Oyster sauce is a flavorful, savory sauce which is Chinese in origin. As the name implies, oyster sauce is traditionally made with oysters, although it is also possible to find vegetarian versions. There are a number of ways to use this tangy sauce, making it a useful addition to one's Asian sauce cupboard.
In addition to being used extensively in China, oyster sauce is also consumed in Thailand and the Philippines, and each nation has developed its own unique take on the sauce. All versions of the sauce owe their origins to ancient Asian sauces made with bases of fermented fish. These sauces all share the trait of being extremely savory as a result of high concentrations of free glutamates, which create a flavor known as “umami” in Asian cuisine.
Credit for the invention of oyster sauce is usually given to the Lee Kum Kee company, a venerable maker of sauces based in Hong Kong. The traditional sauce is made by cooking oysters over low heat for a long time, essentially creating a condensed oyster flavor. As the shellfish cook, the juices start to thicken and caramelize, yielding a very rich, dark, somewhat sweet sauce.
Modern oyster sauce often cuts a few corners, cooking oysters for a brief period of time in brine and then adding soy sauce and caramelized sugar to achieve the desired color and hint at the taste of umami from the oysters. Cornstarch may be added to the sauce to thicken it, and some companies also add monosodium glutamate to enhance the umami flavor of the sauce.
Vegetarians don't have to be left out of the oyster sauce world. A very good vegetarian imitation is made with mushrooms, often oyster mushrooms, in fact, because they have a rich, meaty flavor which reminds many people of the seafood they are named for. Vegetarian versions are often more heavily adulterated with additives to achieve the desired flavor, although some more natural versions are available from companies which specialize in natural vegetarian food.
Fish sauce is a condiment made from fish. There are a number of different types of fish sauce around the world, made in a range of ways from an assortment of species. The condiment is most closely associated with Asian cuisine, since a number of Asian nations use fish sauce extensively. It also appears in the West, however, and the food has a very long history dating back thousands of years.
The base of fish sauce is, naturally, fish. Some producers use salt-cured fish, while others use fresh fish, dried fish, or cooked fish. Anchovies are a common choice, but other species may be used as well, and some fish sauces actually call only for the entrails of the fish, while others use whole fish. The fish is packed in barrels with or without an assortment of spices, and salt is added as well. Then, the fish is allowed to ferment, resulting in a pale brown liquid which smells quite intense and imparts a rich, salty flavor to the dishes it is added to. I advise you to use this sauce sparingly until you get used to the intensity of the particular sauce you chose to buy.
The roots of fish sauce in Asia are ancient, and the condiment has wormed its way into pride of place on the condiment shelf in many countries. Fish sauce may be called nuoc mam, nam pla, patis, or bagoong monamon, depending on the nation. Asian cuisine also includes a family of fermented fish pastes and seasonings which are all related to fish sauce. Fish sauce may be added to dipping sauces, included in the seasoning for stir fries, and sprinkled into dressings for salads and meats. Depending on the nation, fish sauce may be used almost like flavored salt or soy sauce, since the combination of salt and fermented fish packs quite a flavor.
In the West, fish sauce has been manufactured for thousands of years, although it has evolved slightly away from truly fermented fish. The first fish sauce was garum, a seasoning made by the Romans from anchovies and an assortment of other caught fishes. Garum was a crucial ingredient in Roman cooking, and it was carried all over the Roman empire. A modern descendant of garum is Worcestershire sauce, a popular British condiment.
Many of us would not consider having Chinese or Japanese food without using a little soy sauce. But do you know what is in this wonderful sauce, or how it first came to be developed? Here are some things about soy sauce that you may find interesting.
Also known as soya sauce, the exact origins of soy sauce are long lost to history. However, there is evidence that the basic mixture of soybeans, roasted grain, water, and salt has been in use for at over two thousand years. The earliest recorded recipes for making soy sauce are associated with China, although there are variations of this great fermented sauce found in all sorts of Asian cuisine. There is also some evidence that Buddhist monks first brought the concept of soy sauce to Japan during the 7th century, where the innovative Japanese set about putting their own mark on the manufacturing of soy sauce. In fact, there are those that say the fermentation process that developed in Japan produces the finest soy sauce in the world.
Strictly speaking, there is no one definitive recipe for making soy sauce. Of course all of them involve the use of soybeans, and there are one or two that also use soy flour in the recipe. All told, you can find over twenty types of soy sauce to grace your table and enhance the taste of your food. Some of these nationally developed sauces are considered to be fresh soy sauce, in that the sauce is thinner and is made employing a double fermentation process. Varieties that fall into this category are often used for seasoning meats and at the table with vegetables and rice, as they provide quite a lot of taste.
Dark soy sauces are somewhat thicker and usually employ a single fermentation process. The difference is that the dark sauce is allowed to ferment for a longer period of time. Molasses is also an ingredient in the darker sauces, which helps to give them a sweeter taste and less of the salty zing that one finds with the fresh sauces. These types of soy sauce are used in cooking, both for the mixture of flavors and also because they can add color to just about any dish. Dark soy sauce usually is not found on the table, as it is not considered suitable for dipping.
As well as shining on its own and adding flavor to meats and vegetables, soy sauce also takes a bow as a main ingredient in other condiments. As an example, there are a number of salad dressings that employ soy sauce, especially ones that are meant to take the place of high fat salad dressings. Many people are surprised to learn that soy sauce is also a key ingredient in another favorite household item, good old fashioned Worcestershire sauce. Along with being a favorite ingredient in a number of condiments, there are some interesting alcoholic drinks that call for a dash of soy sauce to add a little more zest to the drink. Try some in a bloody Mary!
Tamari soy sauce is a type of shoyu, the Japanese word for “soy sauce.” The technique for making tamari is quite distinctive, yielding a complex, rich flavor which some people find very enjoyable. Many Asian markets stock tamari, and it can also be found at general stores which stock Asian ingredients. True tamari has a very dark color and an almost smoky flavor, and it can be used as a dip, marinade, or baste; it is also used as a component in other sauces and dips.
Tamari is made by collecting the liquid which drains from miso as it ages. Miso is a fermented soybean paste which is a major component in Japanese cooking; miso appears in soups, stocks, sauces, and a wide variety of other foods. It is also made with a range of grains, yielding an array of textures, flavors, and feels. In Japan, tamari soy sauce production is focused in the Chubu region, where it is also known as miso-damari.
In the West, there is a great deal of confusion surrounding tamari. This is because Japanese shoyus were originally introduced, marketed, and sold in the West as “tamari,” rather than being differentiated by type. As a result, a wide range of products were known by the “tamari” name when true tamari soy sauce was introduced. This has been especially problematic for the gluten intolerant, as tamari is naturally gluten free, but shoyu is not, since shoyu is traditionally fermented with wheat.
In fact, tamari soy sauce is distinct from other types of shoyu and soy sauces from other regions, and it cannot be interchanged with sauces like usukuchi shoyu or Indonesian kecap. Tamari is rich with a tangy flavor from the miso fermentation process, and it is one of the darkest forms of Japanese shoyu. Because there is a bit of confusion about shoyu labeling in the United States, people with gluten intolerance should read labels on tamari soy sauce carefully to ensure that it is true tamari, fermented without any gluten.
Curry paste is a finely ground or pureed blend of aromatic spices, herbs, and vegetables. It is widely used as an ingredient in the cuisines of many cultures to make curries, stews, and other dishes. There are many different types of curry pastes, and each country’s blend has a distinct flavor.
The term “curry” comes from the Tamil word for “gravy” or “sauce” and is, therefore, open to broad interpretation. There are two basic categories: dry and wet. Dry curry dishes may be made with whole or powdered spices; wet curry dishes are typically made with curry paste.
The base for a curry paste usually contains ingredients such as ginger, garlic, and onion. Some blends include chili peppers, lemongrass, and leafy herbs. Liquids such as coconut milk, citrus juice, and vinegar may also be used. Nuts and legumes are sometimes added for texture and flavor along with condiments such as Asian fish sauce, shrimp paste, and tamarind paste.
The most common spices are cumin, coriander, and turmeric. Other spices may include dried chilies, cinnamon, and black pepper. Seeds such as fennel, mustard, or fenugreek may also be used. For some blends, whole spices may be roasted before grinding.
Curry pastes are traditionally blended with a mortar and pestle. This method is still used in many cultures, especially in developing nations where electricity and modern appliances are unavailable. In modern kitchens, the ingredients may be pureed in a blender or food processor.
Indian cuisine is best known for the use of curry paste in its many regional dishes. Neighboring countries Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka use similar blends in their cuisines. To the north, Nepalese, Bhutanese, and Tibetan cuisines include their own versions of curry paste.
The cuisine of Thailand features three basic types of curry paste: yellow, green, and red. Yellow Thai curry paste is spiced with turmeric, which turns it a deep shade of ochre. The green type gets its color from cilantro and green chilies. The red blend is made with fiery red chili peppers.
Characterized by a sweet taste and a low alcohol content, mirin is a popular Japanese cooking wine. While use in cooking is far and away the most common application of mirin, the wine is sometimes employed as a ceremonial drink at the beginning of the new year and a few other special occasions. The main benefit of mirin is the dash of sweetness that the alcohol provides for a number of dishes and sauces that are common to Japanese cuisine. In appearance, mirin has a golden hue that is very pleasing to the eye. In addition, the inclusion of this sweet cooking wine will also provide slight sheen when used to prepare fish and various types of meat. Using mirin as an ingredient for coating or covering with a sauce helps to enhance the presentation of the dish, helping the food to be as visually appealing as it is flavorful.
The creation of mirin begins with the use of glutinous rice that is combined with distilled spirits. Manufacturers of this rice wine only allow the fermentation process to go so far, since the focus is on achieving the correct level of sweetness and not necessarily a given level of alcohol content. It is the sweet property of the wine that helps to lessen the overall impact of strong fish odors in a number of recipes, while still managing to enhance the flavors of other ingredients in the recipe.
While mirin does not have a high alcohol content, it is often found in the liquor department of supermarkets, as well as in wine and spirits shops. This is true even for the two ceremonial versions of mirin that are used to celebrate the new year, hon and shin. Because the sweet taste is very strong, a small amount of mirin in a recipe will produce excellent results.