Balancing the Five Flavours (and one more)

The ability to perfectly balance flavours is what separates a chef from a cook

If the goal of eating and drinking is to maintain and improve health, then the typical single most important element in food would be nutrition. The Chinese, however, focus on colour, fragrance, taste and form in food, looking for refinement in food vessels and elegance of the dining environment, demonstrating an artistic spirit. Hence, from the beginnings of documented history, the Chinese advocated the philosophy of ‘harmony between the five flavours (wuweitiaohe)’. It could be related to the core concept of Confucianism: ‘harmonious society (hexie shehui)’. The Chinese invented ways to adjust blended ingredients and spices for a wide variety of tastes. Revolving around the ‘five flavours, which are sourness, sweetness, bitterness, pungency and saltiness, dishes can evolve into more than hundreds of different flavours.

Saltiness xian

Of the ‘five flavours’, saltiness is the principal flavour. It is the simplest and simultaneously the most crucial. Salt is needed to heighten any flavour in foods. Without it, any delicacy cannot emerge in its full glory. But from a health perspective, salt should not be taken in excessive quantities. The most important salty ingredient is obviously salt. However, soy sauce is of almost equal importance as a salty seasoning in Chinese cuisine. Soy sauce is a good example of how a few other flavours can be deftly used to cut the raw edges from pure salt.

Some salty ingredients: salt, soy sauce – regular.

Sourness suan

Sourness is also an indispensable taste in foods, especially in the northern part of China, where water supply is heavy in minerals and strong in base. So, in order to induce better digestion of food, vinegar is often used in cooking. It can also arouse appetite. Sour taste can also neutralize fishy odour and greasiness. At banquets with strong grease and heavy meat dishes, sour dishes are usually added to neutralise the greasy mouthfeel (ni in Chinese). They come in many varieties. Not only are the sour tastes of plums, fruits and vinegar different from one another, just the different types of vinegar are distinguished by its production areas, different ingredients and different production techniques, thus causing quite drastic differences in taste. Usually, the northerners regard mature vinegar made in Shanxi as orthodox, whilst the people in the Jiangsu-Zhejiang area appraise the Zhenjiang-made rice vinegar as authentic. The most typical of all places eating vinegar is the province of Shanxi. Many families there are skilled at making vinegar from crops and fruits. Their everyday meals are even more dependent on vinegar. A very interesting thing is that in the Chinese language, the word “vinegar” is used to represent the feelings of jealousy between men and women. Slang, such as ‘eat vinegar(chi cu)’ for being jealous and ‘vinegar jar (cugangzi)’ for a jealous person, are universally understood in both the north and the south.

Some sour ingredients: bitter melon-fresh, vinegar, lemon, lime, dry wine, cranberry, wild cherries.

Pungency xin

Pungency is the most stimulating and complex of the ‘five flavours’. Sometimes Chinese use ‘pungent-hot (xinla)’ as one word. In actuality, pungency and hot (la) have major differences. Hot is sense of taste, stimulating the tongue, throat and nasal cavity. Instead, pungency is not just a sense of taste as it involves sense of smell as well. Pungency is mostly obtained from ginger, while hot and spicy usually denotes the use chili pepper or black pepper. Since hot peppers were a foreign product, there was no mentioning of ‘hot’ in ancient Chinese cooking, instead it was generalised as pungency. Ginger not only neutralizes rank taste and odour but can also bring out the great taste of fish and meats. So, ginger is a must-have when preparing fish and meat. There are also principles to using hot peppers. We should not merely seek for the degree of hotness but should rather use saltiness and natural essence of food as fundamentals, so that the hot and spicy taste comes out multi-staged, full of great aroma and not too dry. In addition, garlic, scallion, ginger and other spices can also kill bacteria, so are great for cold dishes with dressing.

Some pungent ingredients: ginger, black pepper, chili peppers, Sichuan pepper, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, radish, cardamom.

Bitterness ku

Bitterness is rarely used alone in cooking but is a valuable asset. When making simmered or braised meats, adding tangerine or orange peel, clove, almond and other seasonings with a light bitter touch can rid the meat of unpleasant taste and smell, and awaken the original flavour of the food. Black foods usually also have bitter flavour notes. Traditional Chinese medicinal theories believe that bitterness is helpful for the stomach and produces saliva. Some people really enjoy bitter taste in foods, such as in the Sichuan-style ‘Strange Taste (guaiwei)’ type of foods, which have the bitter elements.

Some bitter ingredients: bitter melon-ripe, Seville orange, soy sauce-thin, garlic-raw, star anise, dry mustard, radicchio, mustard greens, endive, arugula.

Sweetness gan

Sweetness has the effect to cushion the effect of other basic flavours, whereas saltiness, sourness, pungency and bitterness are all too strong, they could be remedied by sweetness. When making dishes of other tastes, sugar can improve and embellish. However, using large amounts of sugar is not recommended, as too much sugar can be nauseous. Since many spices can produce a sweet flavour and they all taste quite different, much of the culinary world hails cane sugar as the orthodox sweetness.

Some sweet ingredients: sugar, honey, coconut, bell peppers, apples, grapes, raisons, hoisin sauce, cooking wine, garlic-cooked dates, onions-cooked, rice-cooked, bing cherries.

Freshness xian

What is not listed in the ‘five flavours’ but still holds an important status in the culinary world is the ‘freshness’, now better known as umami, factor. ‘Freshness’ is the most tempting flavour in food. Most foods all contain an ‘essence’ but it is often dormant, so making soup is often the way to awaken the taste. Chicken, pork, beef, fish and ribs can all be used as soup stock. When the unpleasant tastes and smell are eliminated during the soup-making process, the essential flavour is fully exposed by adding just a touch of salt. Stock not only can be enjoyed directly but can also be used to make other plain foods taste great. Such foods include shark’s fin, sea cucumber, bird’s nest, bean curd and gluten, which all must be cooked with essence soup to achieve its mouth-watering taste. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is an artificial essence. Its synthetic nature makes it impossible to compare to naturally made stock. So skilled chefs usually do not care for it.

Medicinal flavours

Five tastes in harmony, with flavour as the top priority, bringing direct pleasure to the tongue. At the same time, it is a good health-protecting and body-regulating method. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) theories state that pungency can regulate bodily fluids, blood and qi, and can be used to treat bone and muscle pain from coldness, kidney problems and so on. Sweetness can nourish, soothe, and improve emotional mood. Honey and red jujubes are also great tonic foods for those who have a weak and frail physique. Sour taste can cure diarrhoea and produce saliva to stop thirst. Sour vinegar can prevent colds, while eggs boiled in vinegar can stop coughing. All these are folk cures with adequate modern medical recognition. Bitterness can release heat in the body, improves vision and detoxify the body. Five tastes in harmony is an important factor to great health and long life. The picture shows that sour is linked to the liver, bitter to the heart, sweetness to the spleen, pungency to the lungs and saltiness to the kidneys.

Compound flavours

Chinese cuisine is apt in mixing and blending flavours. Spices and other seasoning ingredients can be combined in endless ways, but a small number of the them have become such favourites of Chinese chefs, that they have got used with various types of foods. An example introduced in an earlier post is yuxiang, ‘fish flavour’. In that post, I introduced the basic recipe and a number of variations developed by food technologists. This post adds another dimension to the understanding of such generic compounds: the mix of basic flavours: yuxiang is relatively hot, but the right combinations of saltiness, pungency, sourness and sweetness can bring out the delicacy of the peppers while containing excessive sharpness.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.

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New dairy ads reflects cultural change in China

Yili Dairy, China’s top dairy brand (and second food brand in 2014), based in the capital of Inner Mongolia, Huhhot, has launched remarkable marketing campaigns for some of its popular products. Mengniu, located in the same city, has followed suit.

Oat milk

Breakfast milk is; another member of the expanding Chinese family of formulated dairy products. Yili has entered this market with Oat Milk.

The phenomenon breakfast milk is a product of the increasing of the pace of life in China. From the beginning of the Chinese nation to very recent times, three hot meals a day were sacred in China. Gobbling down a sandwich on your way to work, a familiar sight in my home region, would abhor any Chinese. That thing with the sandwich is still rare in China, but the quick ready-made breakfast is emerging.

The ad for Oat Milk shows Taiwanese singer Eddy Peng drinking (well, at least one end of the straw is in his mouth and the other in a carton of Oat Milk) striking a masculine pose. The text introduces him as a nanshen ‘male god’. Although Chinese women are just as attracted to males like this as their sisters in any other part of the world, such direct sexual remarks are rather un-Chinese. And I am not talking about post 1949 China. Han Chinese are usually rather reserved about this type of emotions.

Eddy

The text adds that male gods are busy chasing their ideals, but impeded by the hardship of work. I have translated the Chinese word ouxiang ‘icon’ here as ideal. It alludes that Peng is the male icon of many Chinese men, but also an object of worship for most women.

The Oat Milk slogan is: four special functions:

OatMilk

Overtime Miracle

Travel Mate

Slimming Success

Ideal Snack

Overtime has entered China already a while ago. China is one of the few nations the constitution of which includes the right to rest for all citizens. However, overtime now seems to be more normal than in many Western countries. What Yili seems to be suggesting is that its Oat Milk can be used to replace the meal that a proper employer would provide to staff members who agree to overtime. A carton of milk with chunks of oat floating in it, that you can consume while continuing to work, would until recently never be accepted. Now, the marketers of Yili seem to believe that this suggestion will no longer elicit protests.

The Chinese term lütu banlü has been coined after kafei banlü Coffee Mate. However, the latter is a powder that is much easier (and again quicker) to use than liquid coffee creamer. Oat Milk is a liquid that you are advised through this ad to carry with you while travelling. A quick bite/sip on the road. Once more, this suggested use is a replacement of the meal that Chinese travellers would usually not be willing to skip. Chinese travellers board a train heavily packed, not with clothes, but food and drinks to consume while chatting with their companions and enjoying the landscape.

Both functions seem to indicate that the pace of life is accelerating in China. One of the cultural rituals affect most strongly by this development is that of eating three warm meals a day.

The oat fibre in Oat Milk is said to help keeping your waist slim. That by itself would not be much more than an empty promise, but the picture of a man Eddy Peng makes it real. Drink Yili Oat Milk and look like Eddy Peng.

The word ‘snack’ in my translation of the final term refers to the Chinese concept of lingshi. It literally means ‘fragmentary food’, food that you can eat any time between meals. When you look at the scope of what is regarded as lingshi by Chinese it seems to be basically identical to xiuxian shipinleisure food’, about which I have devoted an entire post in this blog. Lingshi then seems to be a more colloquial term, while xiuxian shipin is used in a more commercial context. Why it is called ideal seems obvious: as you are snacking anyway, you might as well do it on healthy food. However, I wonder if people would be willing to pack a relatively heavy carton of beverage instead of that pack of melon seeds, preserved plums or other traditional snacks.

Regardless whether Yili’s Oat Milk will be a success or a failure, its ad already is making history.

So, what’s in it? Here is the ingredients list:

Fresh milk, water, crystal sugar, oat grains, oat meal, Vit. A, Vit. D3, iron (fe edta), zinc, food additives (microcrystalline cellulose, CMC, gellan gum, carrageenan, monoglyceride,sucrose ester, sodium bicarbonate), food flavour.

So it is not completely natural, but we would not have expected it to be to begin with.

In the course of 2018, Yili has launched another oat milk, this time flavoured with coconut, marketed under the Guliduo (‘Lots of Cereals’) brand. It is said be made of Vietnamese coconut, carefully selected milk and Australian oat.

You Yoghurt

Yili has hired the services of another Tainwanese star, Jack Chou, to advertise for one of its yoghurt ranges: You Yoghurt (you means ‘best’). Jack Chou is shown sitting in a director’s chair, shouting ‘I want You’. The scene is derived from the TV program Voice of China.

YiliYouAd

Note that the makers of this ad assume that the intended audience have a command of English sound enough to recognise the pun. The deeper reference to the old American military posters telling young American men that ‘Uncle Sam wants you’ will escape the attention of most of them, though.

Winter Olympics

Yili is one of the first Chinese food companies to respond to Beijing’s winning of the Winter Olympics in 2022. The company has launched the following commercial:

YiliOlymp

The text reads: ‘I have a seven-year appointment with the Olympic Games‘. And again we see the emerging individualism in this frame. The lonely icehockey player, instead of a team and the use of ‘I’ instead of ‘we’.

It is fascinating to see how a traditional state owned enterprise is able to reinvent itself to fit into the 21st Century. According to the Rabobank survey, Yili now ranks among the world’s 20 largest dairy companies.

Yoghurt icecream

Mengniu, China’s second largest dairy company, has recently launched one of China’s first yoghurt icecreams, marketed under the Dilan brand. The company started the promotion campaign with handing out samples for free to white collar workers in Beijing’s major commercial buildings. Dilan’s ads also indicate that the product is geared to that market segment: the individualist young professionals focused on their careers.

DailanYoghIce

Male vs Female

Yet another product of Yili is a lactic acid beverage branded Changyi that is marketed as being beneficial to the ‘male spirit’ (nanshen). Most of Yili’s new ads introduced above use male bodies as icons for position various dairy products. This product takes this trend one step further by directly referring to the male spirit.

Changyi

Mengniu has launched a sweetened milk, Tianxiaohai, that comes in separate female (pink) and male (blue) packagings

MnFemPack  MnMalePack

However, the ingredients are exactly the same; no gender-related formulation.

Fresh milk (>= 80%), sugar, additives (sucrose ester, monoglyceride, carrageenan), flavour

No sharing with others

Specialists in national culture all agree that Chinese culture is collectivist, placing the group’s interests above that of the individual. This trait of Chinese culture has left a huge mark on the Chinese practice of eating and drinking, in which sharing is a key concept. A Chinese meal is typically eaten around a round table with all dishes placed in the middle, for all participants to share. An now, in 2016, Yili launches this ad.

YiliWangpai

The ad is for Weikezi Chocolate Milk and the boy is saying: ‘Weikezi is delicious, no way I’m going to share it with you’. That statement sounds outrageously un-Chinese. So, is this a sign that young Chinese are becoming more individualist, or is this ad perhaps meant to provoke? I am sure it will make more than few Chinese eyebrows rise.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.