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I noticed the recipe for the regular mooncake crust asking for “lye water.” I also found it as a component of the dough for char chiu bao. As far as I know, only chinese (or chinese influenced) recipes require this ingredient and only those recipes that involve rice or wheat flour. In indigenous Filipino cooking, it only shows up in two items, both of them kueh-type snacks and appears to be as flavouring. A few drops is also used to release the flavour/colour of achiote (anatto) seeds. My question is, what exactly is the role of lye water in Chinese cooking?

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Don't quote me on this, but I think it's use as a tenderizer.

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For char siu bao, I think it's supposed to act as a bleach to make the bread white.

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From the research on google, it says that lye water allows the flour to absorb water better and makes it more elastic. The lye water can also be used as a preservative and neutralize the acid.

Since lye water is a bit bitter, it is common to add vinegar when eating wonton noodles to cover the bitterness.

Lye water can be found in Southern style noodles, zonghi, and dumpling skins.

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I wonder if it has something to do with the springy bouncy toothsome texture that is well liked by the chinese, or to act like vitamin c or ascorbic acid in bread making which tighten the dough and acts as an astringent . I have been looking at various cookbooks but non of them explains its function.

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Hello all,

Lye water "Gan sueh" in Cantonese, or Kansu in Japanese is an essential ingredient in making ramen noodles in Japan.

It is what gives japanese Ramen noodles as well as many Southern Chinese style

egg based noodles their chewy springiness.

For many years, the use of lye water and similar alkaline and even toxic chemicals like borax, "Pang sah" has been a controversial subject in Chinese cooking.

Lye water and relatively weaker alkaline ammonia based solutions and potentially toxic Pang sah, or borax is used to give prawns in Chinese restaurants springy almost elastic texture. and are added extensively to Wonton noodles especially in Hong Kong and Southern China.

I had a patient who was a Cantonese chef who told me years ago about how borax was used.

In a nutshell, the prawns are treated with the borax, and rinsed at times for over two hours in restaurants to remove as much of the chemical.

In recent years, health authorities in Hong Kong have tried to prohibit the use of pang sah, and from what I hear, all these other related alkaline solutions, but its use is still prevalent all over Chinese restaurants in countries where the health authorities are not vigilant, or simply unaware. Pang sah is sometimes even added to rice sheets or cheung fun and as a chef once admitted to me, radish cake. :huh:

When you encounter prawns in dishes like hargow or Crystal or "Emerald prawns"

and the texture is extraordinarily chewy and elastic, chances are it has been treated with borax or a similar alkaline chemical. :unsure:


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A lot of thanks to Danjou for his enlightening post. That about answered my original question.

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  As far as I know, only chinese (or chinese influenced) recipes require this ingredient and only those recipes that involve rice or wheat flour. 

There are other cuisines that use lye or similar alkaline solutions. The nixtamalization process that maize goes through to become hominy. Usually, in this process lime is used instead of lye, though.

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  As far as I know, only chinese (or chinese influenced) recipes require this ingredient and only those recipes that involve rice or wheat flour. 

There are other cuisines that use lye or similar alkaline solutions. The nixtamalization process that maize goes through to become hominy. Usually, in this process lime is used instead of lye, though.

Yes, as I subsequently discovered in my search to find answer to my original question. Foremost among them is what you just mentioned and also for firming up fruits for candying (squash, winter melon and breadfruit) where lime (cal) is the preferred alkali. The ludefisck (sp?) of the Scandinavians is another that quickly comes to mind. Apparently they also use an alkali spray to make pretzels take on that glossy varnished look. But Danjou's red flag about borax is quite sobering.

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Hi all

apologies for the uncorrected posting above :smile:

Anyway....here are some more thoughts about alkaline solutions.

Food grade lye water is used extensively in the class of noodles in Southern China called "Gansueh Meen", or literally, "lye water noodles"

When made well they are delicious; but in the fiercely competitive Hong Kong noodle restaurant business, some noodle restaurants, specifically the wonton noodle restaurants are resorting to more unusual basic alkaline solutions to make their noodles achieve an even more chewier texture which is so prized by the Cantonese.

I have been quite alarmed at the strong whiff of ammonia I have encountered at several top notch wonton noodle restaurants in Hong Kong.

A Japanese chef told me that many ramen lovers in Japan actually view the flavor

of kansu or lye water as an intergral part of the flavor of ramen. Indeed, I have eaten in many ramen restaurants in Japan and have noticed that the taste of the kansu in the noodles will vary from restaurant to restaurant, ranging from strong to mild, and this correlates with the amount of kansu used, which I also observed, is proportional to the "springiness" and elasticity of the resulting ramen.

Alkaline chemicals like lye water are also used in the Chinese rice dumpling called "kansueh jiong" in Cantonese, or Lye water dumpling, but if made properly and well, and eaten in sweet red bean soup or simply dusted with sugar or topped with a bit of syrup they are delicious.

In Chinese restaurants all over, especially Cantonese restaurants, you will probably notice that at times the beef in classic dishes like "oyster sauce beef" or "Chinese style steak" and many other stir fried beef dishes, and especially in San Francisco's Chinatown, "Steak kow" are extraordinarily and almost unnaturally tender, chewy and succulent. It means that baking soda was used to tenderize it. :hmmm:

Pang sa, or borax has been used for a long time, but exactly when it began I am not sure. It was only available from Chinese medicine shops and I recall it being mentioned by Cantonese chefs when I was a kid during the Sixties.

I knew that the extraordinarily crunchy and delicious prawns we would eat at many reputable and famous Hong kong restaurants were in many cases, treated with a white powder called pang sa, but did not realize it was borax until much later, when many years ago, I noticed a huge sack of borax at a Chinese restaurant supplier's shop. I innocently remarked to the proprietor that I did not realize they also sold detergent, to which he replied, "Oh that is pang saH" :shock::shock:

Nowadays, most good Chinese chefs do frown on the use of pang sa, and there are many safe and natural techniques to achieve the prized crunchiness in prawns without using any chemical or additive.

But I still encounter it in restaurants all over Asia where government regulations are lax. I suspect in many cases, unscrupulous restaurant owners and their line chefs use it to cut losses, especially when the prawns are no longer fresh, as it firms up the flesh; and although it is rinsed for hours literally, I doubt it is completely washed away.

Pang sa was added to all sorts of things, especially commercial, mass produced fish cake, fish balls, and as i mentioned above dim sum restaurant items including at times radish cake, as well as fresh flat rice noodles and even some dried soy bean sticks "Foo Juk".

Commercial, non artisanal and extraordinarily chewy fish cakes and fish balls were, and in some places are still are treated with pangsah.

I think it is the fierce competition in the Chinese restaurant business and food industry all over Asia is only one of many reasons why many establishments used and still use borax, especially in countries where government regulations on its use are poorly enforced or non existent.

But over the years, many genuinely good Chinese chefs, the ones who are purists and true artisans at heart, have tried to stop the use of this chemical, especially in recent years when the potential risk to health became apparent.

I know for certain that many of these great chefs are trying to teach a higher standard of food safety to their students and to do things the more difficult but safe way rather than use these chemical short cuts.



Edited by danjou (log)

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Danjou, Thanks again. I notice you are based in the Philippines. Perhaps you can join us from time to time in the Filipino cuisine thread.

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I'm still trying to figure out what role lye water plays in mooncake skins. One thing I noticed when making them is that the dough is initially very wet, almost the consistency of soft serve ice cream. But then as the dough is rested it firms up to the point that it can be rolled out. Is it the lye water that causes this to happen?

There also another recipe that uses lye water--Chinese almond cookies. I plan to make those after I've done with the mooncakes, and I'm wondering what the purpose of lye water is in that recipe.

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Thanks for the explanations, danjou.

I also had heard of borax (Pang Sa) used to tenderize beef in restaurant cookings when I grew up (in the sixties/seventies). The soft texture in those "steak balls" always amazed me.

I always wondered about those shrimps in "crystal shrimp" (ball lei ha kao). They look almost transparent instead of an opique white color. The taste is so unlike the natural, cooked shrimp.

How about the dried squids? When I was small, I passed by some wet market and I saw merchants used buckets of water to soak the dried squids. The dried squids swelled up to about 3-4 times the original size. I knew it's more than water that's in the bucket but did not know what else was used. Do you know if they use lye water?

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Isn't it soda that's normally used with beef and prawns,and other meats too?as with the question of MSG I used to be a purist and wouldn't touch it, but used in the very smallest possible quantities it gives such a good result that it's too difficult to ignore. It also is a very good 'defisher' ie defusing slightly rank odours that have no place in Cantonese food. Utter discretion is needed, however. Maybe Borax is what's used with dried squid . Here in London it used to be possible to buy soaked squid of the most extraordinary tenderness. Maybe I should try-anyone know the right amount to use?

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Greetings and "magandang gabi" from Manila to all of you,

Yikes, this is the first time I have heard of the use of pangsa on beef ....the horror....the horr... :sad:

The addition of baking soda in Cantonese beef dishes is as you all probably know, an old tradition.

Even the chewy springy consistency of steamed beef balls cannot be achieved without first treating the beef with soda or "Soh Dah Fun", and of course, water chestnut flour and pork fat.

Used sparingly and carefully one can achieve that silky succulent texture " Waht" and "Chueh" so loved by the Cantonese. I try to be a purist too, but I concede

dishes like "Jung sik Ngow lao" or Chinese style beef steak just does not taste right without first treating the beef.

The texture can be a bit odd to Westerners however.

There were also economical reasons why many restaurants tenderized their beef with soda; this was simply because they need not buy more tender but expensive tenderloin and instead use cheaper and tougher cuts which they would just slice up and tenderize with baking soda.

Indeed baking soda is also used to treat prawns, and even though it is far safer, it is apparently less effective than borax, which is a much stronger base.

The archetypal dish is the "Boh lei har kow" or Glassy prawn balls you mention, as well as "Ching chow ha yun" or stir fried shrimp as served in Shanghainese or Peking restaurants and frequently a lot of the shrimp based dim sum fillings like hargow even in upscale Chinese restaurants are treated with borax or soda.

Another reason why borax was favored is that baking soda also leaves an unusual and rather odd odor and taste even after thorough rinsing and a lot more baking soda had to be used to achieve that chewy and truly unnatural texture.

I always remember how my mother, herself a student of the Hong Kong chef Chan Wing long ago, would always frown when she tasted soda treated beef in restaurants. :huh:

I completely avoid the use of any chemicals and much prefer the natural taste and texture of fresh prawns.

Although it is possible other chemicals are sometimes used, lye water is usually the main ingredient used for making "dew peen" or dried and cured cuttlefish/ squid. It is essential and it gives the dried squid its characteristic appearance, texture and taste.

Famous Singaporean dishes like "Jiu her eng chye" , which is cured cuttlefish dressed with a hoisin based sauce on top of blanched water convolvulus or "Kangkong" just does not taste right if fresh squid is used.

One of the well loved Hakka dishes is 'dew peen' and fresh cuttlefish stir fried together with salted shrimp paste :raz::biggrin:

I do recall that Lye water is also used to treat dried jelly fish.

And I also wish to add, as a warning to people who love salted fish, that the often exotic chemicals used in curing salted fish in some areas, like apparently ammonia containing chemicals :blink::huh: has resulted in a product which has been linked to the high incidence of nasopharyngeal cancer in the coastal regions of South China and Southeast Asia....but that is another tale.

cheers to all


Edited by danjou (log)

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Thanks for the fascinating information, danjou, I've always wondered what those packets of Borax powder were for. Is it really very dangerous? I'm quite tempted to try it. Any idea how long soda has been used? I must say I find stir fried beef tenderloin pretty unpleasant, particularly untreated. The only time I don't use soda is when I have skirt available. I'd be thrilled to know your mother's method for preparing beef!

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Although mentioning “lye” summons images of a very caustic chemical and of paint stripper, most of the food quality lye we use is home made. We gather a weed called locally as kulitis (amaranth), dry them and burn them to cinders. Gather the ash in a cracked earthenware pot, pour some water into it and catch the dripping in a clean receptacle. We use this as a coloring/flavoring for a steamed pudding called kutsinta and a steamed rice stick snack called suman sa legia. For the hominy-like corn snack called binatog though, ash is directly boiled with the maize to leach it out. This makes the hull separate easier and more importantly, activate more protein and certain nutrients that otherwise would remain dormant.

But I have always wondered about those dishes that you (Danjou) mentioned such as the beautiful chewy prawns, the beef steak that you can slice with a chopstick no less, and the reconstituted dried giant squid slices that were gelatinous instead of chewy tough. Are they toxic? How dangerous is eating these as to eating say, Scandinavian lutefisc?

Thanks again.

Edited by Apicio (log)

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NOOOOO Caustic soda is crystal lye. Depending on the quantity of dried squid you want to experiment with just use the lye water in a bottle you can pick up in a Chinese food store. And use the smalles possible container so you do not have to dilute it too much. Use the largest container of water though and frequesnt change when flashing it out. Let us know.

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I bought Borax powder, not lye water, which I already had-it's good for noodles, but it doesn't give me a good feeling, in the end-like commercial chinese fresh egg noodles.

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Hi folks,

I check egullet after several days...and what have you kids been up to...omigosh....playing with chemicals :blink::shock::shock:

I don't have time for a more detailed reply, but I am alarmed.

I am confused....and to quote my mom.."Aeeeyah " :wacko: ,

muichoi, are you going to hydrate dried squid ?

Don't add lye water to the dried squid :shock:

The dried squid has already been processed with lye water and dried.

You have to soak it in fresh water until soft. I think this might reqire a few changes of water.

Dew peen or cured dried squid and most varieties of dried fish all over Asia, from hahm yue or kiam hee or salted fish in South China to Tuyo here in Manila were all developed as a result of the need to preserve seafood in the days when there was no refrigeration.

Lye, soda and borax are bases which denature proteins; which means the protein is changed but not destroyed.

I think the reason for the use of lye and borax was that they also kill bacteria and is therefore a preservative as well as possibly making the protein more easily digestable and as we have seen, firms up the texture.

But borax poses a very signficant danger to health, which caused its apparent ban in Hong Kongas well as in many other countries, yet its use is still widespread in places where government is uninformed and enforcement is poor.

Please read the following bulletin released last year by the Bureau of Food Safety and Consumer Protection in Canada:


here is another warning, from Thailand:


Muichoi, my mother tries to follow an artisanal approach to Chinese cooking and never uses any soda or chemicals in her beef dishes and prawns.

From as long as I recall, she feels this trend toward treating food with all these chemicals is completely repulsive and poses a grave health risk.

She is able to make her prawns wonderfully firm and crisp without ever having to add any chemicals.

Prawns that are treated with borax or soda always lose their natural taste.

I am certain these chemicals also alter things like the natural carbohydrates and vitamins aside from changing the proteins; which probably accounts for the drastic reduction in flavor of treated prawns. The taste or flavor has to be restored by seasoning the treated prawns .

it is the same with soda treated beef, the natural flavors disappear when it is treated with soda. The flavor then has to be restored with the addition of marinade.

Sorry for the long rambling post....

I'm getting sleepy :unsure:

let's cook, eat and stay healthy :smile:

Edited by danjou (log)

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Thanks Danjou-certainly makes sense and of course I agree with your mother! Really, though, I remember this soft and inflated dried squid with great pleasure, and was wondering whether this could be replicated by soaking in a borax solution which is then rinsed away-the pleasure of dried squid is not in its natural flavour anyway! Chinese food though is very much about texture-and warm water prawns simply aren't very good in general-so I don't have a problem about salt-washing them, and adding a bit of soda to the first wash-only 30 seconds contact or so-likewise beef-if i'm poaching or grilling ,for example, soda would be stupid, but in a saute/stirfry the meat is so denatured anyway that the smallest bit of soda is only an enhancement-such dishes are not designed to show of the excellence of an ingredient, which is possibly the main criticism to be made of chinese cuisine as a whole-which is strange given the cantonese ability to encapsulate the freshness of chicken, fish and vegetables like no other. Does your mother marinate beef at all?

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