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Improvising Asian sauces

That’s miso broth in the cup, and fermented black beans in the jar.

I have encountered two big challenges in trying to improve my competence with Chinese cuisine: wok cooking and the sauces.

Recipes for Chinese dishes may call for one or more of an array of Chinese sauces that some of us have never even heard of. It’s then tempting just to give up on Asian cuisine and not even try a recipe, because of the sauce mystery. For example, here is a list of sauces gleaned from Wikipedia: Douban sauce, hoisin sauce, mala sauce, mee pok sauce, oyster sauce, peach sauce, plum sauce, soy sauce, and shacha sauce.

Part of what’s sophisticated about Chinese cooking, though, is what I call the sense of sauce. A sense of sauce is one of the things that makes French (and Irish) cooking so good. Of course, the Irish also have Kerry butter.

With Chinese sauces, I find that some are essential and must be store bought (soy sauce, for example). But many can be made at home. If you lack an ingredient, just improvise. You probably already have what you need to make hoisin sauce. Oyster sauce can be improvised, even a vegan version.

I improvise shamelessly. I’m not ashamed to use ingredients that are traditionally Japanese, or even African, in Chinese food. Pepper paste, for example, is pretty much pepper paste. That which isn’t entirely authentic can at least be good. It’s all about umami. All sorts of things that you already have in your kitchen are useful for improvisation: blackstrap molasses, many types of vinegar, raisins (whizzed in a food processor), and any type of pepper sauce (I use harissa sauce). One of my inauthentic secret weapons is Better Than Bouillon, which will add a lot of oomph and color to a sauce that calls for water, allowing you to reduce the amount of soy sauce.

With black bean sauce, there is no improvisation. You’ve got to have the real thing. The black beans are not the same as what we call black beans here. They’re actually a type of soybean. They’re fermented, and it’s the fermentation that gives the beans their sassy taste. I couldn’t find fermented black beans even at Whole Foods, but Amazon has them.

So if a Chinese recipe calls for a sauce, and you don’t have it, Google for a recipe. Then improvise. As for wok cooking, it’s like breadmaking and getting to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

The tofu and vegetables here ended up in a black bean sauce.


  1. Karren wrote:

    Thanks for this. I love hoison sauce and soy too, but the rest are mostly a mystery. I’ve had a bottle of black bean sauce in the cabinet for ages, and just was cautious about using it. Now I’ll have to try it soon.

    Thursday, March 7, 2019 at 4:53 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Karren: If you like the black bean sauce, you can make your own. Start with a bag of whole black beans from Amazon, then follow a recipe for turning them into a sauce. It’s one of my favorites. When I was eating out in San Francisco, dishes with black bean sauce were some of my favorites. I tried to duplicate the sauce at home, thinking that the black beans were the same as what Americans call black beans. No wonder I couldn’t duplicate it!

    Thursday, March 7, 2019 at 5:19 pm | Permalink
  3. DCS wrote:

    You said that with black bean sauce, there was no improvising. Please elaborate on making black bean sauce. Recipe? Instructions? It’s one of my favorites, but I hate the additives that are put into bottled versions. A natural version?

    Friday, March 8, 2019 at 4:39 pm | Permalink
  4. daltoni wrote:

    Hi DCS: I would suggest that you buy the fermented black beans from Amazon if you can’t find them locally. Then Google for a recipe for making black bean sauce from the beans.

    I bought these black beans:

    Then Google for a recipe that sounds good to you, maybe this one:

    I think it’s important to use a food processor to smooth out the black beans.

    Friday, March 8, 2019 at 4:50 pm | Permalink
  5. daltoni wrote:

    DCS: One more comment. For those sauces that can be made at home, that’s the way to go. The sauce will be better, much cheaper, and won’t have the scary additives that the bottled sauces have.

    Friday, March 8, 2019 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

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