Whether served in small bowls in a Chinese restaurant or in little packets when you bring home take-out, the various sauces are a ubiquitous part of the Chinese food experience. Popular appetizers like spring rolls and potstickers are always accompanied by a flavorful dipping sauce and just wouldn't taste the same without one. But these sauces—from hoisin-based to hot mustard—are also great for livening up a main dish; simply serve in a small bowl or cruet at the table.
Hot Chili Oil
Made from chili peppers, it only takes a few drops of hot chili oil to add spice to noodles or simple stir-fry dishes. When preparing at home, it's easy to increase or reduce the level of heat by using hotter or milder chili peppers. Either way, use chili oil sparingly at first. Serve with steamed dim sum dishes, particularly dumplings, and stir-fries and noodles—add a few drops to the dish or serve at the table. Also try adding to other dipping sauces, such as soy ginger or a hoisin-based sauce
Hoisin-Based Dipping Sauces
Hoisin sauce's main claim to fame comes from it being brushed on the Mandarin pancakes served with Peking duck and mu shu pork, two classic Beijing restaurant dishes. As a dipping sauce, hoisin-based sauces can be used in place of plum sauce. In fact, plum sauce gets its nickname "duck sauce" from the fact that westerners initially confused the two, believing plum sauce was served with Peking duck.
Since hoisin sauce is quite thick, it is frequently thinned with a bit of water and/or sesame oil before serving. Other seasonings may include sugar, garlic, ginger, and chili oil. Serve with Chinese pancakes, steamed buns, and meat, particularly chicken and pork. You can also add while cooking stir-fries, deep-fried food, grilled satays, and noodles, or serve in a bowl at the table.
Plum or Duck Sauce
Made with plums, apricots, sugar, and spices, this sweet sauce is a typical accompaniment to spring rolls and egg rolls. When made with fresh fruit (versus plum preserves) you do need to begin the recipe 2 weeks ahead, as the sauce needs to sit before it is ready to be used. Serve with fried appetizers as well as meat, like in a chicken dish with duck sauce.
Another classic dip for egg rolls and spring rolls, Chinese hot mustard's potent flavor goes well with most deep-fried appetizers. And, interestingly enough, just like less fiery mustard brands, it marries nicely with ketchup. Put out a bowl of hot mustard with egg rolls, spring rolls, spareribs, fried wonton, and other deep-fried appetizers like deep-fried shrimp.
Soy Sauce-Based Dipping Sauces
The classic dipping sauce combination of soy sauce, vinegar, and chili oil frequently comes with steamed dim sum dishes. Restaurants will often serve them in individual bowls, allowing diners to mix the three condiments together according to their own tastes.
A mixture of soy sauce and ginger bring the clean taste of ginger together with light soy sauce. For extra flavor, add a bit of rice vinegar and brown or white sugar. Serve this dipping sauce with dumplings such as jiaozi, siu mai, and potstickers, as well as noodles, white cooked meat, and any other relatively bland dishes.
Sweet and Sour Sauce
A Chinese favorite for centuries, sweet and sour sauce gets its unique flavor from marrying vinegar with sugar, and ketchup, tomato sauce, or Worcestershire sauce are frequently added for color. (Another version uses pineapple.) When preparing sweet and sour sauce, feel free to adapt a recipe to your own tastes by adjusting the ratio of vinegar to sugar. Sweet and sour sauces are perfect served with fried appetizers, meat—particularly chicken—pork, and fish, batter-coated fried food, and fried tofu.
Szechuan Salt and Pepper Mix
Not actually a sauce, this dry mix is a combination of roasted Szechwan peppercorns and salt, making a wonderful dip for fried appetizers. When preparing, feel free to experiment by mixing in other types of peppercorns. Also try with deep-fried or roasted dishes, particularly deep-fried chicken, as well as fried tofu.