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Saturday, August 19, 2017

A saucy tale

When I read through recipes for western food, and see that the seasonings used are usually salt and pepper, with maybe some herbs thrown in, my lips kind of curl and I think, "So boring!" Sure, a good steak only needs salt and pepper to bring out the beefy flavor. But I figure that food can be so much more flavorful with the addition of a sauce or two. Yes,  you can have a tomato sauce, or douse your food with ketchup or mustard, but really, nothing beats Asian sauces for packing in a whole lot more oomph into your cooking. And for me, there's really no substitute for my sauce of choice - fish sauce.

Westerners kind of assume that Asian, or Chinese, cooking, usually uses some kind of soy. But if you start delving into the many cuisines of Asia, you’ll realize that even soy comes in many variants. Light soy is mildly salty, and great for lightly flavouring stir fries. I especially love the clean, unfiltered taste of a classic steamed fish, Cantonese style, that’s delicately resonant of a superior soy sauce. I noticed on my last trip to Hongkong where I gorged myself silly on dim sum, that the only sauce they offered on the table was soy. The waiters only grudgingly brought out a tiny jar of chilli oil when I requested for it.

The Cantonese, masters of crisp stir fries, soups and steamed dishes, will only use a light soy for seasoning, so that it doesn’t mask the flavor of the food. So, too, the Japanese, who properly pay homage to the quality of fresh sushi with a tiny dip into soy sauce, unlike the rest of us plebians who slather on more wasabi even though the sushi has already been dressed with a light flick of it.



Dark soy is a thicker, sweeter variant, used in braises and roasts. I love its sticky, sweetish taste on roasted meats like char siew, and will always add a tiny dollop of it to my fried rice or noodles. The Indonesian kicap manis is similar to this dark soy although I find it a bit too sweet, but I'm sure it tastes wonderful in Indonesian cuisine.

I’m a true blue Hakka, through and through. I grew up on home-cooked Hakka food, which is traditionally heavily seasoned. Not having access to so much fresh produce like the Cantonese or Teochews, perhaps Hakkas had to preserve their food to last through cold winters when the harvest was over, so Hakka dishes tend to be rather salty and hearty.

In my family, and many Hakka families I know, we use fish sauce instead of soy. Strange, now that I think about it, because fish sauce is prevalent throughout Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, and well known as the seasoning of choice in those countries, but not in other Chinese cuisines. My research didn’t turn up a link, but I tend to think that the Chinese, most notably the Hakka and Teochew communities, were using fish sauce for centuries. My research did turn up a nugget of information. The ancient Romans also used fish sauce, called “garum”, but it only turns up nowadays in a few select regional dishes.

Whatever its history, fish sauce features in all my cooking, from flavoring soups, braises and stir fries, to a dipping sauce with sliced chillies. Fish sauce, as its name implies, is a sauce made with fish and salt. Fish, usually anchovies, is left to ferment with the addition of salt, and the result, as some Thais and Vietnamese proclaim, is liquid gold.

I guess, just like the use of anchovies, fish sauce can have an overpoweringly strong smell when you first catch a whiff of it. But once it’s added in to a stir fry or soup, it just lifts the many flavors, rather than just salting the dish. Some people are put off by the smell. I still remember the time I used it in my cooking in my mother-in-law’s house, and she screwed up her nose, asking “What’s that stink?” Even recently, when my friend K wanted to experiment with it, she thought the fish sauce had gone bad.

Although fish sauce has many names in the various parts of Asia, in my family it’s just known simply as “salty sauce”. I remember in the days before it came in convenient plastic bottles, my mother used to buy cans of the best grade stuff imported from China. I say best grade because it did taste awesome and had a light, golden color, but I recallthe cans being rather dented and sometimes rusty, I’m sure from the heavy salt content. It’s a wonder we all didn’t suffer from food poisoning or tetanus!

So in my kitchen pantry nowadays is my trusty bottle of fish sauce. I do have a bottle of light soy, sometimes used as a dipping sauce, but very rarely for seasoning dishes. So the bottle of soy I have has lasted a long time. On the rare occasions I make soft-boiled eggs for my son, B, the seasoning somehow has to be soy and white pepper.

Another well-used favorite is oyster sauce, which I use liberally in braises and stir fried meats. When I look at the list of ingredients on the bottle, they do list oysters but I’m doubtful how many oysters actually go into each bottle! I’m fussy when it comes to oyster sauces. I’ve tried some that are too sweet for my palate, and the cheaper ones just taste, well, like salt and starch. So I pay more for my trusted brand, and maybe am a little mollified that the packaging design looks more traditional. I’m a sucker for labels!

Completing the triumvirate of sauces in my cooking is Chinese rice wine. I know, it’s not technically a sauce, but it just rounds up all the flavors together with fish sauce and oyster sauce when I’m making a quick fry-up or a slow braise. When I have to make do, I just use some commercial shao hsing wine. Occasionally a friend will gift me with a bottle of home-made rice wine, and the difference in taste is incredible. Sweet and robust, a traditional rice wine just adds something extra to steamed chicken, especially Hakka style with lots of ginger and, you guessed it, fish sauce!

Sauces feature heavily in Asian kitchens, more than the herbs you find in Western cuisine. Apart from the use of pepper sometimes, I don't even add salt to my cooking, only fish sauce. And I haven't even gotten started from the different kinds of chilli sauce that are available. I've that for another tale!

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