Chinese Aromatics 101: The Spicy Garlic-and-Chili Flavor Base

Chilies and garlic are the key components of China's spicy aromatic flavor base. 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 equivalent of mirepoix or the holy trinity 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?

"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."

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.

If you were to travel from one province to another, you would find a variety of flavors that are the result of local ingredients, regional cooking techniques, and influences from neighboring cities. 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.

This version of Kung Pao, a classic Sichuan dish with dried chilies and Sichuan peppercorns, uses fish instead of the more common chicken.

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).

To finish up this week's exploration of Chinese aromatics, we'll look at the spicy (chili and garlic) group first. Stay tuned for the aromatics (ginger, scallion, and garlic), coming soon!

The Spicy: Sichuan and Hunan

The regions of Hunan and Sichuan are synonymous with bold, spicy flavors. Both regions rely heavily on the use of garlic and chili peppers. But there are some key differences between the two.

Dried chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, and garlic (and sometimes members of the onion family like scallions) are the key aromatic ingredients in Sichuan cooking.

The first is the Sichuan peppercorn, a defining ingredient in Sichuan cooking. Citrus-like in flavor, Sichuan peppercorns are fragrant and mildly spicy. Their most unique quality, though, is the tingly mouth-numbing sensation that they produce; combined with the heat of the chilies, the hot-tingling sensation is known as "mala" in Chinese. They can be used whole or ground, and they are usually lightly toasted in a wok to bring out their fragrant scent before being added to a dish.

The second is Sichuan cuisine's tendency to use slightly milder dried chilies rather than scorching fresh ones.

Chilies and garlic are the key components of China's spicy aromatic flavor base. Shao Z.

Just as Sichuan is known for its tingling heat, Hunan dishes are famous for being full-on fiery, thanks to more of a reliance on fresh chilies, and lots of them.

When added to stir-fries early, large pieces of garlic, like sliced garlic, are less likely to burn than finely minced garlic.

To incorporate Hunanese and Sichuanese flavors into your cooking, especially in stir-fries, it helps to start with the garlic. For stir-frying, garlic is best either whole and smashed, thinly sliced, or roughly chopped. Minced is usually less preferable, since tiny pieces are more likely to burn in a hot wok (unless you are going to add a sauce that can quickly halt browning, such as in our recipe for Kung Pao fish). Otherwise, minced garlic should be added toward the end of the stir-frying process to avoid scorching it, or reserved to flavor cold dishes.

Other vegetables in the garlic family, such as leeks, scallions, and shallots, are also frequently used in both Sichuan and Hunan cuisine.

One last note: While aromatics like chilies and Sichuan peppercorns usually go into the wok at the beginning of stir-frying, Sichuan cooks also like to infuse them into oils, which can then be used in stir-fries or to dress cold dishes. To make a flavored oil, heat peanut or vegetable oil in a wok, add the peppercorns and dried chilies, and then quickly cook them in the oil for no more than 30 seconds. Strain the infused oil through a fine-mesh strainer and you're ready to go.

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