Every day chef Peter starts his work day by mixing a fragrant broth of garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sugar and a bunch of spices.

He then gently unwraps the plastic bag with his secret ingredient: a 40-year-old sauce.

“It’s just one small element of the dish, but it’s crucial to the overall taste,” says Peter.

The sauce is called Lou (pronounced “loo”), and virtually every Chinese regional cuisine uses some of its variants. Lou sauce originally referred to salted water, which was used as a marinade for meat, which is boiled and then served cold and for vegetables. Nowadays it is made on the basis of salty liquid, such as soy sauce, with sugar and a mixture of spices. And it’s not just a marinade – they also complete the dish after cooking.

Lu is the secret sauce that underlies many Chinese family cuisines. For Peter, his Lou sauce is also a legacy from his beloved mother.

“Every time I cook with Lou’s sauce, I feel confident. I feel that my mother’s taste is closer to me, ”says Piotr. He learned to cook from his mother, who often exchanged culinary advice with him after he moved from his native Shanghai to work in northern China.

During one of his last home visits in 2015, before his mother died, she gave him some of her Lou sauce to take with her to Beijing to make him feel closer to home.

Ancient sauce created on the basis of salt

Lou sauce originally referred to salted water, which was used as a marinade for meat, which is boiled and then served cold and for vegetables.

“Salt is the core of Lou’s sauce, even more important than spices. Spices can add flavor or remove some odors, but salt is crucial to flavor, ”says Cao Yu, a culinary writer and historian at Jinan University.

The earliest surviving recipes for cooking Lou date back to Timin Yaoshuan ancient Chinese agricultural text written in the 5th century: “Mix 160 liters of water and three liters of salt and then boil to get Lu.”

Cao believes that the Lu sauce we know today dates back to the Ming Dynasty more than seven centuries ago, when privatized agricultural enterprises and food markets began to appear in China. To attract customers, these food suppliers began introducing new flavors into the sauce by adding spices as well as soy sauce for color, and then using sauce to season cooked meat and vegetables that sold cold to take away.

Over the centuries, Lu has diversified, adopting the features of each of China’s regional cuisines. For example, in the spicy province of Sichuan allspice and star anise insist on Lou to add flavor and intensity.

Some Lu are even alcoholics: Zao Lu is a light marinade made from fermented sticky rice puree left over from Chinese yellow wine. Zhao Lu is used in southeastern China to season vegetables.

His sauce came straight from his mother

Lou’s sauce, which chef Peter uses in his restaurant, comes from a continuous network of sauces that dates back to the first batch cooked by his mother in the 1980s.

Today, he still retains that original Lou sauce, giving him new “nutrients” daily – a fresh infusion of spices and meat that is cooked in the sauce to enrich it.

“You have to bring up old Lou’s sauce like you raise a child,” Peter argues.

Peter always keeps the rest of each batch of Lou and uses the old sauce to start the next, new serving of gravy. It’s a bit like sourdough, where the last batch sows the next batch, and the flavor intensifies over the years.

“Think about it: my Lou Duck Sauce was started by my mother in the 1980s, so in one dish of Lou Duck Stew you eat the essence of at least seven or eight thousand ducks that have gone through it,” he says. . “My sauce is really an accumulation of time.”

As a result, Peter does not like to accept customers in a hurry. Like old wine, he says, one needs to think carefully about Lou’s sauce to appreciate its rich aftertaste: fatty, sweet and salty.

After four hours of slowly simmering sweet Lou in Shanghai style Peter boiled to a dark thick soup. Peter reduces it further until it becomes a syrup similar to molasses.

Lou’s rich old sauce made Peter’s restaurant – hidden in an apartment without signs – a well-hidden gem in Beijing, advertised only by word of mouth. Peter strictly forbids us to use his full name or mention his restaurant in this material.

“We have a saying in Chinese: fame brings trouble. This restaurant is my playground. I don’t want too many people to come. “


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