heavy hand in order to bring heat and fire to a dish of greens which are very much considered to have a damp, cooling quality.

Fresh ginger is so easily found in most American supermarkets these days, that I would never suggest that you purchase any ginger paste in jars; the flavor is quite simply unsatisfactory. I buy a great deal of the rhizomes at a time–a pound or so–because I use so much of it. If I can find really young ginger with thin, pinkish skin, I will buy even more of it than that, because I love the crisp, not-stringy texture and the sprightly, lemony flavor so much. I keep it in paper bags in my crisper drawer, but I am told that if one needs to keep it for a long time, one can bury the unpeeled rhizomes in a pot of sand and put them in a cool dark place like a closet. Or, one can peel the rhizome and put it in a jar, and cover it completely with a fortified wine or rice wine like Shao Hsing.

Garlic is ubiquitous, not only in Chinese cookery, but in most cuisines in the world. This relative of the lily consists of bulbs that are separated into several or many units, called cloves, around a central stalk. The stalk is the part of the plant that flowers and sets seed, but most farmers propagate garlic by carefully separating the cloves and planting them one by one. Each one will send up a flowering stalk and leaves, and will eventually grow a new bulb. Thus, from a single bulb of garlic, up to ten or twelve plants can be grown.

But enough about growing it–what about cooking with it?

Utterly indispensable, garlic can be by turns sweet and hot, soft or sharp, depending on the cooking method and how it is cut. Simmered long in red-cooked dishes, it becomes sweet and soft, with a seductive fragrance that beguiles the senses. Minced up and mixed into the filling for dumplings or wontons, then steamed or boiled, it enhances the natural flavor of meat, giving a pungent strength that is impossible to duplicate with any other ingredient. Sliced and stir fried golden brown, it gives incomparable flavor to myriad green vegetables, especially when paired with fermented black beans or ginger. Minced and used raw in dipping sauces, it is pungent and vibrant.

Garlic is well known for having antibacterial properties; in the days before antibiotics, it was used to dress battle wounds. I like drinking a broth with plenty of garlic and ginger in it when I have a cold, as the two act together to both drain stuffed up sinuses, and kill any bacteria that might be lurking in my throat waiting to cause a secondary infection. Besides, when I am so stuffed up that I can barely breathe, my sense of taste is diminished due to lack of the ability to smell clearly; ginger and garlic both are strongly flavored enough that whatever broth or soup I am drinking doesn’t taste like water.

I like garlic best paired with ginger, though there is nothing wrong with using it on its own, or with scallions. I am idiosyncratic in that I prefer to use more garlic with pork and more ginger with beef; to my taste, the sweetness of garlic brings out the natural sweetness inherent in pork, while the sharp fire of ginger brings fragrance to the strong flavor of beef. I love garlic with tofu and chicken as well, though, and while I can eat both without ginger, I cannot consider eating either without garlic.

Scallions are a type of immature onion that never grows into a proper bulb. They, instead, grow into long, slender shoots that look similar to small leeks, though the green leaves are hollow tubes instead of being flat like leeks. Also known as green onions and spring onions, scallions have a very subtle onion flavor that is not as strong as onions, but stronger than shallots. They are used extensively in Chinese cookery in combination with the other members of the “Aromatic Triad,” (Or, should I call them the “Aromatic Trio” after the Hong Kong film, “The Heroic Trio?”) to season stir fries, steamed dishes, dim sum, soups and braises.

Scallions are used in soup stocks the way that leeks are used in the French tradition of stock-making. They add a subtle onion flavor and aroma without being overpowering. Sauteed with sesame oil with slivers of ginger, julienned scallions are used to dress steamed whole fish Cantonese cuisine. The two flavors combine to bring out the inherent sweetness and delicacy of fish, and the colors of the pale green slivers mixed with the cream colored slivers of ginger look lovely against the iridescent shimmer of fish skin.

Thinly sliced scallions star in scallion pancakes, a street food of Beijing. They add sweetness and pungency to the crisp-chewy layered wheat flour pancakes that is hard to resist. (Scallion pancakes are my mother’s favorite Chinese food.) Often used raw in many dipping sauces and as a garnish for many stir-fries, dark green scallion tops bring a note of crunch and freshness to every dish they touch. In many dishes, the white and light green parts of scallions are used early in the cooking process where their strength is tamed by heat, and the tops are used at the end, in order to add color and a brisk snap of onion flavor.

This versatility of the scallion ensures that it is used in many classic combinations with its two compatriots, ginger and garlic, in the Chinese kitchens of yesterday, today and tomorrow, in China and all over the world.

Personally, if I were to have to use only three aromatics in my kitchen, I believe I would probably pick ginger, garlic and scallions. I am so used to starting many recipes with them, that I am not sure I would know what to do without them.

Luckily, they are easily obtained, and here in Ohio, both garlic and scallions are easily grown. Ginger, being a tropical rhizome, could be grown in pots or a solar-warmed greenhouse, but I am not sure I could grow enough to keep our household supplied in it. Luckily there are many farmers here in Athens, however, who grow plenty of scallions and garlic for us all.

18 Comments

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  1. I’ve had a lot of problems with scallions being moldy (at the store). Except when they’re available at the summer farmer’s market here (which runs about May-Sept), I have a lot of trouble finding scallions that aren’t covered in mold underneath the outer skin–doesn’t matter whether I get them from Whole Paycheck or a chain grocery store. :( I’m not sure where else to look.

    Comment by Mel — April 9, 2007 #

  2. I joke that the “Big 3″ of South Indian cuisine are the M-C-C – mustard seeds, dried chilies, curry leaves…

    The three ingredients I couldn’t do without are ginger, garlic and curry leaves. I don’t think a day goes by I don’t use at least one, sometimes all 3.

    Comment by Diane — April 9, 2007 #

  3. This is such a great post. Thanks for sharing this information!

    Comment by Laura Rebecca — April 10, 2007 #

  4. Hi there! I have been following and totally enjoying your Chinese series! And I have been courageous enough to buy some supplies too. I just had a question about how to stir fry tofu without it falling apart. I have tried firm/super-firm/expensive/organic/ALL types of tofu. But they crumble in the wok! Now I have reduced to deep-frying it. Help!

    Comment by g — April 10, 2007 #

  5. Great post, Barbara. All ingredients very readily available where I live all year round and always found in my fridge/veg rack, though strangely I rarely start cooking with this combination. We are much more used to starting with garlic and yellow onion. It is often said here that you start with these and then wonder what to cook, which sounds similar to what you are saying.

    Comment by Trig — April 10, 2007 #

  6. The Heroic Trio! Which one is Michelle Yeoh? ;)

    Comment by Indefatigable — April 10, 2007 #

  7. [...] Tigers & Strawberries ยป The Holy Trinity of the Chinese Kitchen (tags: blog cooking food howto chinese ginger scallions garlic) [...]

    Pingback by links for 2007-04-11 at Dead in the Midwest — April 11, 2007 #

  8. I am glad to see that everyone enjoyed this post so much.

    Mel–that sucks about the scallions. Are they moldy all the way in the shoot, or is it only in the outer layer? I always cut off the root end, then peel off the outer layer or two, including the dark green bits attached to those layers, and discard them, then rinse thoroughly. I find that most dirt or any other issue is only in the outer layers.

    Diane–I love curry leaves, too. I love that musky smell–they just make my nose wriggle with anticipation!

    Thank you, Laura–I am glad you liked it!

    G–while you were writing that request, I was by chance picking up various forms of tofu to use in a series of posts on how to stir fry (and braise and deep fry) tofu I have planned for next week. Will that help, do you think?

    Trig–yellow onion is used a lot in Chinese food, too, but not nearly as much as scallion. I like them both, though….

    Indefatigable–which one is which, eh?

    Well, I think that Michelle Yeoh is garlic. (Probably because I like garlic best, but here is my other rationalization….) I see Michelle Yeoh as both strong and sweet. Of the three actresses in that film, she comes across most convincingly as a bad-ass warrior. (Especially as she ages–she was amazing in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon….) She has that strength, and then her smile is one of sweetness, so I think of her as garlic–strong when it is raw, but sweet when cooked.

    Anita Mui is scallion, all the way. Scallions always look so elegant and fresh, with their green and white coats. Anita was a lovely lady who was also an amazing comic actress who was adept at slapstick (look at her work in Rumble in the Bronx)–and while you can dress up scallions in lots of different ways as garnishes, it can also be rather crude when eaten raw, delivering a full onion punch in a pretty package.

    As for ginger–oh, that is easy. It is sweet, it is fresh, it is fiery hot. It is a flirt, just like Maggie Cheung.

    And yeah, I guess I just showed how much of a Hong Kong movie geek I really am….

    Comment by Barbara — April 12, 2007 #

  9. Haha! Okay, I did have a serious question too… I had to ask that one because I’ve had a serious girlcrush on Ms. Yeoh in every movie I’ve ever seen her in (except maybe the James Bond one).

    My serious question was, is it sacrilegious to freeze fresh ginger?

    It’s the only way I’ve ever had any success keeping it for a length of time. When I store it in the fridge or at room temperature it goes green faster than I can use it, or it shrivels up. (I live alone, and if I buy a piece of ginger big enough to weigh on the supermarket scale, it’s too much.) When I freeze it, it seems to keep most of its flavour and heat for a long time.

    Comment by Indefatigable — April 13, 2007 #

  10. I love Michelle Yeoh, too. Serious fangirl here…..

    All that you lose in freezing ginger is the texture. That is not a big deal. Freeze with impunity, I say!

    Comment by Barbara — April 13, 2007 #

  11. Great article!!! Gives long overdue honor to these 3 aromatics.

    I often use a hand held cheese grater to mince the ginger and garlic. I have – and can use my trusty cleaver, but the cheese grater (with the 1/8 round holes) is a snap.

    I don’t even peel the garlic. With my fingernails, I clip the very tip of the clove, and then rub it along the grater. the garlic comes out on the underside and the paper stays on top. With ginger — the same. just wash it, don’t peel it. Rub it along the grater and you have a nice mince.

    A quick rinse under the water, and the grater is ready to be put away.

    Comment by Jo-Ann — April 14, 2007 #

  12. Hi Barbara, What a wonderful site you have! I just came up on it through a link to a link to another link. I love the Internet. I also teach Asian cooking classes – and always tell my students about the Chinese holy trinity!

    Comment by Steamy Kitchen — April 16, 2007 #

  13. thanks Barbara! Am looking forward to it!

    Comment by g — April 17, 2007 #

  14. Jo-Ann–that is a great tip–thanks!

    Steamy–glad to hear from you! And it is good to know that I am not the only one who talks about the Chinese holy trinity.

    And yeah–the Internet rocks. I have found some of the best stuff through the net.

    G–later this week–I promise!

    Comment by Barbara — April 17, 2007 #

  15. Wow, that post was so informative. Thanks a bunch. You sure do know alot about Chinese cooking. I hope my blog gets as good as yours one day.

    Comment by Jimmy — April 20, 2007 #

  16. Keep writing, Jimmy, and it will. Just keep cooking, experimenting, tasting, reading and writing about it all, and folks will read about your adventures.

    Good luck!

    Comment by Barbara — April 22, 2007 #

  17. i wanted to know i got a jar of minced ginger and minced garlic together in the same jar but i can not find it anymore do you know of any one who makes this if you do will you let me know so that i may order some of it
    thank you for your time

    Comment by brenda — October 16, 2007 #

  18. Sorry, Brenda–I haven’t run across such a product. I am sure it exists, but haven’t seen it.

    Good luck.

    Comment by Barbara — October 16, 2007 #

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