Sunday, July 29, 2007

Are You as Confused as I Am?

With all the different types of soy sauces out there, do you ever find yourself confused? I certainly am. I grew up using fish sauce and occasionally plain ol’ Kikkoman soy sauce. Now that Asian cuisines have become more widespread in America, there are a ton of different soy sauces on the market. What’s the difference between them? What can be used interchangeably? Here’s a quick run down of what I have in my pantry and what I think are the differences.

Soy sauce usually contains water, wheat, soybeans, salt and a preservative. I use this for everyday cooking and making dipping sauces. I normally use Kikkoman low sodium sauce. When I cook Korean or Japanese food, I use tamari, which is Japanese soy sauce.

Black soy sauce usually has water, soybeans, molasses, wheat, salt and maybe a preservative. I only purchased this sauce because I found a few Chinese recipes that call for it. However, I find it very salty and prefer thick soy sauce.

Thick soy sauce has molasses, soybeans, salt and maybe wheat and a preservative (the brand I use does not). As it’s name implies, it’s very thick and has a very concentrated taste, like salty burnt molasses. It is usually used with regular soy sauce or fish sauce to add more saltiness. I prefer this type of soy sauce to black soy sauce and have been able to use it interchangeably (though not volume for volume). I usually use 1 tsp thick soy sauce in place of 1 tbs black soy sauce (approximately). I keep this sauce in the fridge after opening.

Mushroom soy sauce normally contains water, soy beans, mushrooms, salt, sugar, wheat and maybe a preservative. I’ve only recently started using this kind of soy sauce and I really like it. It’s not as salty as regular soy sauce and it’s got a mellow flavor (although, I would have never guessed it has mushrooms). I use it interchangeably with regular soy sauce in noodle dishes and fried rice.

Fish sauce is not a soy sauce, but it’s salty. I grew up on this stuff and it’s a staple of Thai cooking. It’s made from anchovy or shrimp extract and usually contains salt and sugar. It can be quite pungent if it spills and it’s definitely noticeable when used in stir-fries, but I wouldn’t say it’s fishy (as anchovies are not fishy when cooked). Because it has a distinctive flavor, I don't recommend substituting soy sauce in it's place.

Oyster (flavored) sauce doesn’t contain soy. I don’t think it contains oyster either (my coworker, who is allergic to fish, uses this stuff). It does contain water, sugar, salt, wheat, and coloring. Of course you can get real oyster sauce, but you’ll have to seek it out. The stuff you get in most supermarkets is the flavored sauce. It is not really salty like soy sauce (relatively speaking) and needs to be used with soy or fish sauce. If you normally just stir-fry with soy sauce, I highly recommend adding a tablespoon or two of this stuff. I guarantee you will taste a difference. Keep this sauce in the fridge after opening.

Like I said, these are the sauces I have in my pantry. There are a ton of other sauces from other Asian countries I don’t even know about. If you have a favorite salty sauce, let us know. In the meantime, here’s a recipe using thick soy sauce. The flavors are reminiscent of Pad Kee Mao or Pad Ka-Pao.

Spicy Pork Stir-fry using Thick Soy Sauce
  • 2 tsp thick soy sauce
  • 1 tbs oyster flavored sauce
  • 1 ½ tbs fish sauce
  • 1 ½ tbs lime juice
  • 1 tbs sugar
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • handful basil leaves (holy basil is preferable; make sure the leaves are dry)
  • 1-2 hot chili pepper (or to taste), quartered lengthwise
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 cup green beans, cut into 1 ½ inch segments
  • 10 to 12 oz minced pork*
Start by making the sauce. In a small bowl, mix the thick soy sauce, oyster sauce, fish sauce, lime juice and sugar in a bowl. Set aside until ready to use.

In a wok over high heat, add about 2 tbs oil. When it’s smoking hot, add the basil leaves, chili pepper and garlic. Stir-fry quickly for about 15 seconds, making sure the garlic doesn’t burn. Add the green pepper, onion and green beans. Continue stir-frying for 2-3 minutes. The veggies should still be crisp. Add the minced pork. Stir-fry for 2-3 minutes more or until the pork is just done. Add the sauce mix by drizzling it down the sides of the wok. Hopefully your wok is sufficiently hot to caramelize and thicken the sauce a little. Turn to coat the food and heat through, about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Serve with steamed jasmine rice.

This stir-fry is also great to do with noodles. Scale up the amount of sauce by 3 or 4 to make sure there is enough to coat the noodles. I recommend using about ½ lbs of fresh rice noodles (wide variety). You need only separate the layers. If they come in a slab, slice them into ½ inch slices before separating. If you don’t have access to the fresh variety, the dried kind is fine. Soak in warm water until pliable (not soft, otherwise you’ll get a mushy mess when you stir-fry them).

*I recommend mincing your own pork. I find that store bought minced pork is too wet and will release too much water during cooking, even if your wok is blazing hot. To mince your own, use the specified about of pork sirloin and a sharp knife. No need for a fine mince, coarse is fine. Chicken can also be used instead of pork.

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