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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China’s many capitals – regional food chauvinism in China

The leading port of export of canned food from China is Zhangzhou – China’s Canned Food Capital (Chinese news source, 19/7/2016)

I have yet to find out when the first city in China started calling itself ‘the capital of . . .’, where … is a slot for a certain product (group), one of which that city is a national production centre. However, it now has become so important for the local economy, that it has almost become an official designation, bestowed by an industrial association.

Icons are an important aspect of the construction of social identity in Chinese culture. Chinese like to identify a famous person who they would like to become. More than a few Chinese start-up cyber-entrepreneurs are dreaming of becoming China’s Steve Jobs. Some even go as far as to try to emulate their hero’s behaviour, clothing, and speech.

In an analogous fashion, Chinese cities that are leading in a certain industry have started picking a similar foreign city, calling themselves ‘China’s …’ A city with a major car maker may call itself ‘China’s Detroit’. Unfortunately, there are several cities in China that are the home of a major automobile manufacturer, resulting in almost as many ‘Detroits of China’. So far, this has not led to conflicts between the various local governments. Detroit doesn’t care either. The city has lost most of its car-related industry and virtually turned into a ghost town.

Several posts of this blog are introducing the growing importance Chinese local governments attach to their local culinary specialties. A representative post is that about Jinhua ham. Jinhua ham is so typical for that region, that Jinhua has applied for DOC status for this product, meaning that only ham producers of Jinhua are allowed to market their ham as ‘Jinhua Ham’.

A city with a DOC-status food is likely to have a relatively large number of manufacturers of that product, and/or the top producer in that business. Instead of finding its icon elsewhere, such cities endeavour to become an icon themselves, by calling themselves ‘China’s Capital of <their typical product>’. Unlike in the case of China’s multiple Detroits, this has been a cause for chauvinist strive. As societal harmony is a top priority in China, the government has started to regulate such designation through the various sector associations. The most famous issue was giving Huhhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia the status of ‘China’s Dairy Capital’. It was initiated by Mengniu, a well-known company for the regular readers of this blog. Mengniu want Huhhot to be the first city to apply for that status, lest another city would be the first to do so. Huhhot itself was not too keen at first, but gave in at the end. Once the Dairy Association of China had recognised Huhhot as China’s Dairy Capital, no other city in China was allowed to refer to itself in that way. I am not sure if there actually is a penalty for violating this rule, but so far no other city has tried. To mark its status of China’s dairy capital, a large monument was put up in Huhhot.

MilkCapMonument

In the remaining part of this post, I will list a few of the major Chinese food capitals. This list is by no means exhaustive and I will keep adding cities, whenever I encounter them in my scanning of the Chinese information streams. Some of these have a more or less official status, i.e. they are bestowed by the relevant sector association. However, most still seem to be self-assigned. This is probably why there are several capitals for some products.

This list may turn out quite useful. If you want to know quickly were a certain food is produced in China, this list can guide you directly to a/the major region. You will have to look further (e.g. using this blog’s search engine), but this is a good start.

  • China’s ‘Canned Food Capital’: Zhangzhou (Fujian).
  • China’s ‘Dairy Capital’: Huhhot (Inner Mongolia).
  • China’s ‘Chili Capital’: Guizhou
  • China’s ‘Capital of High Quality Maize’: Siping (Jilin).
  • China’s ‘Green Tea Capital’: Emei (Sichuan).
  • China’s ‘Seaweed Capital’: Rongcheng (Shandong), Fuzhou (Fujian).
  • China’s ‘Coffee Capital’: Pu’er (Yunnan).
  • China’s ‘Beverage Capital’: Sanshui (Guangdong).
  • China’s ‘Goat Milk Capital’: Fuping (Shaanxi).
  • China’s ‘Apple Capital’: Qixia (close to Yantai, Shandong).
  • China’s ‘Kiwi Capital’: Pujiang (Sichuan).
  • China’s ‘Flour Capital’: Damin (Hebei).
  • China’s ‘Noodle Capital’: Yiyang (Hunan).
  • China’s ‘Beef & Mutton Capital’: Chifeng (Inner Mongolia).
  • China’s ‘Potato Capital’: Ulanqab (Inner Mongolia).
  • China’s ‘Lemon Capital’: Ziyang, Anqiu (Sichuan).
  • China’s ‘Leisure Food Capital’: Longhai (Fujian).

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.