What is Chinese Brown Sauce?

Brown sauce has always been a mystery to those who love Chinese food and want to recreate it in their own kitchens. It’s a thick and delicious addition to many American Chinese food dishes and presents many of the classic flavors of Chinese cooking, like hoisin sauce, ginger, garlic, sesame, and soy sauce. 

The truth is, Chinese brown sauce (at least, the version of Chinese brown sauce that appears in so many takeout restaurants) is largely an American invention. Like many Chinese food dishes and sauces, it evolved over time, becoming its own unique recipe or variation of recipes, based on the easy access to specific ingredients and what the diners continued to ask for. 

Today, you’ll find Chinese brown sauce in many of your favorite dishes, from chow mein to kung pao chicken. It’s perfect for stir fry dishes, easy to adapt to your preferred flavor profiles, and pairs well with rice, noodles, dumplings, and more. 

When you’re ready to begin mixing up your own dishes with Chinese brown sauce and trying out Chinese flavors and ingredients at home, trust Fly By Jing to help you along the journey. We believe that Chinese food is both personal and universal and that Chinese food ingredients and recipes should be accessible to everyone. Explore our online shop and library for sauces, oils, and spices and for the exciting recipes that you can begin trying out today. 

What Is Chinese Brown Sauce?

Chinese brown sauce serves as a sort of gravy or condiment for many different types of Chinese food dishes, and, like gravy recipes all over the world, there are as many variations as there are home chefs and family recipe books. In fact, one of the reasons why it’s such a beloved condiment is because it can be so personalized to highlight your favorite ingredients and flavors. 

In addition to delivering on so many of the great flavors available in Chinese cuisine, brown sauce also serves to bind ingredients together. This is part of the reason you’ll find it in so many stir fry dishes, and you can easily adjust the thickness of the dish to fit your preferences. 

Because there are so many ingredients, it’s also easy to swap out ingredients and fit your Chinese brown sauce to a vegan or vegetarian diet, or to match it with the meat and vegetables you’re making for dinner. 

What Goes Into Chinese Brown Sauce?

Because Chinese brown sauce is truly an amalgam of flavors, it can be difficult to pinpoint specifically which ingredients are mixed in. But here are a few of the most common oils, spices, and sauces that you’ll find in Chinese Brown Sauce: 

Broth: Many versions of this dish use beef broth, but you can also find it made with chicken or vegetable broth. 

Soy Sauce: Soy sauce is one of the main ingredients that you’ll find in nearly every version of Chinese brown sauce. There are many different types of soy sauce, and you’ll find some recipes call for more than one soy sauce in the mix. 

Rice Vinegar: Rice vinegar is made with fermented rice, which gives it a bold and slightly sweet flavor. 

Sesame Oil: You’ll find sesame oil in many Chinese food dishes and condiments, including Chinese brown sauce. It’s hard not to love a splash of sesame flavoring. 

Brown Sugar: If you’re looking to give the dish a more American barbeque-like flavor, the brown sugar can give that rich, extra sweetness. 

Oyster Sauce: Oyster sauce is said to have originated when an oyster seller left his oysters over the heat for too long, and they became a rich, caramelized sauce, which is used in many Chinese food dishes, including Chinese brown sauce. 

Cornstarch: One of the most defining features of Chinese brown sauce is its thickness. You can achieve that great sauce texture by using a flurry made of cornstarch and water. Adjust to fit your desired thickness. 

There are just a few of the ingredients that you’ll find in Chinese brown sauce. There are even versions made with ketchup, molasses, and hoisin sauce. Explore the many recipe options, combine your favorite flavors, and create Chinese brown sauce options that match your favorite dishes. 

History of Brown Sauce?

Like many products of the Chinese American immigration experience, it can be difficult to trace the true origins of Chinese brown sauce, at least the version best known by Chinese food take-out fans in the United States. 

Many variations of Chinese brown sauce exist throughout Chinese history, related to the local regions and available ingredients and common cooking methods. In the United States, Chinese brown sauce can be traced back at least to 1917, when it appeared in a cookbook under the name “Chinese gravy,” but the truth is, it likely goes back even earlier. 

Chinese immigrants began coming into the United States when the Gold Rush brought Americans across the country to the treasures of California. By the mid-1850s, Chinese immigrants had set up many services for the miners, including restaurants. 

Because Chinese brown sauce is often an amalgam of many Chinese flavors, many origin stories believe that Chinese brown sauce was first created by simply combining the leftover ingredients available by the end of the day. Chinese food in the United States went through periods of acceptance and discrimination, but the blend of spices and flavors in Chinese brown sauce appealed to American diners and soon became a staple of American Chinese food across the country. 

Dishes to Make With Brown Sauce

While brown sauce remains a bit of a mystery, even today, it’s definitely not a secret that brown sauce is absolutely delicious. Here are a few of the recipes you can begin cooking up with Chinese brown sauce today. 

Chinese Chicken and Broccoli

Chinese chicken and broccoli may be simple, but it’s also one of the most popular Chinese food dishes for a reason. It delivers the perfect balance of both flavors and textures, with a sweet and savory taste and the great crunch of veggies that even the kids will want to eat more of. 

In addition to ingredients like soy sauce, oyster sauce, and sesame sauce, Chinese chicken and broccoli also calls for Shaoxing wine, fresh ginger, and garlic.   

Egg Foo Young

Egg foo young was probably one of the first dishes in the United States to utilize Chinese brown sauce, and egg foo young is still served with Chinese brown sauce today. 

Egg foo young is a delicious, pan-fried egg dish that is usually cooked with ingredients like shrimp, pork, and vegetables. It’s very easy to adapt, can be enjoyed for any meal of the day, and pairs well with rice and other side dishes for complete meals. And, of course, your Chinese brown sauce is an essential sauce for the job. 

Chow Mein

Chow mein is a comfort food dish that can be adapted to deliver all of your favorite flavors and ingredients with ease. The name refers to stir-fried noodles served with vegetables, meat, or tofu. You can use different kinds of noodles and employ different cooking methods to get the chow mein flavors and textures you love, and it all pairs great with Chinese brown sauce. 

Like many Chinese American dishes, chow mein has changed and evolved over the years, and you’ll find different kinds of recipes depending on which part of the United States you’re in. 

Conclusion

Chinese brown sauce is an essential part of Chinese American cuisine and Chinese cooking. It adds both a delicious balance of flavors and all the best textures to the dishes you love, and you can begin making it at home and mixing it up with all of your favorite Chinese food dishes. 

From chicken and broccoli to egg foo young, brown sauce is used in myriad Chinese food dishes to enhance the flavors and give a sweet, thick texture to noodles and dumplings alike. There are many different ways to create it, with all the best ingredients that are already in your pantry, and swapping out ingredients to create vegan or gluten-free versions is easy. 

When you’re ready to begin creating Chinese brown sauce dishes at home, trust Fly By Jing to help you every step of the way. We carry a wide variety of ingredients and spices that can make it easy to bring Chinese flavors to your own kitchen, and we want to share our favorite recipes that reflect China and Chinese American cooking. Explore our growing library of dishes and begin cooking up your own Chinese brown sauce to share with friends and family today. 

Sources:

"Chinese Brown Sauce: A Detective Story" | The Atlantic 

What Is Chinese Brown Sauce And What Is It Made Of? | Mashed

Do You Know Your Soy Sauces? | Serious Eats 

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