Creating Your Own Foolproof Chinese Stir-Fry–Step Three: The Condiments

What exactly is a condiment?

In the context of this series of posts on creating your own simple Chinese stir fried dishes, a condiment is a bottled or jarred liquid or paste that is used in fairly small amounts to enhance the natural flavors of the main ingredients of the dish without overpowering them.

If your main ingredients are the stars of the show, and the aromatics are the character actors who add pizazz and oomph to the production, condiments are the hard working supporting cast who help the stars shine without making themselves the center of attention. The aromatics, like character actors, often need to be reigned in to keep them from completely upstaging the stars, but condiments are not so pushy. Their main purpose is to add flavor to food without drawing too much attention to themselves in the process.

I wrote a post about the basic staples of the Chinese pantry a while back, and it is a great introduction to the most commonly used condiments in the Chinese kitchen. I also wrote separate posts about soy sauces, soybean pastes and ground bean sauce, which will be helpful for those wanting to get more specific information on these particular condiments.

What I am more interested in talking about in this post is how to combine three different condiments into a cohesive, flavorful sauce for a simple stir fried dish which consists of a protein ingredient, a green vegetable and another vegetable.

In addition to the sauces listed in the basic Chinese pantry post (light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, rice wine or dry sherry, rice vinegar, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, ground bean sauce, toasted sesame oil, and chile garlic sauce) there are two more ingredients that I will consider as condiments in the context of this series: sugar (white or raw) or honey, and citrus juice, such as lemon or orange.

By combining three ingredients from this list in careful proportions, it is possible to make a nearly endless array of flavored sauces for simple stir fries. Classic combinations abound, and it is useful to know about them, and experiment with them, but do not feel constrained by them.

Probably the most versatile trio of condiments for stir frying is the combination of soy sauce (light or dark) with rice wine or sherry and sesame oil. This mixture, with rice wine making up the bulk of the volume and providing sweetness, soy sauce bringing in the salt component and adding savory umami goodness, and sesame oil adding a nutty smokiness, tastes good with anything. Using light soy sauce in the mixture will give chicken, fish, tofu or pork a delicate flavor that enhances the natural tastes inherent to the main ingredients. Made with dark soy sauce, beef, bison, pressed tofu and shiitake mushrooms will sing.

The ratio I tend to use in mixing the wine with the soy sauce (which I will use both as a marinade and a cooking sauce) is 3 or 4:1, with the wine being the greater value. Toasted sesame oil, because it is strongly flavored and has a low smoking point, is always used in very small amounts at the end.

Another combination which is potent and flavorful is the mixture of dark soy sauce, rice vinegar and hoisin sauce, with the ratio being somewhere along the lines of 1:1:1/2-1. (The hoisin sauce amount depends on your personal taste. I go easy with it, because I think it can overpower a dish, but some people love it and would use it more along the lines of 1:1:1.) These three condiments together make a musky sweet and sour sauce that is a far cry from the sugary, florescent pink concoctions familiar from the menus of typical Chinese-American take-out joints.

If I were making a marinade for a dish using this classic trio of flavors, I would not use the vinegar in the marinade, but would either use soy sauce alone or use soy sauce and hoisin sauce. The reason is that vinegar boils at a lower temperature than water; if you add it early in the stir frying process, it will cook away and you will not taste it. It should be added close to the last minute for the best flavor effect.

A simple combination for stir fried beef and greens is the mixture of soy sauce, sugar or honey and oyster sauce. The ratio for this mixture is 1:1/4:1-2. The amount of oyster sauce used is variable depending on how much you like the flavor. I tend to use about twice as much oyster sauce as soy sauce when I cook with it, but then, I love the savory oceanic flavor it gives, particularly in beef with gai lan or kale. It is quite simply wonderful, particularly if you get a premium oyster sauce. All of these ingredients are safely used in marinades. The addition of sugar to any marinade will help the meat or tofu brown when it hits the hot wok.

A mixture that is delicious with both tofu and chicken is ground bean sauce, rice wine and sugar. The ratio is 1:2:1/8–the sugar is used primarily to balance the salt in the ground bean sauce, not to give a flavor of its own. All three ingredients can be used in a marinade.

Now, when it comes to making a marinade or making a separate sauce to be added at the end, I tend to be the sort of person who either uses all of the sauce ingredients in the marinade, or I split them up and use part in the marinade, and part to deglaze the wok during cooking. I don’t tend to make a sauce at the end. If you review my Stir Fry Technique: Ten Steps to Better Wok Cookery post, you will see my reasoning for making sauces as I go instead of at the end. In short, it is because you end up with a tastier sauce and a more integrated, flavorful dish than you would if you mixed up a sauce and added it at the end of stir frying.

So, how much marinade do I suggest you mix up, and how much liquid (usually wine) do I suggest you keep back for deglazing? Well, for most purposes you don’t need much more than about three tablespoons of marinade for about a pound or a pound and a half of protein. Really, you don’t need much. Once it is mixed with cornstarch, it will stick to the protein and sort of sink into it, thus making any extra superfluous. Then, for delgazing, you only need a tablespoon or so. Trust me–you won’t need much.

Please undestaned that all of these ratios and measures are approximate, and are based on my tastes, not yours. Experiment, and don’t be afraid to try new combinations. That is what this series is about–giving general guidelines in an easily remembered format to help folks strike out on their own and make Chinese foods that not only taste good, but reflect the tastes of the cook and his or her family and guests.

Have fun, and if you are ever in doubt about how a combination of ingredients will taste, mix bits of them together in a cup, dip your finger in and taste. Adjust as needed, and go from there.

The possible combinations are nearly endless. Play around, and make up your own flavor mixtures, and never be afraid of experimentation. Remember that while I have gained much of my knowledge directly from chefs and experienced Chinese home cooks, as well as from extensive study from books, much of my expertise has come from experimentation, observation and the occasional accident.

Cook fearlessly, and when you strike upon something you particularly like, record it so you can remember it for next time.

14 Comments

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  1. fantastic post.

    Comment by bee — May 10, 2007 #

  2. Sometimes I enjoy playing “Got That” with your posts.
    You know, you look at your fine pictures and identify the ingredients by looking at the label and going “got that..got that..got that..”
    At least I know I am on the right track :)
    -=Bryian=-

    Comment by Bryian — May 10, 2007 #

  3. Thanks for this series! Before my stir fries were all very same-y because I didn’t know how to use most of the ingredients, so I just stuck to soy sauce, garlic, ginger, maybe some black bean paste, and that was about it. Stuck that on any vegetable or meat I had, and it was all very boring.

    I really appreciate these tips on how to combine things in unique ways. I’ve been eating stir-fry almost every night for the past several days trying out all this stuff! I haven’t gotten tired of it yet, and the carbon steel wok my sister got me for Xmas is getting a nice season on it from getting used so much.

    Comment by Neohippie — May 10, 2007 #

  4. Hi Barbara! I have a question for you that I haven’t been able to come up with an answer for. Hopefully you might be able to shed some light on this. In Western cooking, the wine that you use is so important – they stress only to use wine that you would drink – never anything labeled “cooking wine.” For Japanese cooking, I use good sake, the kind I would also drink straight. In Chinese cooking, the wine we use is $4 a bottle and nothing that I would ever drink out of the bottle. Do you have any insight?
    My thought was that Chinese use a rice wine kind of like dry sherry, very different from standard white drinking wine. But still, a $4 bottle of Chinese wine is a far cry from the $10 bottle of white wine used for western cooking.

    Comment by Steamy Kitchen — May 10, 2007 #

  5. I am thrilled to see this series has been useful to a number of readers. That is my raison d’etre–to help people learn to cook something fearlessly. I want people to make the techniques, tools and ingredients of the Chinese kitchen their own, so that they can improvise dishes that taste way better than what is available in most take-outs, and is better for us to eat as well, as it will be lower in fat and sodium.

    Hey, Bry! I have encouraged people to print out pictures from my blog to take to the market so they can get the brands I recommend and not have to memorize names, just recognize them by sight!

    I remember you calling to ask which shelf at our local Asian market (where Bryian and I are both known by the owners on sight, for those who don’t know us….) the oyster sauce I used was. That was funny!

    But that stuff is good, now, isn’t it?

    Neohippie–I am so glad to hear that you are branching out and your stir fried dishes are improving. It is really a cooking technique that lends itself to a variety of foods, and the possibilities are endless. Keep experimenting–it is fun!

    Jaden–Here is a quote from one of my posts about the Shao Hsing I use in cooking:

    “I prefer Shao Hsing wine, which is not a brand, but a type of Chinese rice wine. It is amber-colored and very nutty with a slightly sweet aftertaste. The brand I prefer is unsalted–it is drinking quality, not “cooking wine”–and it comes with either a red or gold label with Chinese characters on it. The fine print in English identifies it as being made by the Zhejiang Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Company, Shaoxing Wine division. It is not very easy to find, so if you cannot get it, the best substitute that most Chinese cookbooks stipulate is a good quality dry sherry.”

    Now–what I use is about seven dollars a bottle, and it is much better than the 3-4 dollars a bottle rotgut rice wine most folks can find at the Asian markets.

    The good, drinkable Shao Hsing is hard to find–but if you ask around and are persistent, and maybe take pictures of the kind I use to the Chinese markets, you might find it somewhere or find a market owner who is willing to buy it for you.

    I use enough of it, I would get a case and keep it. It ages nicely, so if nothing else, you can drink it! And I do prefer the flavor of it to sherry.

    That said, dry sherry is perfectly good as a substitute.

    One other tip I will give you about wine in food in general.

    The NY Times recently did an experiment with using premium wines and cheap wines in cooking, and they found that the longer the wine cooks in the food, the less the quality mattered.

    For stir fries, where the wine is a flash in the pan–quality matters.

    For burre blanc sauces or sauteed fish in white wine, where the wine goes in at the end–quality matters.

    For a deeply braised dish like boeuf bourguignon, or coq au vin–quality does not much matter.

    My own experiences have led me to the same conclusions.

    So, the moral of the story is this: for quickly cooked dishes, use the really good stuff. For longer cooked dishes, save some money and use cheaper wines.

    Comment by Barbara — May 11, 2007 #

  6. So who’s the director? Of course, it’s you!

    Comment by Trig — May 13, 2007 #

  7. Thank you for this insightful article on stir frys. My family and I love stir frys but now have an extra challange (well two): first we are vegetarian (which means no oyster sauce) and second my toddler son has a soy allergy (which currently means no soy products). As soy sauce is a staple in Chinese cooking, I’m having problems find good condiment combinations. I could substitute salt for soy sauce, but that’s not really adequate. Any suggestions?

    Comment by Jan — May 21, 2007 #

  8. That is a hard one, Jan–if you were not vegetarians, I would tell you to use Golden Boy Thai fish sauce, but that will not work.

    The next thing I thought about was Maggi Sauce, which is a fermented vegetarian flavoring and coloring sauce that was invented in Switzerland, but is very popular in Asia. I had read somewhere that it was made with corn and wheat, but I looked at the ingredients online and it includes soy.

    Bragg’s Liquid Amino Acids has soy in it–no dice there.

    I looked at some recipe suggestions people put online and the concoctions they came up with were pretty awful sounding–and usually included beef bullion cubes.

    Essentially, you need not only the salt but the umami taste–the meaty flavor of amino acids.

    Here is what I suggest you do:

    Get a package of dried shiitake mushrooms–also known as Chinese black mushrooms. Get as good a quality as you can afford–nice and thick and meaty-looking with crackly tops. Put them in a large bowl, and boil enough water to cover them.

    Pour the boiling water over them, cover them, and then let them steep until the water cools to room temperature. When it is cool enough for you to handle, squeeze as much liquid out of the mushrooms as you can, and set them aside–you can use them for cooking or discard them if you want. Or, chop them up and freeze them for later.

    Pour the water through a coffee filter set in a colander into a saucepan (that catches any dirt or grit that might have been in the mushrooms) and on medium heat, bring the liquid to a simmer. Add a few tablespoons of Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry, a low salt Rapunzel organic vegetable broth cube and reduce the liquid by half.

    Add a pinch of nutritional yeast and then salt to taste. Keep it in your refrigerator–I suspect it will last for a couple of weeks.

    If you want to make “dark soy sauce” do the same thing, but add about a tablespoon of molasses to the finished product.

    Also for an added boost in umami, you could add a pinch of MSG in the form of Accent.

    That is about the closest I think I can come to replicating a soy sauce flavor using natural, vegetarian ingredients. Let me know if it works for you.

    Comment by Barbara — May 21, 2007 #

  9. Hi,
    I want to recommend marmite to Jan. It’s fermented beer yeast leftovers, used as a spread on sandwiches in England. It’s got tons of umami and I use it often for cooking. It’s not really reminiscent of soy sauce though, but is probably somewhat like this Maggi sauce, you mentioned.

    Great blog Barbara!

    Comment by Nonni — July 5, 2007 #

  10. Hi again Barbara,

    Was wondering if you have any idea for (vegetarian) marinades/sauces that aren’t too salty? My partner is trying to watch his blood pressure and it seems like so many sauces for stir-fry are SO salty (we were looking at bottled sauces at the store and every label we looked at merited a gasp. 800 or 900 mg of sodium per tablespoonful??). I’m not sure if it’d even be possible to make an authentic sauce that isn’t really salty, since soy sauce and its relatives are such a big ingredient of most sauces?

    Comment by Kat — February 18, 2008 #

  11. Kat, Kimlan makes an authentic, naturally brewed, Chinese style low sodium soy sauce.

    Kkkoman’s makes a Japanese style low sodium soy sauce–those should be a decent starting point.

    Dry sherry or drinking quality Shao Hsing wine also are unsalted–just don’t use “cooking wine,” as they are salted to render them undrinkable.

    A decent low sodium vegetarian Chinese stir fry marinade could be made by combining 2 parts dry sherry or shao hsing wine, 1 part low sodium vegetable broth or stock, 1/4 part sugar or brown sugar or honey, and 1/4 part low sodium soy sauce with as much minced ginger, garlic and scallion as you would like. Fresh minced chilies and freshly ground black pepper are an optional addition, as well as white or black rice vinegar, which has no salt, and toasted sesame oil, which is also unsalted. Citrus juices and zests also add a great deal of flavor with no salt.

    Things to avoid are “vegetarian” oyster sauce–very salty, bottled teriyaki–you are better off making your own from low sodium soy sauce, and “vegetarian” fish sauce.

    Comment by Barbara — February 18, 2008 #

  12. Excellent, so it is easier to avoid saltiness than I thought. Thanks!

    Comment by Kat — February 18, 2008 #

  13. I like your analysis and mannner of speaking, thank you for this interesting ticcket, it s always nice to visit this beautiful blog :)

    Comment by elodie — March 11, 2009 #

  14. Not sure if you still check your blog Barbara but i have a condition that makes me intolerant to soy sauce and most other condiments. I love chinese food and have not been able to eat it or replicate it for a year. Am so happy to have found this post and your reply to the other lady. The sauce tasted pretty good by the way especially with a bit of honey and coconut milk!;-)

    Comment by Becky — January 5, 2012 #

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