To properly eat Chinese food, you must first learn the "Ways of the Sauce," a powerful form of urban magic. Friends and family will try to lure you to this restaurant or that restaurant, and co-workers may attempt to order lunch with you during a moment of mental weakness or internal strife. But the Ways of the Sauce will never steer you wrong.
There are three basic truths at the beginning of the Way: 1) Most Chinese food is quite tasty. 2) Egg rolls are crunchy creations sent directly by the gods. 3) Duck sauce is utterly revolting.
Duck sauce ... sickly yellow-orange and translucent ... should not be confused with the robust, think energetic red-orange sweet and sour sauce, or 3S. 3S stresses sweet, while duck sauce leans toward the sour. Both condiments are staples in most Asian-themed eateries. Duck sauce is the more traditional sauce, using ginger, vinegar, and in some regions cooked apples to thin its consistency into a nice dipping sauce. 3S, however, is both a dipping and cooking sauce, and is often combined with onions, green peppers, and pineapple for texture.
I get angry because some places only put out duck sauce, you have to ask for 3S ... sometimes even pay for a small container of it even when you're dining in. Then there's plum sauce ... an even more distant 3S relative made with more vinegar, select chilis, and cooked plums or apricots for sweetness. It's usually light brown in color, kind of like a packet of silt collected from a dirty aquarium.
Now I don't mind hoisin sauce, a variety of dipping sauce more connected to Cantonese- or Mandorin-style fare. Hoisin is made from rice, wheat, sweet potatoes, vinegar, and other spices. The concoction looks dark and rich, and has an earthier flavor than any of the other sauces.
Although the Ways of the Sauce do not specifically prepare diners for every eventuality, they do delve into two other condiments: chinese mustard and wasabi. Chinese mustard is made from mustard plants that originated in India. Traditionally, the mustard is comprised of dried mustard greens, rice wine, sugar, vegetable oil, and other spices. Wasabi, often referred to as Japanese horseradish, is a root that is often incorporated into a mustard-style sauce. It is typically bolder than Chinese mustard and is quickly becoming more commonplace in Chinese and Vietnamese kitchens. Being mustards, both of these spreads stimulate the nasal passages and add a flavorful heat to food, not the burning warmth associated with peppers.
The children in my Welsh/German family were schooled in the Ways of the Sauce ... and more ... by my father at an early age. He worked second shift as a carpenter in a huge manufacturing facility. He got off work at around 11:15 PM and would often stop by a Chinese restaurant that stayed open until midnight and bring home take-out for the whole family. I can remember many nights, especially in the summer, when we would either stay up or be woken up for a late night feast of shrimp lo mein and moo goo gai pan. My mother loved it because she only had to make light snacks for supper on the nights it was planned, and leftovers made great next-day lunches. Us kids loved it even more because we got to stay up like adults and eat food from cool cartons. We learned to use chopsticks and about our place on the Chinese zodiac. And we got "schooled" on my Dad's obsession ... even greater than my preoccupation with sauce ... with the war that time forgot ... egg rolls vs. spring rolls. You'll have to look it up to see who wins!!
POINT OF RANT: One day, egg rolls and sweet and sour sauce will take over the world.