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Chinese eateries are often accused of being heavy-handed with monosodium glutamate (MSG)—that cheap, nasty chemical that makes food taste good but leaves hapless diners grappling with the dreaded "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome": headaches, flushing, sweating, breathlessness, heart palpitations, etc. But, since—as Jeffrey Steingarten pointed out in a 1999 essay for Vogue—not everyone in China has a headache, what do Chinese home cooks use to make their food delicious?
Naturally Umami-Filled Foods
Long before "umami"—recognized as the fifth taste after sweet, sour, salty, and bitter—became a culinary buzzword, Chinese cooks identified the presence of umami's savory "mouthfeel" in lovingly tended, double-boiled soups and slow-simmered broths. The resulting full, rounded flavor of the stocks was attributed to their base of poultry, pork, or fish bones and assorted meat scraps—a flavor that that we now know to be chock full of naturally occurring glutamates. Today, it remains the home economist’s pride to be able to coax the magnificent “meat sweetness” or umami-ness of these stocks from nothing more than humble kitchen throwaways.
But when money is no object, the ingredients most prized for their ability to deliver the desired umami punch are the briny treasures from the sea. These commonly include dried oysters, shrimp, seaweed, scallops, and anchovies.
How To Cook with Your "Umami Arsenal"
I like to call these dried ingredients the Chinese cook’s “umami arsenal.” All they require are a quick 15-30 minute soak in water before they can be tossed into soups, congees, braises, and even stir-fries. The dried shrimp, for instance, are often minced and sautéed with garlic and ginger as a sort of Chinese “holy trinity” to start off basic stir-fries. They are also sometimes used as a luxurious substitute for minced pork in dumplings and noodle dishes. The water that these dried seafood are soaked in is always saved for cooking with, and smells sweetly of the ocean.
The dried scallops and oysters are the priciest of the lot—with their size determining the price tag. The bigger they are, the dearer they’ll be, though, to be perfectly honest, unless you’re serving them up in a dish where they’ll be "on display," there’s really no point in coughing up the big bucks for the grandest looking specimens. The ones you see here are of average size, and you can often pick up packs of smaller, broken pieces for a lot less. Dried oysters and scallops are often present in soups and congees—some cooks will pick them out to munch on after the flavor has been stewed out of them, enjoying the meaty fibrousness of the scallops’ texture. Other cooks simply toss them out. I don’t care much for the stringy scallops (they get in my teeth), but I will fight anyone who dares so much as think about laying hands on my oysters. Often still loaded with flavor, the oysters are a soft, plump, oceanic treat!
The dried anchovies and seaweed are the workhorses of the bunch and don’t cost much at all. A very good stock can be made from simmering several cupfuls of the anchovies in water, while fans of vegetarian miso soup (without the dashi or fish-base broth) will often find seaweed floating in their bowls.
In terms of convenience, the ultimate weapon in the Chinese cook’s umami arsenal is a condiment known as "XO sauce." Named after XO or extra old cognac, the sauce (more like a cooked salsa, really) is made from a sautéed mix of dried seafood, Chinese ham, shallots, garlic, and chile. Though not terribly picturesque, this sauce would turn the barest subsistence meal—from instant ramen to plain white rice or even boiled potatoes—into a satisfying repast. It is the reason why almost every Chinese cook will have a bottle (or six) tucked in their larder for "emergencies."
And who can forget oyster sauce—the one condiment that every Chinese cook is guaranteed to have in their kitchen misc-en-place? More necessary than salt, you are almost bound to find at least a tablespoon of this glutamate-laden sauce in every dish on the Chinese table. Vegetarians beware—even the seemingly safe sautéed vegetable dish is likely to have some!
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