To make a Chinese meal at home, your shopping list could read as follows: Noodles, vegetables, MSG, chilli sauce, soy sauce etc. The good part is that the packaged and bottled foods can be stored for the next meal. But be doubly sure that the bottle of soy sauce goes into the depths of the darkest cupboard. I have actually seen people put it away in the fridge if they are not frequent Chinese food makers.
Soy sauce is not a simple sauce. It was first invented in China 2,500 years ago! Now it is widely used in most East and South east Asian cuisines and is definitely on the ingredient list of some Western cuisines too. Like I said, it’s not a simple sauce but a concoction of fermented soy beans using some moulds along with roasted wheat grains, water and salt. A few drops of soy sauce can convert a tasteless recipe into a well grounded, full flavoured and nicely salted one. Soy sauce has that distinct basic taste called umami which literally means delicious, in the Japanese language. Soy sauce is not for you if you have been asked to watch your salt intake for health reasons.
It’s not possible to differentiate between real soy sauce and the artificially prepared stuff. One thing is sure — good soy sauce comes from fermenting soya bean in natural conditions in giant caskets under the sun, which gives it the added flavour, the natural way. At times, commercial soy sauce contains no soy at all, only fermented wheat. These sauces are fermented in machine-controlled environments.
Choose your sauce
There are many kinds of soy sauce with the Chinese having their own recipe, as well as the ones from Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and Philippines being different.
They all have their local names which are a little difficult to pronounce but as cooks in our home kitchen we need to bring in two varieties: the light soy sauce and the dark soy sauce. The former is light in colour and does not have any great effect on the colour of the dish. It is made from the first pressing of the beans. Dark soy sauce is old soy sauce, which means that it has been aged longer and contains molasses to give it character.
I use soy sauce in some simple snacks that are a great treat when entertaining a large crowd. My kids love the Sichuan Vegetable Fingers that need a lot of mixed grated vegetables bound with cornflour and refined flour, superbly spiced up with red chilli flakes and white pepper. The final touch is the MSG and the few drops of light soy sauce. I add a handful of finely chopped fresh coriander leaves to make it completely Indo-Chinese! Shape them into long batons and fry. Have some dipping on the side, something like
Sichuan sauce. Now that the festive season is here, let us increase the repertoire of snacks by one more this week. The writer is a master chef, author & television host.
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