August 23, 2011

Solving the Mysteries of Chinese Sauces

Last night while ordering my usual on-the-road dinner of Chinese takeout, I came upon a bit of a puzzle. I typically order steamed veggies with a protein (either shrimp, chicken, or tofu, depending on my mood), and I am offered a choice of sauces on the side. I usually get either the ambiguously named brown or white sauce, and probably end up using only a few tablespoons of it when I eat (I dip a corner of each veggie/protein into it as I go, barely diminishing the massive container of sauce they give me). In addition to saving calories by doing it this way, I prefer my food not dripping with sauce anyway – it’s easier to taste the flavors of the veggies/meat when they’re not covered in gloppy sauce. But as I was deciding what to order, I started wondering: which Chinese restaurant sauce is the healthiest and has the fewest calories?

I usually have options for brown sauce and white sauce, regardless of the restaurant, and then sometimes also have choices like Hunan sauce, garlic sauce, Kung Pao sauce, etc. If you search around the interwebs, you’ll find that no one can give a definitive answer to the question of what’s in the various sauces at Chinese restaurants, and there are a lot of different variations if you look for the actual recipes.

I decided that the best way to to do a fair comparison would be to get the recipes for the two most common sauces (brown and white) from the same source – because that way if a restaurant is prone to using a lot of oil/sugar/salt/whatever, it would probably be the same across both sauces. However, the two Chinese restaurants that I frequent in Charlottesville have a staff who barely speak English and probably wouldn’t be the easiest with whom to converse. If any readers know someone who work at/own a Chinese restaurant, I’d love it if you could put me in touch!

For now, I’ll use two recipes I found from (which I consider pretty standard):

Chinese Brown Sauce

3/4 cup beef broth (beef bouillion cubes can be used)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch

Chinese White Sauce
½ cup onions, finely chopped
2 teaspoons ginger, chopped
2 teaspoons garlic, chopped
½ cup white wine
2 tablespoons cornflour mixed with 3 cups of clear vegetable stock
a pinch sugar
1 tablespoon oil
salt to taste

To get the nutrition stats for each, I converted the serving size to result in 1/4 cup of sauce – probably around what I use, or just a bit more. And the stats?

Brown sauce:

White sauce:

The white sauce has fewer calories (45 calories), but is higher in fat (2g) and lower in protein (0.6g). The brown sauce, on the other hand, has just 10 more calories (55 calories total), but is lower in fat (0.8g) and higher in protein (3g). So I’d say it’s a tossup between the two, at least in that small quantity. Looking at the ingredients, I like that the white sauce has fresh produce in it (though the benefits of the onions are probably pretty low in such a small quantity), but otherwise, they’re both really just condiments that aren’t meant to add nutrients. They’re just a garnish of flavor, to be used in small quantities.

Now, my test wasn’t very scientific at all, but the key to my findings is what I kept repeating in that last paragraph: in that small quantity, most sauces aren’t going to be very different from each other. Just make sure to ask for any sauce you get on the side, instead of pouring it over your food, and you’ll probably be just fine.

Cheers to not having to sweat the small stuff!


7 thoughts on “Solving the Mysteries of Chinese Sauces”

  1. I called my chinese delivery place Chin Chin in Atlanta and asked if the used beef and/or Oyster in their brown sauce; she said they do not and that it is soy based only along with other things. Since I am a vegetarian, I felt better about asking them.

  2. Definitely a large dose of sodium. Thats the thing I’ve been paying more attention to since everyone takes in way more sodium then needed, and its the main reason so many have high BP today.

  3. How does the brown sauce end up being higher in fat when you add a tablespoon of oil to the white sauce? What exactly is in oyster sauce?

    1. Actually, it’s the white sauce that ends up being slightly higher in fat. The white sauce has 2.0g per quarter cup; the brown sauce has 0.8g per quarter cup. Negligible difference, though!

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