Secret Chinese Fragrance?

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Assistant Cook
Apr 14, 2005
hi , thankyou every one for the replies, i want to know the fragrance i get when i eat at chinese restuarants........what is that , why i cant get at home.....when i cook......i mean in chinese chow mein and fired rice can they get that ...whats the secret ????
I suspect the reason you're not getting the same "taste" is that your wok won't get/isn't getting hot enough. I have to use my turkey fryer gas burner (outside) to get the 600-700+ degree temperatures you need for the "hay" (I think that's the word for the unique flavor in most "good" Chinese restaurants.. I recall the Frugal Gourmet [Jeff Smith] called it "chow" or something... but I think that's the term for just cooking rapidly?.. I'm out of my league here in terminology so someone who knows could clear that up.)

Stovetops (most gas and probably all electrics), aren't designed to heat enough of the bottom of a wok or produce the BTU's to get it sufficiently hot in order to achieve "wok hay"..
I would say that the fragrance is sesame oil and ginger. These are the two things that you don't see often in american cooking. You need to be VERY careful with both items...too much can spoil a dish in a heartbeat. Just the right amount will make you say............'hmmmmmmm that tastes great! Now what is it?'
Another thing might be to find a good peanut oil, and by good I mean one that has that distinctive nutty smell.

It's amazing what peanut oil, ginger and garlic can smell like. I think having it made a big difference in the recipes I made and am glad I splurged on some.

Toasted sesame oil is definitely another must have. It is generally used very sparingly, but that dash of flavor (and smell) is not something that you can really substitute or leave out and still keep things "authentic".

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sohailgagai said:
hi , thankyou every one for the replies, i want to know the fragrance i get when i eat at chinese restuarants........what is that , why i cant get at home.....when i cook......i mean in chinese chow mein and fired rice can they get that ...whats the secret ????

Part of taste comes from aromas. You will never duplicate that "restaurant" experience exactly at home, even if you followed the recipe exactly for chow mein and fried rice from your favorite Chinese restaurant, because you will be missing other "aromatic" components that combine with the flavors of the foods as you eat them.

Think of the aromas in the air ... it's a combination of all the dishes being prepared ... pork, beef, chicken, duck, various seafoods ... various vegetables, spices, oils, sauces, and eggs. Then there are differences in the aromas from one ingredient produced by different cooking methods ... such as peanut oil used in a stir-fry compared to how it smells in the deep fryer.

I know that I have eaten a lot of Chinese take-out, and it never seems to taste or smell the same as when I eat the same dish in the restaurant.
I agree about using MSG to get that authentic flavor, but I don't think it would do anything to recreate the aroma.
thanks all , lutzzz u gave the best idea , thanks , i think its the art of stir fry ....!!! what do u say ??
Well thank you, sohailgagai.... and you're welcome for sure!

All I can do is pass on my opinions, observations, and what I learned chatting with a few Chinese chefs in San Francisco.

Before I "semi-retired", I used to spend a great deal of time working in San Francisco... and I lived at the Hyatt on Union Square hotel.. about a 5 block walk down to Chinatown. It's been acknowledged that San Francisco's Chinatown produces some of the best Chinese cuisine in the US.

Having to eat ALL my meals at various restaurants, I more often than not picked out some "off-the-wall" Chinese restaurants in Chinatown (ones where 99% of the patrons were Asian and ate their rice holding their bowl in one hand near their face and, using chop sticks, could run a steady stream of rice into their mouth, their chop sticks in a blur ... the Caucasian "tourists" ate at the more expensive restaurants on the main drag... which ALSO produced outstanding food but at twice the expense).

Over time I got to know a couple of the chefs in some of those restaurants.. and I got a tour of their kitchens... I encourage anyone eating at a GOOD Chinese restaurant to see if they can tour the kitchen... in those kitchens, the chefs cook with their woks positioned over HUGE holes in a stainless counter thing... and in each "hole" was some kind of "fire blaster" that belched flame and sounded like a jet engine when fired up.

The chef had a foot pedal he could step on, like a gas pedal on a car, which obviously released gas of some kind (probably propane) into the "jet engine" heating his wok.. and in one big "whoosh" (I mean you could hear it and see it.. definitely... there would be a blast of flame and his wok would turn a light redhot color with little wisps of smoke coming off it.. then he'd toss in his oil, meat, veggies, seasonings, etc. and VERY quickly toss them around.. sometimes removing some items and re-introducing more oil, seasoning, and other items, but ALWAYS in this semi-red hot wok. When he was finished, usually in about 60 seconds it seemed, he'd take his foot off the "gas pedal" and the fire would die back down to a pilot light.

And THAT, explained a couple of pretty good San Francisco Chinatown chefs, is what produces what is called the "hay" in good Chinese wok cooking.

So, next time I decided to cook stir fry at home, I fired up my outside 120,000 BTU turkey fryer propane burner, tossed on my el cheapo carbon steel wok and fired it up and cooked over VERY high heat...and THAT was the best stir fry I ever made anyway.. and came the closest I ever came to the professional kitchens where I ate in San Francisco...

So, that's the experience upon what I base my "humble opinion" :rolleyes: ... other folk's mileage obviously varies... which makes cooking and sharing info and recipes so much fun!
ironchef said:
You're probably missing all of the MSG that's put in the food. Regular Salt can't come close to duplicating that "unique" flavor.
i agree,i always use MSG while making a chinese dish,and i do use a little sesame or sometimes peanut oil too,but i have to admit,it doesnt have that same flavor:ermm: ,its always good but just not the same
I agree that the high BTU's is the main component to "hay". However, a couple other key ingredients not mentioned thus far are Hoisin, Fish, and Oyster sauces. Use the last two sparingly, and don't be put off by the smell of Fish sauce.
And don't forget the Chinese 5-spice powder. Like the sesame oil, and fish sauce, use very sparingly. A touch will enhance many meals. A bit too much will ruin them.

Seeeeya; Goodweed of the North
When I read the OP's question, I drew a mental distinction between "fragrance" and "flavor". I guess each has a separate meaning to me... and both are very important with perhaps "flavor" being even more important than the "hay" which most of us can't get with our low BTU kitchen range woks.

When we talk about adding: toasted sesame oil; ginger; using peanut oil; MSG (accent,; 5 spice; fish sauce; hoisin sauce; oyster sauce; etc... to me these are used to "flavor" the dish and not as much to produce the "fragrance" you get from using an airplane jet engine to fire up your wok in the back yard. BTW: I'm surprised nobody mentioned red pepper flakes and garlic 'cause I always use garlic, but then we have a worse vampire problem here in Seattle than other parts of the country.

That said, I concede that withOUT those flavoring ingredients, it's probably impossible to obtain the "commercial" wok "hay" fragrance that the better Chinese restaurants get either... so both are necessary.

When I eat out, I tend to like the "three star" and "four star" dishes, which are on the hot side... (I exclude the "five star" 'cause in some of the Chinese restaurants in San Francisco, if you order "five star", you also better have a half gallon of ice cream and/or a quart of milk on the side and be prepared to dial 911... cause they make it HOT.. but it varies from restaurant to restaurant)...

Some of the things I add, not mentioned here, are a red garlic/chili paste and some kinda black bean/garlic sauce and I use a chili oil that comes in a red & white plastic bottle with a picture of a chicken on it.. I don't know the name of it...

Anyway, that might make a very interesting separate thread.. e.g. flavors used in Chinese cooking, etc....
Hopefully this isn't TOO far off topic.. but in response to PM's about burners and woks I talk about in this thread...

The "jet engine" outside propane burner I have/use is kinda like this one here... (I bought mine about 4 years ago and I couldn't find my exact model on the net anymore)

and this one has a bit more "punch" than mine.. I seem to recall mine is about 120,000 BTU's which is MORE than enough to get your wok "red hot" very quickly... And this one is nice 'cause I had to buy my hose and regulator separately.. other sites have them too... like, (search "burners") etc.

During the season, I often come back from a cruise with a bunch of Dungeness crab and cook them myself (among other things, commercial cooked crab is never cooked with enough salt in the water.. but that's another topic.) and these things will bring a BIG pot of water to a boil very quick.

They would work great for a "crawfish boil" too, which we don't have here ... no crawfish that is...or lobster either or shrimp :( ... in the Puget Sound.

Also... the wok to use is just a simple carbon steel, hammered, or "pow" wok.. probably under $20.00. I bought mine years ago from the wokshop in San Francisco ( .. I know the owners and their customer service is great.. they are really great people but other woks are available all over the net and probably locally... just don't buy/use a "non-stick" wok 'cause at that heat the coating will disappear instantly and you'll kill every bird within a few blocks.

One last thing.. anyone using these for heating oil to deep fry a turkey, be SURE you have a very sturdy base and be very careful or you can burn down your (and your neighbor's) house :rolleyes: if it tips over.
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Oh, dear; a story only you guys can truly appreciate. When we were on the road, we found ourselves camping outside of Seattle. We'd been told over and over that Vancouver's ChinaTown was super. So we hopped into the truck to go to Vancouver. As we crossed the border, a no-nonsense Canadian border guard asked us our business in Canada. We replied, honestly, that we'd heard there was great Chinese food in Vancouver. She was NOT amused, looked totally peeved, like we were making fun of her. So we meekly said "tourism" and she let us pass. But honestly, we were going for the Chinese food!!!!!! And it was delish. There was a salt-encrusted shrimp dish I've never had elsewhere. But I'll never forget that woman's face. She simply didn't believe we'd cross the border for Chinese food!
You're "spot on" there, Claire... Vancouver, BC has an Asian population that equals or exceeds San Francisco's, the highest in the US (both are over 30% as I recall) and Vancouver is LOADED with some *excellent* restaurants...

I've lived in San Francisco for a few years and also visit Vancouver BC often.. and I'm not sure which city has the BEST Chinese restaurants... but it's definitely worth the two+ hour drive from Seattle to explore some of their Asian cuisine.... border agents aside.

And the exchange rate is still very favorable, with $1.00 buying about $1.25 worth of Canadian goods, plus their prices are lower too.. Of course almost ANYPLACE has lower prices than San Francisco :rolleyes:

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