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A Guide to Asian Sauces (Part 1): Soy Sauce & Spicy Sauces

I have been cooking and experimenting with a lot of Asian dishes lately, and I’ve been getting lots of questions on the different types of ingredients I use (especially via my Instagram). While I think that Asian dishes are made best by using the freshest, local and seasonal ingredients, I think that sauces play a huge component in making an Asian dish truly delicious!

So I’m giving you the “sauce” this week on the blog– focusing on Soy Sauce and Spicy Asian sauces! There are tons more Asian sauces that I also want to mention, so look out for part 2 of this mini informative series next week!

Keep reading below to learn about some staple Asian ingredients you should have in your pantry, how they’re made, what they taste like, and what to cook with them!

The most beautiful family portrait <3

Soy Sauces

Background:

Soy sauce is probably the most widely recognized Asian sauce in the world. Its salty flavour makes it an extremely versatile sauce that can be used in a variety of Asian dishes, from sushi to a fabulous Soy Sauce Chicken.

Soy sauce is typically made with four main ingredients: soybeans, wheat, water and yeast. However, there are many types of soy sauce that exist due to additional ingredients that are added,  how long the sauce has been fermented, and where it is made.

Flavours & Types:

Chinese soy sauces are classified as either light or dark soy sauce but both have a salty rich umami flavour.  Light soy sauce is a thin sauce that fermented for a few weeks, whereas dark soy sauce is thicker as it is fermented for a longer period of time. Dark soy sauce also has colour and sweeteners like molasses added to it at the end, making it less salty than light soy sauce.

Pearl River Bridge is the most traditional Chinese soy sauce brand, and that is the brand that I like to use when cooking at home.

Japanese soy sauce is typically made with the same ingredients, however, it is fermented for months rather than weeks. These soy sauces are less salty than their Chinese counterparts, and rarely contain any colours or sweeteners. Additionally, Japanese soy sauces often contain bacterial cultures (known as koji) that are added during the fermentation process. There are many different varieties of Japanese soy sauce including shoyu, tamari and nama.

Kikkoman is the most traditional and most popular Japanese soy sauce brand that is used. You will find this brand in almost all sushi shops and can be used in homemade recipes too.

Uses:

Use soy sauce when you want to add some salty, umami flavour to a recipe. I use Chinese light soy sauce on an everyday basis and I use Chinese dark soy sauce when I want to add some deep brown colour to a recipe. Since these Chinese varieties are quite salty, use only a bit since you don’t want to over-salt your recipe. If you are sensitive to sodium or want a lighter salty taste, opt for using Japanese soy sauce in your recipes.

Some Recipes:

Soy Sauce Chicken uses two whole cups of light soy sauce in the recipe!

Spicy Sauces

Flavours & Types:

There are so many delicious Asian sauces that can spice up any dish in a flash. From Korea to  California, there is bound to be a spicy sauce that fits with your flavour palate and cooking needs!

Sriracha

Sririacha is likely the most popular spicy Asian-style sauce that is great for just about any food. Made with ground chili peppers, garlic, vinegar and salt, it can go on just about anything! While it is spicy in large quantities, it is incredibly flavourful. It adds a sharp hit of spice when needed.

Huy Fong Foods, Inc. produces the most “iconic” sriracha sauce in Irwindale, California. There are various varieties of sriracha available, but I can’t stray from the classic red bottle with green lid.

Sambal Oelek

Sambal Oelek is an Indonesian chili sauce made from fresh ground chilis, salt and (sometimes) a dash of vinegar and/or garlic. The word “oelek” actually refers to the stone bowl that the sauce is prepared in. Compared to other Asian sauces like Sriracha, sambal oelek contains very little vinegar, and is therefore less acidic overall. This is excellent for adding some spice to a recipe, without impacting its flavour.  To me, it tastes just like fresh ground chilis, which is very refreshing!

Huy Fong Foods, Inc. produces another “iconic” sauce, yet again with a red bottle and green lid. In this case the gold label really adds something fancy! I like to buy this brand and add it to my recipes in a pinch, but you can actually make your own sambal oelek from scratch if you are so inclined!

Gochujang

Gochujang is a spicy fermented red pepper paste that hails from Korea. It is made with chili powder, meju (soybean) powder, yeotgireum (barley malt) powder, glutinous rice, sugar and salt. It comes in varying heat levels but is really thick, savoury and sweet in flavour. Some of the sweetness and much of the thickness actually comes from the glutinous rice that is used to make the sauce.

Once again, there are many companies that produce gochujang, but I really like the brand Haechandle, which you can buy in 500 gram to 5 kilogram containers at Korean grocery stores. While I like spice, I only get the mild flavour since I find that this is spicy enough for me!

Wasabi

Wasabi is a spicy green paste that is a staple in sushi restaurants around the world. This paste is made from ground wasabi root, and is basically like Japanese horseradish. The true Japanese wasabi root is grown in small quantities and under certain growing conditions, making it quite expensive. In most cases, Western horseradish (dyed with some green food coloring) is often used as a supplement as it can be produced in mass quantities.

While I mainly use my wasabi for sushi, I just purchase the cheap western variety (to offset the cost of the fresh fish :P). I particulary like the S&B brand since a little goes a long way—it’s extremely spicy! If you are looking for true wasabi, you can find it at speciality Japanses stores or in high-end restaurants.

Chili Oil

Chili oil  is made from vegetable oil, chili flakes, and lots of aromatic spices like Sichuan peppercorns and star anise. Fresh ginger or garlic can be added to the oils as well. The cooking process is really interesting- oil is heated on the stove and the aromatic spices are added to fry in the oil. Then the entire pot of oil is poured over a big bowl of red chili flakes. The oil instantly cooks the chili flakes and takes on a red colour. The oil can be kept for quite some time as long as it’s in a sealed jar kept in the fridge.

Chili oil is used in many Chinese dishes, often to add a finishing touch of spice and a bit of extra slickness from the oil. While this adds great flavour to a recipe, I love using chili oil as a dipping sauce, especially with homemade dumplings!

You can buy chili oil in Asian grocery stores and even sometimes directly from Chinese restaurants (typically cash only). You can also make it at home!

Some recipes:

My Pork and Sambal Green Beans are just the thing if you are looking to spice you your life!

As I mentioned above, there are TONS more Asian sauces out there that are used on a regular basis. Next week, I’ll give you an overview of my favourite “traditional” Asian sauces and my favourite Asian oils and vinegars!

What is your favourite Asian sauce and what recipes do you use it in? Let me know in the comments below!

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