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Suàn Ní (蒜泥 - Chinese garlic relish)

Garlic is well-loved in many nations across the world. China's cuisine is no different. It is certainly a mainstay of most Chinese regional cuisines, although different regions can treat this vegetable differently.

In my experience, the farther south and/or west you go, the more likely garlic is to be mashed, oiled, and slightly aged. Conversely, the farther north/east you go, the more likely it is that the garlic will be served raw or pickled. In the North, it is often minced, sliced or even eaten as a whole clove.

For instance, in the north and northeast (as well as in other parts of the country), steamed dumplings are often eaten with a clove of raw garlic in one hand and chopsticks in the other in a ritual vaguely reminiscent of doing tequila shots: the diner dips the dumpling in soy sauce or bean vinegar, takes a bite of the garlic clove, takes a bite of the dumpling and chews.

Garlic is considered a bridge between the flavor groups (xián - savory), (xiāng - fragrant), and (là - piquant), and can be used for any combination of those kinds of dishes. Predictably, though, it is sparingly used in preparation of (tián - sweet) or (suān - tart) dishes.

One of the most basic preparations for garlic in Chinese cuisine is 蒜泥 (suàn ní), often called "garlic sauce". I consider it more of a "garlic relish". Its preparation is simple and the compound is useful as an additive for cooking (it makes a good base for 素炒 (sù chǎo - vegetarian stir-fry) vegetables and adds flavor to soups and la mian when added at serving time) or as a sauce for dipping (it is used widely when eating at Mongolian hot pot eateries, and northern-style dumpling houses.

Recipes vary including variations that are very oily (increase sesame oil or add vegetable oil), very hot (reduce aging time), or more pickle-like (increase vinegar). Wine vinegar or rice vinegar may be substituted for the Chinese bean vinegar, but don't do it.


  • 1 head of garlic, peeled
  • 1/2 tsp black vinegar (香醋 - xiāng cù)
  • 2 tsp sesame oil (香油 - xiāng yóu)
  • 2 tsp hot water
  • a dash of salt


First, mash each clove of garlic with a meat tenderizing hammer, cleaver tip, kitchen hammer, or whatever blunt instrument you have handy. Cover with hot water and leave for 2-3 hours. Mince to 2-3mm-sized pieces and place in a small storage bowl. Stir in vinegar, sesame oil, and salt.

Store at room temperature overnight. Sniff frequently.

I have no idea how long it will stay fresh because I always use it before it goes bad, but keep refrigerated for best results.

unperson says garlic and oil preparations have a possibility of causing botulism if they're left to sit around too long. I certainly agree that one should be careful about how long one keeps this around, as with any fresh food.

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