There are liquids that are storytellers, and we’re not talking about liquids that turn those who drink them into storytellers. We’re talking about the ones made by pressing, crushing, tempering, extracting and simmering. Just as cup of well-made coffee will be indicative of how it’s been treated, transported, roasted and extracted, and a good wine will speak of where it came from and how it was made, a good stock will tell a story.

The ingredients and time used to make a good stock and the evolution of a complex master stock is indicative of its maker and the ingredients used. While there are countless great stocks from various different cultures, master stock, and the little tales and histories it embodies, is perhaps the most fascinating and revealing in its inherent narrative and lineage. A master stock is a broth that is initially created from a few core ingredients – which vary from recipe to recipe – and is then maintained, with ingredients added on a regular basis. It doesn’t need to be made fresh everyday and is more often associated with Chinese cooking where it is often used as a braising or poaching liquid. Master stock is often wonderfully aromatic, filled with spices such as garlic, ginger, cassia bark and star anise, and can be topped up and maintained for years.

One grand master stock of note is alive and well in Melbourne, still simmering after 20 years at CBD institution Flower Drum, under the watchful eye of head chef and co-owner Anthony Lui.

“Basically it [the master stock] began with the opening of Flower Drum in its current location in the mid 80's,” says Lui. “We use it to marinate and poach squabs, duck and chicken among other things.”

The core ingredients of Flower Drum’s master stock include star anise, peppercorn, salt and rock sugar, with the addition of ingredients such as dried tangerine peel, dried grass fruit, dried ginger powder, dried liquorice slices, bay leaves and dried luo han guo. To maintain the stock, “It is constantly re-boiled, continually topped with water and seasoning like salt, sugar and herbs to maintain the flavours,” says Lui.

Food writer, chef and cooking teacher, Tony Tan adds that it’s fine to freeze a master stock once it has cooled down, explaining, “To refresh a master stock, add more herbs and spices as well as other ingredients like Shaoxing rice wine if needed to boost the flavour.”

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Tan recommends a “dollop or two of master stock in a stir-fry” for its “excellent” ability to “lend complexity”, mentioning that in some ways, “it is very similar to the Western demi-glace”.

If you want to make and keep a master stock at home, Lui suggests that it “would be best to store in an airtight container in the fridge, re-boil in a claypot once a week to keep the stock from turning and always top up with seasoning and water”. After you’ve used the master stock, Lui suggests another boil before storing it: “Remember that after use it would be best to boil once more and to remove the oil content otherwise after a couple of uses it will get quite fatty before refrigerating.”

The stocks that simmer throughout the city in all styles of restaurants are reflective of those who assemble them and tend to them. They of taste of tradition, care and time, and will always tell a good story.

Xiang la pai gu – Hunan fragrant and hot spare ribs using master stock
Recipe by Tony Tan

Fragrant and delicious, this dish has similarities with neighbouring Sichuan in that it is hot and spicy. However, the spice cumin is not often used by the Chinese so I think the dish has its origins in the north. A great dish to make ahead of time, your only last minute preparation is to fry the spare ribs before you serve it.

Serves 6-8
What you'll need:
1kg meaty spare ribs, cut into sections
1 quantity master stock (see below)
2 tsp finely chopped garlic
2 tsp finely chopped ginger
1 tsp chilli bean paste - douban jiang
1 tsp salted chillies
½ tsp cumin powder
1 tsp chilli flakes
2 tsp sesame seeds
2 tbsp finely chopped red capsicum
3 spring onions, green part only
dash sesame oil
oil for deep frying

Blanch spare ribs in boiling water for 5 minutes and drain well, washing off any scum. Add spare ribs to hot master stock and simmer for 50 minutes or until tender. Drain well and set aside (this step can be done the day before serving).

Heat the oil in a wok for deep-frying. When oil reaches 180°C, gently lower the dried spare ribs into the oil (watch out as it may splatter) and deep fry until golden. Remove and drain on kitchen paper.

Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the oil and heat over gentle flame. Add ginger, chilli bean paste, salted chillies, garlic and fry until aromatic. Add the cumin, chilli flakes and sesame seeds and stir once or twice before returning the ribs with about ¼ cup water.

Mix well to heat through and add red capsicum and spring onion. Just before serving, sprinkle with sesame oil and serve at once.

Lu shui – Master stock
Westerners call this master stock and the Chinese call it lu shui, meaning a stock or broth that is used to simmer meats. There are several versions of master stock and this one makes use of sugar to make a caramel before other ingredients are added to it.

Carefully stored, it lasts for ages.

What you'll need:
2L water
50g ginger, sliced
2 spring onions
1 muslin bag with small handful small dried chillies, 1 tbsp Sichuan peppercorns, 3 black cardamom, 2 cassia bark, 6 bay leaves, 3 star anise, 1 tbsp fennel seeds
100 ml Shaoxing rice wine
1 tbsp light soy
80g sugar for caramel

To make stock, place sugar in a large stock pot with just enough water to cover. Bring to the boil and leave to cook until sugar turns to rich caramel colour.

Add water immediately and bring back to the boil and then add remaining ingredients. Simmer for 1 hour and it is ready for use.