"Wish You Happy Every Day": An Expat's Life in China

Jiang, Suan, Cu, Repeat
November 9, 2015, 1:20 am
Filed under: Asia abroad, Chinese culture, food | Tags: , ,

If you live in the middle of nowhere but are discontent with Chinese take out, life can be difficult. I’m talking to you, returned expats and overseas Chinese. Even in the Bay Area, a region brimming with Chinese restaurants, it can be hard to find the real deal.

There’s no getting around it: you can either continue the endless search for a good restaurant . . . or make your own food.

Luckily, Chinese food is not that complicated, at least according to my mother-in-law. I used to watch her cook every day, and one thing that surprised me was just how few ingredients she used. In fact, while my pantry is lined with spices like cumin and cayenne pepper and crushed herbs, hers was quite minimal.

As she bustled in the kitchen, stirring the soup, cutting the eggplant, frying the peppercorns, she would repeat the same advice to me, like a mantra: “Jiang, suan, cu.”

Ginger, garlic, vinegar: the trifecta of minimalist Chinese cuisine.

Obviously there’s other oils and spices out there, but even if you have nothing but those three things you’ll still make something more authentic and healthier than the sugar and MSG-laden take out.*

And if there’s an Asian market in your area, I would recommend also looking for numbing peppercorns, which is the first thing that hits the oil in stir-fried dishes.** That’s your edge. Spring onion, or scallion, is also an ever-present ingredient in Chinese food.

chinese cooking staples
So there you have it! That’s the secret to Chinese cooking, according to my mother-in-law. Don’t believe me? Let’s break down the math:

numbing peppercorns + spring onion + eggs + tomatoes = scrambled eggs and tomato (xihonghshi chao jidan)

numbing peppercorns + spring onion + garlic + (ginger) + whatever veggies you like = standard stir fry

garlic + vinegar + (sesame paste) + raw vegetables = cold vegetable side dish (bancai)

garlic + vinegar = basic sauce for your dumplings

Here are some secondary ingredients you will find in Chinese dishes:


oyster sauce

sesame paste (zhimajiang)

soy sauce (jiangyou) (and there’s a range of different kinds)

Sichuan pepper

Numbing oil (mayou)

sesame oil (zhimayou)

various bean pastes

rice wine

star anise


dried chili peppers

*Restaurant tip: At a Chinese restaurant in North America, if you want your food to be more authentic and healthier, ask that the cook does not add sugar.  Most Chinese restaurants load on the sugar, perhaps to accommodate the American palette, but the result is that the food loses its original flavor.

**Always discard the peppercorns after a minute or so of frying. Their flavor gets absorbed into the oil, but they are not meant to be eaten. Otherwise, you’ll be constantly picking out burnt bits of peppercorn while you eat. Talking from first-hand experience here.


4 Comments so far
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Reblogged this on Chef Ceaser.


Comment by chefceaser

There’s an Asian market near me but the few times I’ve been in there I’ve been overwhelmed by all the different ingredients and ended up not getting much. I’m intrigued by the numbing peppercorns. That’s not an ingredient I’d heard of and I love simplicity of the stir fries. Thanks for sharing!


Comment by Katherine @ I Wish I Lived in a Library

Great tips! I definitely agree that Chinese-American food tends to be way too sweet!


Comment by Laurie C

What a great post. Love the tips and the formulas. I agree that Chinese-American food is too sweet.


Comment by Beth F

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