At this point in the culinary history of the world, Western cooks are plenty familiar with soy sauce and sweet and sour sauce.
But other bottled Chinese sauces, like sha cha (which is more fun to say than any other sauce, BTW), are still lacking the name recognition their deliciousness deserves.
The problem is that some of these lesser-known sauces have labels in Chinese. And even if the label is in English, the flavor combinations may be perplexing to those new to Chinese cooking .
Let's fix that.
Black Bean Sauce
This is a rich, thick, dark sauce made with fermented black beans, garlic, soy sauce, a touch of sugar and various seasonings. Black bean sauce imparts a savory flavor to noodles and stir-fries.
Char Siu Sauce
Also known in the U.S. as Chinese barbecue sauce, char siu sauce is a staple of Cantonese cooking. "Char siu" translates as "fork roast," because meat slathered in the sauce is traditionally cooked over fire on a long fork. The recipe is typically a mixture of hoisin sauce, honey or sweetener, and Chinese five-spice powder.
This blend of red chiles, garlic, soy sauce, oil and sometimes beans can vary in thickness from Sriracha-esque to paste-like. Mix it into stir-fry dishes or soups.
This sauce contains no duck, but it could be served alongside duck. Also referred to as plum sauce, it is commonly made with sweet plums (though there are other fruit variations), salt, vinegar, ginger and chiles. The sweet-tart flavor is good with rich roasted meats, but the sauce is also a tasty dip for egg rolls.
Though more famous in Thai or Vietnamese cooking, fish sauce is used in Chinese cooking as well. Made with fermented fish (usually anchovies) and plenty of salt, it's thin and watery but packs a umami punch. A little goes a long way in salad dressings, stir-fry dishes, soups and dipping sauces.
This is a molasses-thick, sweet-and-spicy sauce that is particularly popular in southern Chinese cuisine. While "hoisin" refers to seafood, there is no seafood in the sauce; it is made using soybeans, vinegar, sugar, garlic, starch and various spices. Hoisin can be brushed on meat before grilling or roasting; added to stir-fried dishes, seafood dishes or soups; or used as a dipping sauce.
Hot and Sour Sauce
This sauce can vary quite widely depending on who's making it, but it often includes soy sauce, chiles, garlic, sugar and vinegar. It's decidedly thicker than soy sauce but typically less thick than hoisin sauce. The flavor is spicy but also slightly tangy, which works well in certain soups and stir-fries.
It may look like the ball-park mustard you'd put on a hot dog, but this sauce, also known as Chinese hot mustard, has a real kick. Anyone can make it at home: All you need is mustard powder, water and maybe salt or pepper. Mix it into stir-fry dishes or serve as a condiment.
Based on the name, you might think that oyster sauce is similar to fish sauce. Nope: It is far thicker and sweeter. This mixture of oysters, soy sauce and sugar is thickened with starch, so it has a sort of ketchup-like consistency. Brush it on meats before cooking or add it to stir-fry dishes.
Sha Cha Sauce
Made from soybeans, aromatics such as garlic and shallots, and fish and/or dried shrimp, this sauce has a compelling flavor that is savory and a touch spicy. It can be used to brush meat before grilling or roasting, as a component of a soup or stir-fry dish, or in a dipping sauce.
Made from fermented soybeans, soy sauce has a rich, salty flavor that defines many soups and stir-fries. It is also a component of many of the other sauces on this list. It's also a condiment, a seasoning and a dipping sauce.
Sweet and Sour Sauce
This sauce might contain onion, garlic, ginger, fruit, vinegar, soy sauce, sugar and starch. The sweet and tangy flavor is fantastic on meat and vegetables, and also works well for dipping.
Chili, ginger, vinegar and chile flakes make up this fiery, bright-red sauce. Mix it into stir-fry dishes or serve as a condiment.