There are many varieties of Chinese cuisine, but most diners judge their quality by the color, aroma and taste of each dish. In order to meet expectations, Chinese chefs rely on a dizzying array of sauces.
Historical records say the earliest seasonings used in Chinese cooking were salt, plum and alcohol. Literature from the Shang Dynasty showed that people used salt and plums to cook fish. The use of salt dates back even earlier. According to Shiben, a collection of several dynastic texts written during the Warring States Period, salt was used during the time of the Yan Emperor, the legendary ancestor of the Chinese people. In the Shang Dynasty, plums were used to give dishes a sour flavor.
Traditional Chinese medicine believes plums are beneficial to the spleen and stomach. Several archaeological findings also proved that alcohol was used as beverage and sauce by the reign of Emperor Yu (2205-2198 BC).
These traditions are well preserved in Chinese cooking. Salt is used in almost every dish in Chinese cuisine. Plums are less common, but can still be seen in some southern dishes. Alcohol is often cooked with meat.
Spice and vinegar are more recent arrivals in everyday Chinese cooking. Although Chinese food is known for being spicy, Chinese people don’t have a long history of consuming spice. Historical records show peppers entered China during the Ming Dynasty as an import from the New World. They became popular in the southern provinces of Guagnxi, Guangdong and Guizhou. By the Qing dynasty, spicy food became popular and people in Guizhou ate it daily.
Today, China is one of the largest producers and consumers of peppers. Hot peppers even find a home in northern China, especially in the dry northwest.
Unlike spice, vinegar has a long history in Chinese cuisine. It is used in almost every Chinese cooking tradition. Records show China has been cooking with vinegar for at least 3,000 years. The usage of vinegar was recorded in The Analects of Confucius, and it was especially common in the Tang Dynasty.
In Song Dynasty, firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar and tea were listed as the seven must-have ingredients for daily life. Many places produce fermented vinegar, but the most famous four types are Shanxi dark vinegar, Baoning vinegar, Zhenjiang flavor vinegar and Hongqu rice vinegar. Traditional medicine holds that vinegar can benefit human body by relieving fatigue and softening the blood vessels.