Sauces that Nod to East Asia

Sauces that Nod to East Asia

There’s a myth that when you want to cook something fast, you should simply throw together a stir fry or a noodle bowl with, say, a peanut sauce. I love dishes like this because they’re fantastic for using up ingredients in your refrigerator. But I think the sauces that bring these dishes together take a little work. You have get the balance right. They have to be a little salty, a little sour and a little sweet. Otherwise, you’ve wasted food and your time. So here’s my formula for making tasty Asian sauces.

After making too many “meh” stir-frys, I’ve come to depend on a formula that makes them taste well-rounded. For savory/umami of course you should start with a tablespoon or two of Soy Sauce or Fish Sauce. I think nearly every stir-fry desperately needs a bit of acid. So I usually use two or three teaspoons of rice wine vinegar. Wine, sherry or Chinese cooking wine work great here, too.

I always add a teaspoon or two of sugar or brown sugar to all my stir-frys. Trust me. They need the sweetness to balance out the deep savory flavors usually present.

To add more body and umami to my sauces, I often turn to Oyster Sauce or sesame oil. A tbsp or two of Oyster Sauce is great in nearly any sauce. A tsp. or two of sesame oil is all you need to add so much depth and richness to a sauce. I include a generous amount of garlic in most of my sauces, I find nothing adds as much pungent depth of flavor faster.

I think most sauces need a bit of zing. For that I like to stir in a pinch of red pepper flakes, a bit of fresh or powdered ginger, or some Srichracha.

If you want to use chicken or beef broth as the base of your sauce, use it sparingly–no more than 1/3 or so of a cup. I like to use them, but I find too much muddies the sauce. This goes double for corn starch, which you should use sparingly to avoid a gloppy texture.

Finally, I season (not heavily, because…Soy Sauce) any meats or veggies with salt and pepper, because even well-rounded dishes still need that base of seasoning.

My favorite formula for Peanut Sauce (for use as a dip or dressing for noodle bowls or Asian slaws) is:

  • 1/2-1 cup peanut butter
  • 1 tbsp. or two rice wine vinegar and/or lime juice
  • 1/4 or so cup soy sauce
  • 1-2 tsp. sesame oil
  • 1-2 tbsp. brown sugar or honey
  • a bit of fresh or powdered ginger
  • a squirt of Sriracha
  • and, yes, salt and pepper

If it is too thick, use a bit of water to thin it out.

The last thing I want to share with you is a very old, very simple recipe I got from a “5-Ingredient” recipe compendium.

  • 5 tbsp. water
  • 4 tbsp. sugar
  • 3 tbsp. rice wine vinegar (really most light vinegars would be fine here)
  • 2 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp. sherry (any light-colored wine will work here, really)

This is great, because it’s delicious as is, but you can easily fancy it up by adding things like ginger, garlic, red pepper flakes or sesame oil. Really, sky’s the limit. Suit it to your tastes.

This is actually a glaze for pork chops or cutlets. After browning your pork, pour in the sauce and let it cook down at a rapid boil for several minutes, watching closely. Remove the chops, and spoon the sauce over them. I like to serve with rice and topped with chopped scallions or cilantro.


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