To an eager amateur chef dabbling in the area of Asian cuisine, the aisles of an Asian supermarket are cause for both childlike excitement and zombie-like confusion. Many of these strange and wondrous foods from a far off land are blatantly unfamiliar, and many packages contain descriptions written only in an Asian language. All we can do is stare at the item in hand with a quizzical expression, and then gently put it back on the shelf.
Then, like a child in a candy store, we try to contain our giddiness as we behold a seemingly endless utopia of sauces, condiments, spices, and other concoctions designed to enhance and authenticate an Asian-styled meal. Some will be familiar, like an old acquaintance, some will not, but faced with such a tempting array, the desire for exploration and experimentation is strong.
In the midst of such a treasure trove, the question that surely nibbles at your brain is what exactly are all these sauces used for? Already familiar with the celebrity status of soy sauce, other items are also recognizable but perhaps not as frequently consumed. Still, the popularity of such sauces is common knowledge, as the names can frequently be found scattered across the pages of menus or in a list of ingredients.
In order to be adequately prepared to tackle any recipe, either Japanese, Chinese, or Thai, there are a few simple sauces that should be stocked in any pantry, and knowledge of these Asian elixirs will help you to prepare your own culinary feasts without the aid of a cookbook.
Its quite possible that soy sauce already graces your shelves, as you’ve likely tasted and utilized the salty-sweet liquid innumerable times. Naturally fermented from ground soy beans and roasted wheat, there are actually two types of ‘pure’ soy sauce; Shoyu and Tamari. Shoyu soy sauce contains considerably more wheat and is less salty. Tamari either contains little or no wheat, and is also referred to as ‘dark soy sauce’, its darker color and thicker consistency resulting from the addition of molasses.
Dark soy sauce is usually used during the cooking process, while light soy sauce, a thinner and saltier variety, is used mainly as a dipping sauce or condiment
A savory-sweet sauce normally used for roasts and stir-fries, Hoisin sauce is made from ground soybeans and a mixture of garlic, chilis, and various spices, usually a five-spice powder. Despite the addition of chilis, the sauce is only very mildly hot, and is rather like a flavorful barbecue sauce, complimenting everything from all manner of Asian cuisines to hamburgers, steaks, and pork or poultry.
Hoisin sauce can often be mixed with other ingredients to create fragrant and flavorful marinades or tangy dipping sauces.
That sweet delicious nectar, adding a bright flavorful tang to any dish. Perfect for gracing any meal either as a marinade or dipping sauce, and providing a mouth-watering contrast to savory dishes. Slathered over chicken wings with a generous mix of chili powder and garlic, you’ll find yourself transcending all known realms of taste.
Created from a simple mixture of sweet plums, sugar, mild chilis and other spices, this delicately sweet sauce is an excellent enhancement to both Asian and American dishes. It shining-star quality as a dipping sauce is difficult to challenge.
From the happy family of Chinese barbecue sauces is this standout fellow, perfect for marinating meats and fish, whether for grilling, baking, and especially barbecue. A tangy, spicy marinade concocted of honey, soy sauce, various spices, and other minor ingredients, Char Siu sauce is typically smeared over Chinese and Cantonese style ribs. Grill pork, chicken or beef with Char Siu, and you may find it necessary to prepare an extra helping or two, lest you find yourself facing a hungry mob, as well as your own taste buds harkening for more.
The Thai version of this sauce is essential to the authentic Satay taste of beef or chicken, and is mildly hot, while the Chinese blend is commonly used to grace their flavorful noodle dishes, such as Lo Mein and Chow Mei Fun.
Made from all things peanut (peanut oil, peanuts) and an assortment of garlic, chilis and soy sauce and other various spices, it is also a common dipping sauce. Richly flavored, it also serves honorably as a marinade for grilling chicken or shrimp, and modestly rises to the occasion of an Oriental salad dressing.
Stepping away from the realm of barbecue and dipping sauces, we arrive at the doorstep of two mainstays of Asian cuisine, used extensively in stir-fries.
A salty, thin liquid produced from fermented, salt-cured fish, this authentic ingredient really has no suitable substitute. It is powerfully strong in flavor, and so is used in moderation, enhancing the prevalent flavors of stir-fries, curries, and other dishes. Distinctly pungent, fish sauce is a staple of Thai cuisine. In much of southeast Asia, it is a common condiment, easily replacing suddenly bland table salt, and even soy sauce. It can be tempered by adding lime juice and sugar to reduce the intensity.
The rich flavor of oyster sauce is made from a blend of steamed oysters, soy sauce, and salt, until suitably thickened. Serving a variety of purposes, as a condiment, in stir-fries, or in soups, oyster sauce subtly brings flavor to another level, without being overpowering.
Used extensively in Chinese cuisine, the sauce is aromatic, and surprisingly does not have a strong flavor of fish, as one would expect from the name.
Do not fear if you don’t have an Asian grocery nearby; all of the above sauces are quite common and can easily be found in the ethnic aisle of most supermarkets. They will serve you well, until you are ready to venture far deeper into the realm of Asian cuisine.