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Exploring Asian Condiments

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.


Let's Take a Look Inside

Several weeks ago, the comments of a friend prompted me to write an article on British foods, specifically British condiments. I’ll be the first to admit that the typical British pantry is filled with jars of foodstuffs unlike any you’ve ever used before. So we cracked open the English pantry door to see what was hiding inside.

There's another pantry I'd like to explore with you; it's a world of sweet and salty, fierce and funky. The Asian pantry contains a few ingredients you probably know quite well—soy sauce, sriracha, and kimchi—but there's so much more. Let's explore.

Black Bean Sauce

Black Bean Sauce

Black Bean Sauce

The black beans of black bean sauce are not the frijoles negros of your enchilada. They’re actually black soybeans (dou chi in Chinese) that are cooked, combined with mold spores (the same mold responsible for the taste of soy sauce and miso), dried, and then stored in brine. The result is boldly flavored, pungent, and slightly sweet. The starch in the beans serves as a natural thickening agent, so black bean sauce is a common add-in to stir-fries. Although black bean sauce is an easy-to-find condiment, you can make your own. Maggie Zhu, author of The Chinese Stir-Fry Sauce Cookbook shares how in her blog.

Chinese Mustard

This mustard might look like what you typically slather on your ballpark frank, but trust, me, you don’t want to eat such a liberal application of this stuff. Teeny, tiny measured doses are best for all but the true masochist. Although yellow mustard, Dijon, grainy German, and Chinese mustard all share the same heritage, their individual preparations set them apart. All mustards come from the mustard plant.

  • Black mustard (Brassica nigra) is a native of Europe, with small, dark, highly potent seeds that obtain their fiery temper from the compound sinigrin. It is difficult to grow and so it has widely been replaced by the…
  • Brown mustard (B. juncea), a hybrid of the black mustard and the turnip plant. It is much easier to cultivate and harvest. Its seeds are brown, much larger, and decidedly less pungent. Most European-prepared mustards are made from the brown mustard seed. And then there is…
  • White (or yellow) mustard (B. hirta). This too is a European native. Its large pale seeds contain not sinigrin, but the compound sinalbin. This is the basis for mustards prepared in the United States and used in pickling spice mixes.

No matter which seed is used, all are dried and then ground into powder. When moisture is added the sinigrin or sinalbin compounds are activated. Vinegar, flour, and spices added to the powder result in the U.S. or European mustard sauces. Water alone, added to the powder releases the unadulterated full fury that one experiences when tasting true Chinese mustard.

Fish Sauce

Looks aren’t everything; the same can be said of smells. One whiff of fish sauce might convince you to screw the cap back on the bottle and toss it in the nearest trashcan. Honestly, I have wondered more than once who imagined that slowly-fermented (rotten) anchovies and squid could produce anything that one would (willingly) add to their food as a positive enhancement? Nevertheless, it magically works. In fact, you might be surprised at what it can do. According to Harold McGee in his book On Food and Cooking:

“Fish sauces play the same role that soy sauces do in regions where soy doesn’t grow well, and were probably the original model for soy sauce.”


This thick, sticky brick-red paste could be deemed Korean miso with a kick. Like miso, the base is fermented soybeans and salt but there are also sweet notes from sugar and exhilarating heat from red chiles. Yes, you can buy it at the store, but why not make your own? The blog Minimalist Baker is devoted to sharing simple recipes that require ten or fewer ingredients, only one bowl, and take 30 minutes (or less) to prepare. And, they have given us a recipe for gochujang.

Hoisin Sauce

Hoisin Sauce

Hoisin Sauce

Some people jokingly refer to this condiment as Chinese barbecue sauce, but it’s so much more than that. This thick sauce is a luxurious shellac for meats on the grill, but can also be used in stir-fry, as a marinade, a flavoring for meatloaf or meatballs, a flavor-enhancer for soups and braises, or as a dipping sauce. The flavors are complex—salty, sweet, a tang of vinegar, heat from grated fresh garlic, and warm with the spices of Chinese 5-spice powder. Kimberly (Daring Gourmet) uses bean paste as the foundation for her homemade hoisin.

Japanese Mayonnaise

This is a relatively new condiment, introduced to the palates of the Japanese in 1925. Like its American cousin, Japanese mayo is made of soy-based oil, vinegar, and eggs. But whereas the American condiment relies on whole eggs and distilled vinegar, the Japanese version uses egg yolks only, and rice wine vinegar. The result is a thicker, richer, slightly sweet mayo. And, some manufacturers slip in a little MSG too!

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The resulting flavor is hugely popular. According to the website Pogogi:

“In Japan you can find mayo-flavored ice cream, mayonnaise-flavored snacks and potato chips; it can be used in spaghetti sauce and as a topping for toast, noodles, even pancakes.”

The food lab at Serious Eats has developed a recipe for homemade Japanese mayo that's just as good as the real thing. I'm a huge fan of homemade mayo (whether Japanese- or American-style). Homemade is always fresher and better tasting.


This staple of Korean cuisine dates back to the 1st century A.D. Don’t think of it as mere pickled cabbage. Unlike sauerkraut, which is made of finely shredded cabbage leaves that are salted and fermented at room temperature, kimchi utilizes intact napa cabbage, other vegetables, and garlic and a substantially greater amount of salt. The fermentation takes place in a much colder setting which creates more pungent “pickleness.” Often kimchi is slightly fizzy from the gas-producing bacteria that are present.

Julie Wampler shares not only her recipe for homemade kimchi she also answers all of your questions on ingredients and provides step-by-step photographs.


Mirin is a rice wine; so is sake, but the two are not interchangeable (more about sake below). Mirin is super-sweet, syrupy and has a low-alcohol level (14 percent maximum). Don’t be fooled by the stuff labeled as aji-mirin (which means “tastes like mirin”). If you cannot buy true mirin dry sherry or sweet marsala wine will do but they won’t have the same umami taste


Miso is a paste made from fermented soybeans and grain (usually rice or barley). The consistency is somewhat like play-dough or fine wet sand. Although a predecessor made of grain and fish was created in the Neolithic era, the soy-based paste that we recognize today was not created until sometime during the Muromachi period (1337 to 1573) when Buddhist monks learned how to grind soybeans into a paste consistency. There are two basic categories of miso: the white (shiro) is mild and slightly sweet; dark red/brown (aka) is saltier and more savory. Don’t reserve the use of miso for Asian cooking only. It can provide that “something missing” to just about any savory dish (gravy, soup, sauce, stew). The baking geniuses at the Food Network even slipped some miso in their chocolate chip cookies—mind-blowing (in a good way)!

Oyster Sauce

This condiment is exactly what it sounds like—a liquid made from oysters. It’s thick, dark, sweet/salty, and a tremendous umami flavor bomb. True oyster sauce is made by boiling oysters in the shell and then reducing the resulting broth until the perfect concentration and consistency are achieved. Most manufacturers create a faux version by adding salts, sugars, thickeners and coloring to reduced oyster juices.

Plum Sauce

Plum Sauce

Plum Sauce

Also known as duck sauce, this sweet and sour jam is made from plums, sugar, ginger, and vinegar. It’s the traditional accompaniment to Peking duck (hence the alias) but is also great as a dipping sauce for crunchy egg rolls.

Before becoming a wife and mom, Diana Johnson spent several years working as a nanny. In addition to tips on homemaking and crafts, she has a huge arsenal of kid-friendly recipes that are fast, frugal, and tasty, for example, her homemade plum sauce that starts with fresh plums.

Rice Vinegar

As one might guess, this vinegar is made from fermented rice. There are many types of rice vinegar—Chinese rice vinegars are stronger (more acidic) than Japanese ones, and they range in hue from straw-colored to various shades of red, brown, and black. Seasoned rice vinegar is yet another variant, with sake, salt, and sugar added.


(Pronounced SAH-keh, not SACK-ee) is a Japanese wine made simply from rice and water. However, unlike other wines, sake is not merely fermented, it’s brewed. A specific type of mold (koji spore) is mixed with rice gruel and allowed to bloom. Then it’s time to add the rice to spring water and yeast. The entire process takes from 60 to 90 days.

Soy Sauce

Soy sauce is unofficially the universal condiment of all of Southeast Asia. This salty, funky, mahogany-hued liquid originated in ancient China as a fermented brew of fish. Around the 2nd century B.C., soybeans replaced the fish. During the Muromachi period (1337 to 1573), Buddhist monks learned how to grind soybeans into a paste consistency; they created miso and soy sauce was the by-product. In time the residual sauce became even more popular than the paste.




Sriracha might just be the world's coolest hot sauce. It's everywhere and seems almost as ubiquitous as ketchup. Less than two years ago the producer of the original sriracha, Huy Fong Foods, sold 20 million bottles.

David Tran, CEO of the company, immigrated from Vietnam to Los Angeles, California in 1980. He states that try as he might, he could not find a reliable substitute for the beloved hot sauce of his homeland, and so he created his own with jalapenos, vinegar, sugar, and garlic. This home-produced condiment is now created in a facility that produces 3,000 bottles every hour, 24 hours a day, six days a week.

I can't promise that this recipe for sriracha by Nicole tastes exactly like the sauce in the bottle with the rooster logo, but it uses fresh ingredients, and that is precisely what makes David Tran's sriracha so special—despite pressure to expand he has never compromised on quality. All of his ingredients are fresh, always.


If you have dined at a sushi bar, you probably think you know wasabi. Perhaps you really do, but the odds are that you have shared your dining experience with an imposter. Most of what passes as wasabi is actually powdered horseradish, reconstituted and tinted green. Actual wasabi is a member of the cabbage family, a native of Japan. At its best it will be freshly grated; that cutting/mincing process releases more than 20 enzyme-generated volatiles that will assault and invigorate your senses with a slam-bang of not the tongue but eye and nose “awakeners.”

I'm Curious

© 2019 Linda Lum

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