Balancing the Five Flavours – for a healthy body and a harmonious society

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 one of the core concepts 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. Moreover, Chinese also has the word ma ‘numbing’, used for the sensation in the mouth caused by Sichuan peppers (huajiao). It differs from the hot sensation of peppers, but is also part of the range of pungent flavours. 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.

Healing 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.

Modern developments

Societies change and so do their cultures. Although modern Chinese cooks are still eager to balance the flavours, present day Chinese consumers have adopted a slightly different set of terms to discuss the taste of food. A major development is already hinted at in the paragraph on pungency above: the arrival of the chili pepper. Chili has become such an important ingredient all over China, that la ‘hot’ has become an independent category. This has separated ma ‘numbing’ too. Umami is an important aspect of any dish, but is not recognised as a ‘flavour category’ in every day parlance. A survey held early 2020, asking a consumer panel about their most favourite flavour, generated the following results.

Hot comes out as the most favoured flavour; by far. However, when ordering a dinner in a restaurant, or cooking one at home, Chinese still prefer to complement a hot dish with one or two with another dominant flavour. Harmony remains important.

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.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation. He is a co-author of a major book introducing the cultural drivers behind China’s economic success.


How an Old Godmother has created China’s growing chili culture

From ‘too hot’ to chili lovers

Chili has seen a remarkable growth in China during the past couple of decades. I still remember my first year in China as a student in 1975. Sure, you could get spicy dishes in some restaurants, but the average Beijing citizen would start crying ‘hot!’, if a dish would include as much as one single tiny peppercorn.

Although chilli peppers were introduced to China in the latter half of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the fruit only really gained popularity during the early years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It quickly entered the cuisines of a few regions in China, in particular Sichuan and Hunan, but in many other regions spicy food was regarded as exotic. This is why the term for ‘pungency’ as one of the Five Flavours was xin (pungent) rather than la (hot).

During my later terms in China, not much change in that situation occurred, until in the course of the 1980s Sichuan restaurants started to spring up like mushrooms in the Chinese capital. And we are not talking about food with a few chillis, but Chongqing Hotpot, a kind of fondue, but then with a soup that seemingly consists purely of chili, became the favourite of the Beijingers.

Nowadays, restaurants specialising Sichuan and Hunan cuisines can be found all over China and chili in many varieties (dried, paste, oil, etc.) are top items in supermarkets. There are even shops specialising in all types of chilli. Some people have started to speak about a Chili culture (lajiao wenhua). In Chongqing you can even visit the Youjun Chili Museum.

ChilliCulture ChliMuseum

The China Food Industry Association has organized the nation’s first Spicy Industry Conference on September 15, 2020, in Beijing.

Top chili nation

During a recently held forum on chili processing, insiders have stated that China has developed into the world’s largest chili processing region. The total value of the world market for chili is estimated at USD 30 billion, and China is good for one third of this. Sichuan province alone has an annual raw chili output of approximately 1 million mt, with a value of RMB 1 billion. In some Chinese statistics, spicy sauces are referred to as ‘Sichuan sauces’. The province’s chili processing industry has an annual turnover of RMB 2 billion. R&D in new applications for chili and chili derivatives is also growing, developing products for the food, pharmaceutical, cosmetic industries.

Here is a map of China indicating the relative spiciness of the local cuisines.

The following graph shows the development of the Chinese chili paste production from 2014 to 2020 (unit: 10,000 mt).

The leading brands in 2020 were:

Brand Share (%)
Lao Gan Ma 20.5
Lee Kum Kee 9.7
La Meizi 9.2

Various shapes

Chili is not only consumed as such, fresh or dried. The fruit is processed in numerous products that themselves are used as ingredients in home cooking or industrial foods. The Food Ingredients China (FIC) 2018 trade fair will included 30 exhibitors supplying various chili-derived ingredients, including: capsaicin, capsicum oleoresin, chili powder, and chili food colour.

A special type of hot sensation is caused by the Sichuan pepper (huajiao) that produces a numbing hot sensation in the mouth, caused by the hydroxy-alpha-sanshool it contains. Sichuan pepper is often combined with chili and other peppers in savoury pastes, like the Pixian Douban reported in an earlier post in this blog.

Chili paste

The by far most common form in which chili is consumed is the chili paste. It is a mixture of ground chili and a variety of other ingredients, and can be easily used to spice up dishes or as a dip for foods that could do with some extra flavour like boiled dumplings. China has produced 5.91 ml mt of chili paste in 2018; up 1.82%. Insiders estimate that that market will be worth RMB 40 billion by 2020.

Here is a list of the top 10 Chinese chili pastes.

Laoganma (Old Godmother) Laoganma

Laoganma is THE success story of the Chinese seasoning industry. Established in 1997 in Guiyang (Guizhou; another leading chili region of China) by a lady who used to sell spicy noodles at a street corner (starting in 1989), it has rapidly grown into China’s top range of chili products. The company also exports worldwide. Watch this video reporting on Laoganma and its founder.

Laoganma has a facebook group called ‘The lao gan ma appreciation society‘, and is sold on Amazon, and many more online platforms all over the world.

The latest development regarding Laoganma is that a group of young Chinese cocktail makers have started experimenting with cocktails made with Chinese spirits (baijiu) and various hot seasonings including Laoganma. The company has also started a fashionable merchandizing campaign late 2018.

Huaqiao Huaqiao

This brand has a history of more than 300 years, deeply rooted in its home town Guilin (Guangxi).

Lameizi (Hot Sister) Lameizi

This is once more a new brand, established in 1998 in a traditional chili region: Hunan. It is part of a conglomerate that produces a wide range of foods, besides seasoning products.

Lee Kum Kee LeeKumKee

I have reported on Lee Kum Kee before, in my post on yuxiang flavours. The brand dates from 1888 and has its home in Nanshui (Guangdong). It is the best known seasoning brand in East and Southeast Asia.

Meile Meile

This is the first Sichuan brand in this list. The brand covers a wide range of seasoning products, but its Fragrant Spicy Sauce has brought the brand fame.

Huhu Huhu

This brand has been established in Qingdao (Shandong), one of China’s blander cuisines, in 1992. It specialises in fermented savoury pastes.

Modocom Maodegong

This is an English rendering of the Chinese brand name Maodegong. It has been established by a farmer from Leizhou (Guangdong).

Huangdenglong (Yellow Lantern) Huangdenglong

This brand was launched in Hainan in 1994. Its name has been inspired by a latern-shaped chili that only grows in Hainan.

Fansaoguang (All Food Devoured) Fansaoguang

This is a brand of Gaofuji Food (Sichuan). The name refers to the Chinese perception that chili paste increases the appetite. There will be no leftover of food spiced up with this product.

Haitian Haitian

Haitian is one of China’s top seasoning brands. It is currently China’s top producer of soy sauce, but its other products are popular. It is another brand with more that 300 years of history, based in Foshan (Guangdong).

Hot and cold: chili-flavoured ice cream

The latest vogue in the Chinese chili culture is the appearance of chili-flavoured ice cream. It was launched, and we are not surprised, in Sichuan’s capital Chengdu; in the high-end Chunxi shopping district to be precise. Chili is added in the shape of chili oil.

The reaction among consumers are mixed, but it seems that this product is there to stay.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.