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Basic Chinese Food Vocabulary: Common Food and Sauces

Basic Chinese Food Vocabulary: Common Food and Sauces

Part of appreciating different culinary cultures is knowing how ingredients and dishes are called in their native language. The dining experience is guaranteed to be more satisfying when you know a bit of the history behind what you’re eating. Learning how to pronounce local terms is also another way of respecting unique cuisines. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain when you do so!

As part of our Chinese Language Day Special, find out the meaning behind some of the most popular Chinese dishes that you typically see on a Chinese menu. Once you get to know more about these, you’ll open yourself up to a door of delicious possibilities!

Chinese Food Vocabulary

1. Tang Bao 汤包

Tang bao, which literally means soup buns, are soup-filled baozi steamed buns that are prepared and served in a bamboo steaming basket. A common type of tang bao is xiaolongbao. It’s typically made with a pork and soup filling and are dipped in a mixture of Zhenjiang vinegar and ginger slices. Similarly, shengjianbao refers to pan-fried tangbaos.

2. No Mi Fan 糯米饭

No Mi Fan is a Chinese savory sticky rice made from steamed white sticky rice, Chinese sausage, and mushrooms. Others versions include shrimp, chicken thighs, and other types of protein. It’s like the sticky and steamed sister of Chinese fried rice!

3. Chao Fan 炒饭

Speaking of Chinese Fried Rice, Chao Fan refers to a wide variety of fried rice dishes across China. Cooked rice, meat, vegetables, egg, soy sauce, and garlic are some of the basic ingredients of chao fan. Sesame oil gives it a subtle smoky finish while chili pepper is an optional yet welcome addition for spicy food lovers.

4. National Dish of China: Beijing Kao Ya 北京烤鸭

Kao Ya refers to Peking duck that originates from northern China and is considered as one of the national dishes of china. The ducks are cooked slowly over woodfire and singed in flames using poles. Once cooked, the ducks come out with crispy skin, tender meat, and a reddish sheen that goes well with Chao Fan.

5. Chao Mein 炒面/ Lo Mein 捞面

Chao Mein literally means stir-fried noodles. The most common chow mein variation is made with a delicious mixture of meat, vegetables like bok choy, onions, cabbage, carrots, and green onions, as well as chow mein wheat noodles. Lo Mein is a kind of chao mein but it uses Chinese egg noodles instead of wheat.

6. Shao Kao 烧烤

Shao Kao translates to barbeque in Chinese. It refers to grilled food that’s prepared in bamboo skewers and heavily seasoned with Chinese spices like cumin, five-spice powder, chili flakes, and more. It has many regional varieties, ranging from lamb skewers, drunken prawns, baked potatoes, and more.

Meanings of Chinese Sauces

When visiting Asian grocery stores, you might be faced with an overwhelming line of sauces and ingredients that look appetizing but so unfamiliar. What could they all mean? Find out with this quick guide:

1. Tian Mian Jiang 甜面酱

Tian Mian Jiang, which literally means sweet flour sauce in Chinese, is a thick sauce made from wheat flour, sugar, salt, and occasionally, fermented soybeans. Don’t confuse it with hoisin sauce, though! The difference between tian mian jiang and hoisin sauce is that the latter uses wheat as its main ingredient, with the option to add fermented soybeans. On the other hand, fermented soybeans is the highlight of hoisin sauce.

Its sweet umami flavors make it ideal as a sauce for Beijing Zha Jiang Mian, a dipping sauce for jidan bing Chinese pancakes, and stir-fry sauce for Chao Mein.

2. Shaoxing Wine 紹興酒

Shaoxing Wine is a cooking wine made with fermented sticky rice, water, and wheat. The Chinese also use this as a beverage and drink it from rice bowls. Compared to rice wine, Shaoxing wine has a light saltiness yet rich flavor. Just like light soy sauce, shaoxing may have a darker color but it is actually less saltier yet more depth than its counterparts. It’s commonly used as a flavoring sauce for meat, dumpling fillings, wontons, and stir-fries.

Hoisin is derived from the Chinese word meaning “seafood”, but don’t be fooled! Hoisin sauce does not contain any seafood ingredients. Instead, this dark-colored sauce is made from a sweet and savory mix of soybeans, red chili peppers, garlic, vinegar, and five-spice. It’s commonly used as a glaze, dipping sauce, or marinade in Cantonese dishes like char siu or rice noodle rolls.

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Shacha is a spicy and savory sauce made from soybean oil, garlic, dried shrimp, chili, and other aromatics that make it an ideal barbeque or hot pot sauce. The term shacha is derived from satay sauce that Chinese laborers from Malaysia and Indonesia have adapted to local tastes. In Taiwan, when you say shacha sauce, the Bullhead Brand is the top-of-mind shacha sauce brand.

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Char Siu, which literally means fork roasting, is a sweet Cantonese dish that’s glazed with a sauce made from five-spice powder, honey, dark soy sauce, hoisin, rice wine, and several other high-quality Asian spices. The name comes from the traditional way of cooking Char Siu Pork where strips of pork are skewered in long forks and roasted over an open fire.

Its sweet and sticky quality of the sauce is what makes this dish a hit in many countries. Char siu sauce can also be used as a marinade, dipping sauce, and flavoring sauce for noodles and rice.

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Douchi or tochi is a fermented Chinese salted black bean paste that’s pungent in smell and taste–almost like a mixture of soy and fish sauce. When cooked, a subtle sweetness comes out. This unique explosion of flavors is the reason why several Chinese culinary dishes is made with this ingredient, particularly mapo tofu and my very own Pork in Black Bean Garlic Sauce.

If you’ve reached the end of this basic Chinese Food Vocabulary Guide, good for you! This is just one of the many steps you can take in appreciating Asian food culture!

Apart from that, it’s now easier to find out what you’ve been missing on and which ones you should get from your neighborhood Chinese grocery. Time to start shopping and get cooking!

For more culture tidbits and curated Asian grocery items, shop at Karman Foods!

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