Getting to Know: Asian Condiments
The condiment shelves of Asian grocery stores can be mystifying. Don't let that keep you away. These sauces and pastes inject tremendous flavor into food with virtually no effort on the part of the cook.
The Chinese invented it nearly 3,000 years ago, fermenting soybeans with wheat or barley and special molds and yeasts. But soy transcends Asian cuisine; we rely on its umami character to add savory, complex depth to dishes like beef stroganoff and French onion soup. Our preferred brand for cooking is Lee Kum Kee Tabletop Soy Sauce.
Popularized some 40 years ago in the United States by the Benihana chain, teriyaki sauce—which is from Japan—is made from soy sauce, sake or mirin (sweet Japanese wine), sugar, ginger, and garlic. The glaze gives food a glossy look and a sweet finish. Our favorite brand is Annie Chun’s All Natural Teriyaki Sauce.
In China, this term encompasses a range of dipping sauces that are typically freshly prepared from vinegar and sugar. In the States, sweet-and-sour sauce has evolved (some would say devolved) into something thicker and sweeter. Western versions may include pineapple, ketchup, cornstarch, and corn syrup. Sweet-and-sour sauce is the classic dip for egg rolls.
This thick, reddish-brown sauce—made from soybeans, sugar, garlic, and spices—is the classic sauce for Chinese mu shu dishes. Variation among brands is dramatic. The test kitchen picked “smoky,” “malty” Kikkoman Hoisin Sauce as our favorite, noting its balanced flavors. Hoisin can be used in dipping sauces, glazes, and marinades.
Black Bean Sauce
This thick, robust sauce is made from fermented, salted black soybeans (either pureed or left whole) that are mixed with soy sauce, sugar, and sometimes MSG. Tasted by itself, black bean sauce is powerfully sharp, “nutty,” and “yeasty.” It adds instant depth to stir-fries, spareribs, noodles, and fish. You can buy versions with spice and garlic, too.
The gnarled, brown wasabi root is a relative of horseradish, and at nice restaurants in Japan the fresh root is grated to order. In America, your sushi probably comes with the premade stuff from a tube or a powder (which often contains no real wasabi). Our tasters found that fresh wasabi or paste made from the real item is best (no surprise).
The Chinese have cultivated plums since ancient times. To extend its life after the harvest, the fruit was preserved with salt, sugar, spices, garlic, ginger, and sweet potato, giving the sauce a sweet-and-sour quality. Nowadays, peaches and apricots are used, too. You may know plum sauce as duck sauce, as it’s often served with Peking duck.
Don’t let the strong smell dissuade you: The pungent, “meaty,” almost “cheesy” flavor adds wonderful complexity to dishes like pad thai and Vietnam’s catfish in a clay pot. The sauce is made from fermented fish or, more often, anchovy extract, and the lighter the sauce the lighter the flavor. “Dark and pungent” Tiparos Fish Sauce is our favorite brand.
Almost every Asian cuisine has its own version of chili sauce; the three you’re likely to encounter in the States are Sriracha, chili-garlic sauce, and Indonesia’s sambal oelek. They all contain chiles and salt; many feature vinegar, sugar, and garlic, too.
This southern Chinese specialty is made from boiled oysters and adds salty tang to such dishes as kung pao chicken and sesame noodles. Buy oyster-flavored sauce that contains just oyster extractives and seasonings—sauces with extra ingredients have muddled flavor. Our favorite brand is Lee Kum Kee’s Premium Oyster Flavored Sauce.
Chances are you’ve sipped the soup (dashi broth mixed with miso paste) as a preamble to a Japanese meal. The paste itself is made from fermented soybeans and grain—usually rice or barley—and Japanese cooks use it nearly every day. White, or shiro, miso (pictured) is sweeter, with “floral,” “fruity” flavors, while red, or aka, miso is saltier and “earthier.”
Kecap is the catchall term for sauces in Indonesia, and kecap manis is the sweetest. It’s made from soybeans, palm sugar, and seasonings. Salty-sweet kecap manis looks like tar but tastes like “caramel,” “burnt sugar,” and “coffee,” our tasters found. Marinate steaks in it or brush chicken wings with the thinned sauce toward the end of grilling.