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Aug 3, 2008 10:45 AM

In Chinese cuisine, what does "Ocean Flavor" mean?

As a teenager I frequented a Chinese restaurant in my hometown that featured a dish called "Ocean Flavor Chicken." At the time, it was one of my favorties. The dish's orange-brown sauce was spicy with just a hint of sweetness. The flavor was unique, but didn't remind me of the ocean in any way. In fact, I can't really put my finger on the dominant flavor(s) of the dish, and I never learned its secret ingredients, if any. I haven't encountered the dish at any other restaurants, though a quick web search turned up "ocean flavor shrimp" and "ocean flavor scallops" at a couple of places, though no recipes.

Are there any Chinese food experts out there who can help me solve the mystery of "ocean flavor"?

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  1. It could be a loose translation of 鱼香, which literally means fish-fragrant. That's a Sichuanese dish which has been adopted by many US restaurants, usually made with pork or eggplant, and very often called "in garlic sauce", since fish-fragrant pork on a menu might not get too many orders. I don't know where it got its name, since it is not made with fish. Here's a video of someone making the dish with eggplant.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Brian S

      That's the first thing I thought of too - the "fish fragrant" dishes in Sichuanese cuisine. They don't contain fish or fish sauce, but are sauces that were traditionally served with fish dishes.

      Coincidentally, on the Home Cooking Board, I just posted pics and recipe report on "fish-fragrant eggplant", and what the ingredients are. It sounds just like the flavors being described. Dunlop mentions in her Sichuan cookbook "Land of Plenty" that it has "salty, sweet, sour, and spicy notes, with the heady fragrance of garlic, ginger, and scallions". I actually used the same brands of soy, chili bean paste, and Chinkiang black rice vinegar as are in the youtube video.

      Fish Fragrant Eggplant (yu xiang quie zi)

      1. re: Brian S

        Barbara Tropp had it that it really has nothing to do with fish, but is rather named after old names for Sichuan and Hunan, Yu and Xiang respectively. This makes a lot of sense to me given the spicing.

      2. You must be referring to Hoisin (literal translation, "ocean flavored") sauce, which is a most common condiment available in any Chinese markets and even others. It is brown-red in color, slightly sweet and spicy and is processed from soy bean, chili, sugar, salt, garlic, sesame seed, etc.. It is used as a seasoning in many Chinese wok toss cooked dishes (chicken, beef, pork, or seafood), as a marinade for barbecue pork (char sieu) and as a dipping sauce for Peking Duck and lettuce wrapped dishes such as Mo Shu Pork, etc..

        11 Replies
        1. re: CYL

          To my reading, hoisin translates to "ocean fresh" and is used as the catchall word for seafood. But the OP's dish could very well have been hoisin sauce based with the addition of chiles as the sauce is not spicy at all.

          1. re: PorkButt

            Yes, as corrected on translation!

            1. re: CYL

              Yes, you're right and I never thought of it. 海鮮 can be seafood, hoisin, or ocean fresh. And the word for fresh, 鮮, just by coincidence, has a little fish (鱼) in it!

              1. re: Brian S

                Your first response is most accurate I believe. 海鮮 (hai xian) means “seafood” – not ocean fresh. (Yes, hai can mean the sea and xian can mean fresh or even “aquatic foods” but the combination of the two characters together creates the word seafood.) 魚香 (yu xiang) or “fish fragance” sauce mixture basically contains garlic, ginger, soy sauce, chili-bean paste, sugar, rice vinegar and stock. And it could have just been plain old Hoisin Chicken which the restaurant owners translated themselves as ocean fresh chicken. Alternatively perhaps the OP had some type of Chiu Chow dish. Chiu Chow people do use a fish essence or extract which is the same as the Thai nam pla or Vietnamese nuoc mam.

            2. re: PorkButt

              actually I don't think it's that simple. Xian - 鮮 is fresh. But when you have three fillings in a dumpling, or three main protein ingredients in a dish - say squid chicken and pork, you'll see the phrase San Xian - 三鮮 which I think is better translated as three flavors, three tastes, etc. So hai xian/hoi sin can be ocean flavor, ocean taste.

              BTW - speaking of hoi sin sauce, I think it's odd that most places here in the US and apparently in parts of China serve Peking Roast Duck with Hoisin sauce. At the old QUanjude just outside Los Angeles, and I remember in beijing, it was served with tianmianjiang 甜麵醬 /甜面酱 ( a sauce I believe made of beans and fermented mantou dough).

              1. re: Jerome

                The last time I had Peking duck in Peking was just after the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. It was Qianmen Quanjude restaurant. The sauce served was just like that served in NY Chinatown restaurants, where it is called hoisin (but is totally unlike any hoisin sauce I've bought in cans and bottles) I ate in the cheapest of the dining areas. It was lively and very crowded. A line of people formed behind each seat, waiting for the diner to finish. Beggars circulated through the crowd, grabbing pancakes off tables (they had pancakes not mantou) whenever they could get away with it.

                1. re: Brian S

                  I was there in 1982 which was maybe a little more than just after. The restaurant had returned to the pre-Cult.rev. name of quanjude. But taste tianmianjiang and tell me - it's similar to hoisin sauce but not as plummy - a little more of a fermented or glutamate/mushroomy taste. they're both thick, dark, and have sweet elements.

                2. re: Jerome

                  I've had tian mian jiang with Peking Duck at at least one restaurant in Boston's Chinatown (King Fung Garden). Thanks for the details - I only knew that it was a traditional Northern sweet wheat-based sauce. I had read somewhere that it used to be hard to find in the US and that's why so many places use Hoisin instead.

                  1. re: Jerome

                    It is not the individual characters here that are important but the combination of them that is - in which compound words are created. Yes, 鮮 (xian) by itself can mean fresh - but it also denotes bright-colored or bright; tasty, delicious, delicacy or seafood. 海 (hai) by itself denotes sea or big lake; a large number of people (or things) coming together; extra large or a surname.

                    The two characters 海鮮 together mean "seafood" and nothing more.

                    三鮮 here in this context means "3 different meats" or if you will, the flavor of 3 different proteins. I assume Hoisin is the Cantonese for hai xian.

                    I've had Peking Duck in Beijing, Hongkong and Taipei (1981-2005) and it has always been served with Hoisin sauce. My first Beijing experience was a bit different from Brian's. For one, I remember the "cleaning" of the tables meant a comrade using a dirty cloth to just clear everything on the table to the floor, then some male cadres at a nearby table interrupted us to ask if a young male college friend with us named Bob was male or female! Seems they had a side bet going on and wanted to settle up as they were soon to leave!

                    1. re: Jerome

                      Your example shows how much uncertainty can be created by literal translations of Chinese dish names. I'm not a native speaker of any Chinese dialect and some of my attempts at translating menus items using a dictionary has resulted in some head scratching results as you can imagine.

                      But since the OP said that the dish was called Ocean Flavor Chicken. If the dish was called 海鲜鸡 hoi sin gai / haixian ji, then the restauranteur would have translated that to seafood chicken. I've never heard of hoi mei gai 海味鸡 or hoisin mei gai so my instinct is to go with the first commenters who suggested that it was yu xiang ji/ yu heung gai.

                      1. re: PorkButt

                        fwiw, not only can wei denote flavor, the character for wind/ feng, can mean a local flavor, specialty or taste - as well, there's a more classical word for flavor, zi character is hard to find online it's the 口 on the left and茲 on the right, that character + 味 make ziwei(r) flavor, taste.
                        but it's kinda literary.

                        canned tianmianjiang from sichuan and from taiwan is available in southern california at the 99 ranch markets, among other places.

                3. I think it refers to dried goods from the ocean, such as dried scallops or salted fish. There are stores in HK that are called Hoi May (Ocean Flavor) stores.

                  1. Thanks to everyone for the informative posts. I'm still not sure what the dish was I used to eat, but the color of the sauce in the youtube video looks pretty close to what I remember. I'm pretty sure the dish was not hoisin-based as I think hoisin would have made for a darker and sweeter sauce. Ingredients that I remember besides the chicken itself include some kind of mushroom/fungus (dark, small, and ear-shapped--tree ear fungus maybe?), water chestnuts, and long, thin, dried red peppers.

                    7 Replies
                    1. re: Low Country Jon

                      sounds like yuxiang with the addition of water chestnuts for an "oriental" flair.

                      Look for recipes for gan shao/dry cooked chicken, "szechwan" chicken, or yu-hsiang chicken and add sliced water chestnuts.

                      1. re: Jerome

                        I found this in a 1981 New York Times review of a doubtless long-forgotten restaurant in Manhasset, NY. It seems to support the yu xiang theory:

                        "Ocean-flavor scallops with tree ears, red pepper and water chestnuts were moist, silken and coated with a rich garlic sauce, but it imparted none of the peppery impact of the supposed Sichuan inspiration."


                        1. re: Brian S

                          Fabricant labels the dish a Swatow one - another romanized named for Chiu Chow - who do use fish sauce!

                          1. re: scoopG

                            Swatow is CHiu chow? Swatow is a city, Shantou in mandarin. known for salted dried fruits, like apricots. I thought chiu chow (chaozhou in mandarin) was a district.

                            1. re: Jerome

                              Chao2 Zhou1 (Teochew in their native dialect, which is distinct from Cantonese and very similiar to Hokkien/Min3 Nan2) is a city in the eastern part of Canton, near Shan4 Tou2. Both cities contribute to Teochew cuisine, which is, among other things, known for braising in deeply flavoured stocks (esp seafood such as sharksfin, or goose) and the use of pickles and preserved fruit in cooking (e.g. steamed pomfret with preserved sour plums). They're considered a branch of Cantonese (Yue4) cuisine, but share influences from Southern Fujian (min3 nan2) cooking.

                              1. re: Jerome

                                I believe they are more or less interchangeable when talking about cuisine. Yes, Swatow is 汕頭 (Shantou.) It borders 潮洲 (Chao Zhou) in eastern Guangdong province. To make it more confusing, Chao Zhou is also variously rendered into English alphabetics as Teo Chew, Teo Cheo, Teo Chiu and Chiu Chow. (Since pinyin was created only after 1949 and the Wade-Giles and Yale systems dealt with Mandarin mostly.) Spoken 潮洲 is much closer to Fuzhou than Cantonese. Also famous for fresh seafood dishes, soups with items floating on top and their fish sauce.

                                1. re: scoopG

                                  The northern (Fuzhou/Hockchew) and southern (Minnan/Hokkien) dialects in Fujian are very different; Teochew is very similar to the southern dialect, but is very different to the Northern one.

                      2. Ocean flavour would be 海味, (hai3wei4) but every time I have run into this kind of dish all the name means is that there is some usually dried seafood product used as a seasoning. It is quite distinct from yu xiang and also not 海鲜、 which as someone pointed out usually means seafood.