Why It Works
- Raw, uncooked oils sometimes have unpleasant grassy undertones when used in cold dishes and sauces. Cooking them first removes some of those off flavors.
- Cooking an oil presents an opportunity to infuse it with aromatics and flavors to add complexity to simple vinaigrettes for salads and cold dishes, and also hot dishes.
There’s a pretty well-known, "magical" vinaigrette ratio out there in Western cooking: one part acid to three parts oil. For most salads, this is the perfect starting point for a balanced vinaigrette, where the richness of oil just matches the brightness of the acid. Of course, it's just that—a starting point—and adjustments and variations are possible depending on the dish and one's taste. But it's still a useful rule to keep in mind, as it allows a home cook to quickly whip up a basic vinaigrette with confidence.
In the same vein, I’ve always wondered whether there was a similarly useful ratio for Chinese salads.
Now, Chinese salads are a little bit different. In the Western world, the term salad most commonly implies a dish built on dressed, raw leafy greens. In China, the dishes that are translated to "salads" are perhaps more elegantly categorized as "cold dishes," or liangcai (涼菜). These cold dishes are often built from cooked (or at least cured) vegetables and meats that are then chilled and tossed with aromatics and a sauce. There is a whole world of dishes that fall into this category, including popular ones like bang bang ji si, century egg salad, and smashed cucumbers.
Reading through Chinese cold dish recipes, you’ll notice many of the same ingredients appear over and over again in their dressings: soy sauce, Zhenjiang black vinegar, sugar, sesame oil, salt, garlic, chiles. And after quite a bit of testing, I believe I’ve pared an all-purpose recipe down to a basic ratio of three parts soy sauce to three parts oil to one part vinegar and one part sugar, all by volume.
How to Use and Modify the Dressing
Theoretically, this sauce can be made in advance and left in the fridge for two to three weeks, but in practice, I find myself building the dressings on the fly given how easy it is, especially once the aromatic oil is prepped.
This makes it easy to customize and elaborate on the dressing as well. Keeping in mind the core vegetable flavors of any specific dish, each component of the dressing can be substituted with similar ingredients. Soy sauce is, in its simplest sense, a salty liquid; oils can come in a wide range of flavors and types; there are many kinds of vinegar and other acids like citrus juices; and sugar is just one of many options for sweetness. To demonstrate this point, I developed four recipes that take this basic vinaigrette template and modify it to work for the cold dish in question. In my fruit-forward chayote salad, I substitute citrusy ponzu for a part of the soy sauce, fresh lemon juice for vinegar, and Korean honey-citron tea concentrate (a sweet, syrupy liquid) for sugar. In my cold eggplant dish, I replace half of the aromatic oil with chili oil for a spicy kick.
Aside from substituting all or part of the base ingredients, you can also alter the vinaigrette's flavor by adding aromatic ingredients and spices. Grated or minced garlic is perhaps the most obvious addition for most dishes, followed by other alliums like shallots and scallions. Ginger, galangal, fresh chiles, cilantro, basil, and other fresh herbs also work well to complement and complicate the flavor profile. This is something I do in my peanut and spinach salad recipe, adding a bit of minced garlic to the dressing to add complexity.
Finally, other flavorful pastes, like wasabi, shrimp paste, or sesame paste, can introduce a whole new dimension to the dressing, as in the sesame dressing in this Chinese cold noodle salad. If anything, it should probably be said that though the inspiration of this dressing is Chinese, the flavor possibilities are endless.
To better understand the building blocks of the dressing, let's take a look at each of the dressing's components and the role it plays:
As the primary component of the vinaigrette, soy sauce brings complexity, salt, and umami to the dish. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to turn to lighter soy sauce varieties here, primarily Chinese light soy sauce or Japanese usukuchi shoyu. Though I’d also encourage creative substitutions of those basic soy sauces–either entirely or partially–with other seasoned soy sauces or salty liquids like Maggi, shirodashi, Dong Gu (a brand of soy sauce with a sweeter flavor), or fish sauce. Sho wrote a handy guide to soy sauce varieties that will help here.
One of the more interesting rules you may come across when working with Chinese cold dishes is the axiom of never consuming raw/uncooked oil. In kitchens across China, I’ve been told myriad reasons for not consuming unheated oil: higher levels of saturated fats, off grassy flavors, viscosity changes and so on.
While I can't speak to the health claims, my testing backs up some of the culinary reasons for heating the oil. When purchased off the shelf, some refined oils like canola, vegetable, or soy indeed have off, grassy flavors that heating helps eliminate, though the effect was subtle in my testing. Because most modern oils are already heated, refined with alkaline chemicals, degummed, bleached, and deodorized, heating them at home does not dramatically alter the flavor profile.
All in all, a more convincing reason to “cook” an oil before using it in cold dishes is that heating the oil presents an opportunity to add new layers of flavor and aromatics to a dish. In many, if not most, Chinese restaurants, making aromatic seasoning oils is general practice. Chili oil is one popular example, but there are flavor compounds in spices, herbs, alliums, and vegetables that are only soluble in oil, and heating them up extracts those flavors more quickly. In the all-purpose dressing recipe below, I infuse oil with basic aromatics and spices to produce a seasoning oil that’s delicately layered for cold dishes but robust enough for hot applications.
Finally, a couple caveats about heating oil. First, unrefined oils like extra-virgin olive oil and sesame should not be heated, as heat will disrupt some of their most pleasant aromatic properties. Second, repeated heating and cooling of oil will eventually degrade the oil, which some studies have linked to negative health impacts, so be sure not to use oil that's been heated and cooled multiple times (such as old frying oil). Third, though it’s common practice in commercial Chinese kitchens to reuse stir-frying or deep-frying oil for cold dishes, be aware that the oil may have picked up flavors of foods that may not be compatible with your cold dishes.
The most common vinegar in Chinese cold dishes is Zhenjiang vinegar, or Chinese black vinegar. Zhenjiang is a city in the Eastern province of Jiangsu, next to Shanghai, that has a global reputation for producing aromatic vinegars primarily from rice, but with other additions of grains like wheat, barley, millet, and sorghum. Most often compared to balsamic vinegar, Zhenjiang vinegar is a dark color with a fruity flavor and subtle savory notes.
I would also suggest exploring three popular alternatives to Zhenjiang vinegar for salad dressings. The first is Taiwanese black vinegar, which is a younger sauce made by steeping sticky rice vinegar with aromatics, spices, and vegetables, producing a fruitier, simpler finish. Second is Japanese rice vinegar, which is clear and tastes comparatively mellow. And third, lemon or lime juice, for a fruitier pop.
White sugar is the most commonly used sugar, for its simplicity and neutral flavor, and it's used in the dressing to balance the saltiness of the soy sauce and the bite of vinegar. Brown sugar, palm sugar, or even black sugar (unrefined cane sugar) are all earthier substitutes that would work well for more complex sauces, but you should also consider using liquid sweeteners, like honey and agave. I would not recommend using other common Chinese sugars, like rock sugar and jaggery, which aren’t conducive to sauce-making due to their large, irregular shapes (dissolving them in a small amount of liquid can be a challenge).
- For the Seasoning Oil:
- 1 teaspoon whole Sichuan peppercorns, reddish husks only and stems and black seeds discarded
- 1 dried chile, such as tianjin, stemmed
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 star anise pod
- 1 cup (225g) neutral-flavored oil, such as peanut, canola, soybean, or vegetable
- 1 scallion (25g), ends trimmed cut into 1-inch segments
- 1/2 large (1 3/4-ounce; 50g) shallot, thinly sliced
- 1/2-inch knob fresh ginger (about 1/2 ounce; 15g), peeled and sliced thinly into coins
- 4 medium cloves garlic (about 3/4 ounce; 20g), smashed
- For the Vinaigrette:
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) Chinese light soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon (12g) granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) Chinese Zhenjiang (black) vinegar
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) Seasoning Oil
For the Seasoning Oil: In a small bowl, cover Sichuan peppercorns, dried chile, bay leaf, and star anise pod with cold water and soak for 5 minutes. Drain well.
In a small pot, combine oil, drained spices, scallion, shallot, ginger, and garlic. Set over low heat and cook until the scallions and garlic are gently frying and have turned an amber brown color, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat, strain into a heatproof container, and let cool; discard the solids.
For the Vinaigrette: In a small bowl, whisk together soy sauce, sugar, black vinegar, and seasoning oil until sugar is dissolved. The final dressing will not remain emulsified, so mix or shake it just before using.
The seasoning oil is entirely customizable. Many Chinese restaurants and households have their own signature blend of aromatics and spices for their infused oils. Other popular additions include: coriander seeds, cinnamon, fennel, cumin, black cardamom, cloves, galangal, lemongrass, onions, Chinese celery, and carrots.
The seasoning oil is a great base for hot dishes as well: stir-fries, rice, noodles, and stews can all be made with this highly aromatic oil.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The strained seasoning oil can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.