If you’ve ever wondered where all the robust flavours of Chinese and Vietnamese food comes from, you need only to walk through the sauce aisle of your local Asian supermarket to find the answer. There is an abundance of bottles, jars, tins and cans filled to the brim with sauces that will enhance any dish you cook.
Even we here at Wok & Kin feel daunted by the variety there is on offer! What is important to remember, though, is that they all serve different purposes and (thankfully) we'll only be using a few at a time. To make it easier for you to navigate, I've organised them into two categories - Chinese and Vietnamese - but keep in mind that you can use them for either cuisine as they both share the same sauces and oils.
Keep eye on your inboxes for recipes using these sauces!
Soy Sauce (豉油)
When I think of soy sauce (pronounced 'see yuw' in Cantonese), I think umami, our fifth basic taste. There is a distinct savoury characteristic which soy sauce adds to a dish, immediately enhancing its flavour profile.
Along with its cooking versitility, it's no surprise that this is one of the most popular Asian sauces.
The base of soy sauce is made up of a few staple ingredients - soy beans, wheat, yeast and water. It goes through a fermentation process that lasts for months (or even years) to produce our dearly loved 'see yuw'.
Light Soy Sauce (生抽)
The name 'light soy sauce' can be deceiving. In the case of soy sauce, 'light' actually refers to its consistency and colour rather than its innate flavour. In fact, light soy sauce actually tastes more salty than its darker counterpart and is commonly used to add instant flavour to dishes. You'll also find that it closely resembles the runniness of water unlike dark soy sauce.
Find me in:
Pan-Fried Soy Sauce Noodles
Dark Soy Sauce (老抽)
If you think of all the deep, earthy flavours of braised Chinese or Vietnamese food, dark soy sauce is often the answer. It adds a rich depth and subtle savouriness which is perfect for marinades and adding a darker colour to any dish.
Beyond the Soy
Soy sauce may be the most well-known sauce in Asian cooking, but it is definitely not the only one stocked in our pantry. Below is a comprehensive list of sauces and oils that we use in our recipes that you may not have heard of before. Not to worry though, they're easily accessible at your local Asian supermarket (just show them the image I've provided) and for the ones that I could find, I've put an Amazon link alongside the description.
Oyster Sauce (蚝油)
Oyster sauce (pronounced 'ho yuw' in Cantonese) is one of the most commonly used sauces in our household. An easy way to recognise this sauce is by taking a trip down memory lane to your nearest Yum Cha restaurant. If you've ever had their steamed Chinese brocolli, that thick sauce that's drizzled on the top is the infamous oyster sauce.
Ho yuw is (unsurprisingly) made from boiling oysters. The oyster-infused liquid is then seasoned with soy sauce to produce a potent mixture that can elevate your cooking.
Hoisin Sauce (海鮮醬)
My memories of hoisin sauce all involve scooping generous tablespoons of it into a serving dish then using the deliciously sweet and salty sauce as a dip. Our family often uses hoisin sauce for one of three scenarios: (1) as a dip for cooked meat and vegetables during hot pot, (2) smeared on mandarin pancakes with Beijing's infamous peking duck or (3) as an ingredient added to the ever-so addictive Peanut Hoisin Dipping Sauce when eating Vietnamese Rice Paper Rolls.
Making hoisin sauce involves a blend of fermented soy beans, sugar, salt and wheat flour. The result is a thick and dark sauce suitable for marinades or simply to be used as a dip.
Black Bean Garlic Sauce (蒜蓉豆豉酱)
There's something quite special about the taste of black beans in dishes. They're used for their saltiness as well as its flavour, but its depth is so much more than that. The essence of black bean lingers in your mouth and there's nothing quite like it. A little bit of the sauce will go a long way when it comes to steaming and stir frying.
Black bean is simply ground and seasoned to make the sauce, which turns into a rich and thick consistency.
Ah, fermented shrimp paste. I do believe this is one of those 'love it or hate it' ingredients. It's really quite pungent (so don't go sticking your nose into the jar unless you know what you're in for) but once cooked with vegetables or meat, the dish itself becomes jam-packed with delicious flavour as the paste's fishiness mellows out.
Shrimp paste comes from the process of mixing salt with crushed shrimp or krill then fermenting for weeks. It comes in wet or solid form, but our family recipes call for the easily sourced ones which can be found in a jar at your local Asian supermarket.
Find me in:
Stir Fried Water Spinach in Shrimp Paste
Vietnamese Crab Noodle Soup (Bún Riêu)
When I think of XO sauce, I think 'luxury' - mostly because in my experience this is one of those condiments that you have to specifically ask for at restaurants or, if it's at a higher end restaurant, it is automatically provided.
Interestingly though, XO sauce supposedly originated from Hong Kong in the 1980's. XO Cognac was used to preserve dried shrimps, scallops, squid, Chinese cured ham (Jinhua ham; 金华火腿) and chilli. With such ingredients, it's easy to see why this sauce can be a little dearer!
If you find it difficult to spot this sauce at your Asian supermarket, it's probably because it's behind the serving counter on a shelf that only the friendly check out person can access. Took my a while the first time.
Find me in:
XO Pippies with Crispy Vermicelli
Steamed Oysters with Vermicelli Noodles and XO Sauce
Fermented White Bean Curd (腐乳)
Fermented white bean curd is sometimes known as 'Chinese cheese'. It has a smooth and soft texture with a salty taste that is achieved through a brining process consisting of sesame oil, vinegar, rice wine, soybeans and salt. The cubes of preserved tofu are commonly eaten as is in small portions along with plain congee (a rice porridge) as a breakfast item. I personally LOVE it stir fried with vegetables.
It may be difficult to find fermented white bean curd, so make sure to check your local Chinese grocery store. The jars will be similar to the picture to the right and may or may not have a red brining liquid (the red is simply added chilli).
Fermented Red Bean Curd
This is one of my favourite types of tofu because of the memories I have of it. Once a year, Grandma will use fermented red bean curd to cook her famous Lunar New Year Braised Mixed Vegetables that the whole family gets excited over.
Fermented red bean curd is almost identical to fermented white bean curd but for one thing - red yeast rice is added to the brining liquid to bring out a red colour and to add a deeper flavour.
I would recommend looking for it in a Chinese- or Vietnamese-influenced supermarket. You may not see the bean curd cubes through the jar, so keep an eye out of a dark red-purple liquid (the bean curb will be sitting in that).
Find me in:
Buddha's Delight (Lo Han Jai 罗汉斋)
Vietnamese Duck with Taro and Fermented Bean Curd Hot Pot (Vịt Nấu Chao)
Red Vinegar (红醋)
While various vinegars can be used for cooking, our family predominantly uses red vinegar as a dipping sauce or to add to soups for a subtle tanginess. Growing up, I learned that this practise is uncommon (and sometimes unheard of) in Vietnamese food.
Red vinegar ('hung cho' in Cantonese) goes particularly well with soups that have been thickened with potato starch. It has a light taste but enough of a tang to give your dish a kick that cannot be replicated by lemons or lime. As a lover of zesty food, I whole-heartedly embrace red vinegar in my soups and dumplings.
You can locate red vinegar in the sauce section of an Asian supermarket. If it's packaged in a glass bottle, it has the tendency to look almost black, but keep an eye out for images that have a reddish coloured sauce like the one in the image I've provided.
Chilli Oil (辣椒油)
Chilli oil (pronounced 'laht jiew yuw' in Cantonese) is great as a dipping sauce or for infusing into dishes for that spicy kick. In terms of spice level, I find that it can be milder than hot sauce but that obviously depends on how much you use. While it can be easily obtained in store, it's actually really quick to make.
When store bought, chilli oil generally contains no sediments of red chilli flakes and looks like red transparent liquid in a bottle. Homemade chilli oil, on the other hand, can include a variety of dry aromatics for added texture and flavour so you will find it a little courser and more fragrant.
Find me in:
Chinese Chilli Oil
Lemongrass and Shrimp Paste Steamed Pork Belly
Sesame Oil (麻油)
Our family uses sesame oil for a number of dishes because it adds such a delightful dose of delicious nutty flavour. It's so versatile that it's used in dry-style noodles, dumpling fillings, drizzled over main meals or mixed with soy sauce and vinegar as a dipping sauce.
Sesame oil can come in smaller bottles but don't be fooled by its size; the oil is really quite potent in sesame flavour and a little will go a very long way. I generally buy it from the Chinese supermarket, but I've seen it in my local non-Asian grocery store in the Asian section, so it is quite easy to come by these days.
Shaoxing Cooking Wine
Dad was the first person to introduce me to Shaoxing cooking wine, including the technique of when to use it. I vividly remember the roar of the fiery wok with ingredients dancing around in a quick stir fry flurry. Dad would expertly flip the chop suey and when I would think he was done, he'd use the bottle's lid to circle a tablespoon or two of Shaoxing cooking wine around the food for the grand finale. That, he would say, completed the dish.
Shaoxing cooking wine is used predominantly in Chinese stir fries for its sweet and slightly bitter flavour. It has a 15%-20% alcohol percentage so our family uses it sparingly. It is also added to a dish last so that the complex flavours do not get cooked out.
You can find Shaoxing cooking wine in Chinese grocery stores but an alternative you may have better luck with is dry sherry or Japanese mirin (keep in mind it is sweeter).
Fish Sauce (Nước Mắm)
I have reached for the bottle of fish sauce countless times in my cooking journey. It is a staple in our household that instantly elevates the flavours of any dish. We mainly use fish sauce for Vietnamese recipes, but it never hurts to add a light drizzle to Chinese dishes as well.
Broths are a common place to add a splash of nước mắm for an added dimension and you'll find that you won't need too much for it to become savoury.
Any Asian grocery store that stocks South-Eastern products will surely have fish sauce. Yes, it's that common!
Pickled Ground Chilli
Our family always has some kind of chilli on hand and this is a great one that can last up to months in the fridge! It has a milder chilli zing compared to fresh chilli because the ground chilli has spent time being pickled. That's why it's perfect to use for some added spice and zest.
At Vietnamese restaurants, you may find a jar on each table readily available for use. If you want to use it at home, it is quite common in Asian supermarkets.
Find me in:
Vietnamese Seafood Gumbo (Bún Mắm)
Vietnamese Crab Noodle Soup (Bún Riêu)
Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce
Honestly, who doesn't know Sriracha? The popularity of this hot sauce is so widespread that I find bottles for sale almost anywhere I go. If you can't find it, the Amazon link to the right will take you directly there.
Sriracha is perfect to add to stir fries, noodles, noodle soups and as an all-rounder dipping sauce. Its recognisable flavour comes from a blend of garlic, distilled vinegar, salt, sugar and, of course, chilli peppers.
Sriracha actually originated from Thailand but was popularised by a Californian manufacturer called 'Huy Fong Foods'. Today, the rooster logo and green cap marks a well-celebrated sauce that is used by cooks all around the world.
Find me in:
Pork Belly Bao
There is something absolutely decadent about coconut cream. It's divinely rich and will add a dimension of warmth to any recipe that calls for it. Its coconut flavour can be the star of the show or it can be used as part of the base to elevate a dish's taste profile. Like most creams, coconut cream is on the thicker side and has the effect of thickening liquids.
Keep in mind, though, that coconut cream is different to 'Cream of Coconut'. Coconut cream is made from pressing coconut flesh until the milk and cream comes out. If the coconut milk is given time to rest, the cream will rise to the top.
I usually find this in tins or boxes at the Asian supermarket. Make sure to avoid shaking it so that the cream doesn't get mixed back into the milk!
Find me in:
Vietnamese Chicken Curry
Vietnamese Mini Savoury Shrimp Pancakes (Bánh Khọt)