Chinese Aromatics 101: The Mild and Aromatic Ginger, Scallion, and Garlic Flavor Base

Garlic, Ginger, and Scallions cooking in a wok.
Garlic, Ginger, and Scallions are a common aromatic flavor base in Cantonese cooking. . Shao Z.

Study cuisines from around the world, and you'll find that many tend to rely on fairly consistent bases of aromatic vegetables, no matter the dish. In France, this vegetable base is known as mirepoix, and features celery, onions, and carrots. In Creole cooking, it's known as the holy trinity—onion, celery, and green bell peppers. Italy, Spain, German, and other countries and cuisines have their own variations, as well. So what would the Chinese flavor base be?

In this series, we're exploring the aromatic flavor bases that are most common in China. Check out the rest of the series here!

Is There a Chinese Equivalent to Mirepoix?

We all know that ginger, scallion, garlic, and chilies are common aromatic vegetables in Chinese cuisine, but it's not quite correct to say that these ingredients are the Chinese equivalent of a mirepoix. That's because there's far too much variation across China to narrow it down to one simple answer—the specific aromatics used, and how they're combined, change from region to region.

In Guangdong, the southern and most populated province in China, for instance, the flavors of the food tend to be more delicate and mild, with aromatics like ginger and scallion.

Head northwest of Guangdong to Sichuan, and you'll encounter a totally different flavor profile. Known for its generous use of dried chilies and garlic, Sichuan cuisine emphasizes spicy, mouth-numbingingly bold flavors.

Travel northeast to Beijing and you'll discover something different yet again. The same can be said about the food in Hunan, Shandong, Fujian, etc. This is why a single type of mirepoix just doesn't exist in China. Still, it is possible to generalize by dividing Chinese cuisine into two distinct and broad flavor groups: the spicy (chili peppers and garlic), and the aromatic (ginger, scallion, and garlic).

The Aromatic: Cantonese Flavor Base

Ginger, scallion, and garlic are the most common aromatic ingredients in Cantonese cooking, but that doesn't mean they're the only ones: Here, they're shown with red chilies and fermented black beans, ready to be used in a delicious and funky stir-fried tripe dish.

A few weeks ago, we looked at the spicy (chili and garlic) flavor base common to Hunan and Sichuan cooking. Now we'll examine the more mild aromatic flavor base of Cantonese cooking, which most frequently features ginger, scallion, and garlic.

"Unlike the regions of Hunan and Sichuan, the Southern Chinese cuisine of Guangdong province—and more specifically the famed Cantonese cooking found there—is less fiery and more delicate and mild in flavor."

Unlike the regions of Hunan and Sichuan, the Southern Chinese cuisine of Guangdong province—and more specifically the famed Cantonese cooking found there—is less fiery and more delicate and mild in flavor. Dishes are usually stir-fried or steamed, and there is a distinct aroma of ginger, scallion, and garlic.

Those three ingredients are usually the first things that hit a sizzling-hot wok when stir-frying, though they are not always used together. They are often used in different combinations in Cantonese cooking, depending on the type of dish. Both ginger and scallion, for example, are frequently used in seafood dishes, especially steamed whole fish. A few slices of ginger and lengths of scallion are placed inside the fish's cavity before steaming: the aromatics help add a fresh, clean aroma that can balance the scent of the fish. Scallions and ginger are used for similar effect when cooking offal, chicken, and pork.

Stir Fried tripe with pickled mustard greens and fermented black beans on a platter.
Scallions, ginger, and garlic are often used in conjunction with offal, like the tripe here, to balance its mildly funky smell.

Garlic, meanwhile, is frequently used when stir-frying greens. Whether chopped into large pieces or finely minced, it elevates the flavor of simple vegetable dishes.

When cooking with these more mild aromatics, it helps to consider a few things. First is to think about how powerful you want the flavor of the aromatics to be: If you want just a hint of their aroma, cut them into larger pieces and add them towards at the beginning of cooking, whether stir-frying, steaming, or poaching. The large pieces will gently flavor the dish, and can then easily be picked out while eating.

For more bold flavor, mince or grate the aromatics: Their increased surface area will allow more of their flavor to enter the dish, adding intensity. When stir-frying, it's generally best to add minced aromatics towards the end of cooking to prevent them from scorching in the hot wok; alternatively, you can mix them directly into the sauce.

Chives being stir-fried in a wok with shrimp.
Chives and other members of the onion family can sometimes be used in place of scallions in Cantonese dishes.

Leeks, shallots, chives, and onions are great additions to the trio; they can also be used as scallion substitutes, each with a slightly different effect on the dish's final flavor.

Stay tuned, because in the coming days we'll look more closely at this flavor base by using two great recipes as examples—stir-fried shrimp with egg and Chinese chives, and stir-fried tripe with garlic, ginger, scallions, chilies, and fermented black beans.

A serving dish of stir-fried eggs, shrimp and chives.