Food & Wine

The 'Five Flavors' in Chinese dishes

Updated: 18 Feb 2009
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The Chinese are particular about the color, smell, flavor and shape of food and the "harmony of five flavors". In order to acquire richer gustatory experience, they have invented many flavor treating techniques by using seasonings during cooking.


The "harmony of five flavors" serves to realize direct gustatory enjoyment first, which at the same time provides important regulative and healthcare functions to human body.


According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the pungent taste can diffuse evil influence, moisten dryness and promote qi and blood circulation, which can be used to cure cold, aching bones and muscles as well as kidney deficiency.


The sweet taste can be tonifying, alleviatory and can improve mood, for example, honey and red jujube are nutrients for patients; the sour taste can astringe the intestines, stop diarrhea, promote salivation and quench thirst, and the effect of folk secret recipes such as using fumigated vinegar to prevent cold and boiled vinegar egg to cure cough have been proven by modern medicine; the bitter taste can clear away heat, improve eyesight and remove toxic substances.


The harmony of five flavors is a prerequisite for health and prolonged life.


Salty flavor


The salty flavor is the simplest and most important one among the five flavors, since it's indispensable to improving the flavor of all tastes. Without it, the flavor of delicacies of every kind will be concealed. However, in consideration of health care, salt should not be taken in too much, since salty food is harmful to our health.


Sour Flavor


The sour flavor is also a must in our diet, especially for people in northern China. Since the water there is hard and highly alkaline, people often put vinegar in dishes in order to help digestion and boost appetite. Sour dishes are also provided in greasy banquet to remove the smell of meat or fish.


Meanwhile, sour flavor has many varieties, for example, even vinegar itself may differ greatly in taste because of different producing areas, materials and processing methods.


Generally speaking, Northern Chinese regard the mature vinegar produced in Shanxi as genuine, while in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, the rice vinegar produced in Zhenjiang is most preferred. Shanxi is the typical native place of vinegar, since many households are familiar with the technique of making corns and fruits into vinegar and cannot eat without the seasoning.


The funny thing is that, in Chinese, vinegar is also used to express the feeling of jealousy between the two sexes. For example, "Chi Cu" and "Cu Tanzi" are popular sayings in both southern and northern China, which are most probably related to acidity, a property of vinegar. 


Spicy flavor


The spicy flavor is the most pungent and complex one among the five flavors. In Chinese "spicy" is sometimes connected with "pungent", however, the two actually differ greatly from each other as the former refers to strong stimulation to tongue, throat and nasal cavity in terms of gustatory sense, while the latter contains both sense of taste and smell.


Ginger is a must for cooking fish or meat since it can lustrate peculiar smell and bring out the flavor of food. Chili should also be used during cooking according to certain principles.


The spicy level should be moderately controlled based on the basic flavors of a dish while giving regard to its initial and after taste, appropriateness and the original flavor of the dish.


Moreover, pungent seasonings such as garlic, scallion and ginger serve to sterilize food, which are commonly used in cold dishes. 


Bitter flavor


The bitter flavor is indispensable in cooking but rarely used alone. Slightly bitter seasonings can remove fishy smell and bring out the flavor of meat.


According to traditional Chinese medicine, the flavor also serves to strengthen stomach and promote salivation, which is favored by some people. It's also one of the special flavors in Sichuan food.



Sweet flavor


The sweet flavor can be a neutralizer among basic flavors, since excessive salty, sour, spicy or bitter flavor can be relieved by it.


Adding some sugar to dishes of other flavors can be the finishing touch to strengthen the flavor. However, the amount should be properly controlled.


Sweet flavor can be produced by different seasonings with different level of sweetness, and the cuisine circle generally regards the sweetness of cane sugar as genuine.





An important flavor listed out of the "five flavors" is "xian", or freshness; and "xianmei", or "fresh and delicious", is used to describe the most refined taste of food. Generally speaking, the flavor is contained in most foods, which can be obtained through making soups.


For example, when making chicken, pork, beef, fish or sparerib, we just need to eliminate the peculiar smell during cooking and add some salt, and we will get the delicious flavor we want.


Delicious soup is directly edible, or can be used to cook foods with no or weak taste, such as shark fin, sea cucumber, bird's nest, bean curd, gluten, and so on.


Monosodium glutamate and chicken essence are man-made fresh taste, which are incomparable to the fresh soup made by natural ingredients and often discarded by master chefs.


SOURCE: Cultural China


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