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There is nothing quite like a delicious sauce to add that special touch to a dish. Whether it’s a rich and savory stir fry or a sweet and tangy teriyaki dish, there are times when the sauce just makes the whole meal.
If you’ve spent any time in the kitchen, you know that there are a whole lot of different base ingredients that work together to form the sauce of each dish.
So, let’s go through some of the must-have sauces you will need in your pantry. Some sauces are good on their own, and all of them can work together to help you make delicious recipes.
Before we get into it, you should know that this is, by no means, a comprehensive list of all of the sauces used in Asian cuisine. These are just a few of the most common, must-have sauces that you’ll find in many Asian dishes.
Also known as jiangyou in Chinese and shoyu in Japanese, soy sauce is one of the most consumed seasonings in East and Southeast Asian cuisine.
Soy sauce was first created in China almost 2200 years ago in the Western Han dynasty. Back then, it was used as a preservative due to its saltiness and enhanced flavor. From sushi and stir-fry to cooking meat and dipping sauces, this salty, umami-packed liquid seems to be in just about every Asian dish in some form or another.
Perfect for seasoning, dressing, and vinaigrettes, sesame oil is made from roasted sesame seeds that are pressed to produce their aromatic flavor.
Typically, the darker the toasted sesame oil, the stronger the flavor. Untoasted, plain sesame oil is lighter in color.
Hoisin is also made from fermented soybeans, but there is a big difference between soy sauce and hoisin sauce.
Hoisin has a thick consistency. In addition to the fermented soybeans, hoisin sauce also contains ingredients like sesame, chili, garlic, and other spices. In Cantonese-style cooking, Hoisin sauce is commonly used as a marinade or sauce for BBQ ribs or char siu. It’s rich, savory, sweet, and spicy. So, what’s not to love?
Rice vinegar is another fermented sauce, but what makes it unique is that it is double fermented. First, the sugars in rice are fermented to make rice wine. The rice wine is then fermented a second time with a bacteria-laden fermenting process, leaving the finished result.
White rice vinegar is more subtle and can have a delicate sweetness that vinegar doesn’t have. It is much less intense and acidic than regular vinegar.
Sweet chili sauce is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a sweet sauce that’s made with red chilis and often sweetened with sugar or honey. It’s got a great balance of sweet and spicy flavor, which is what makes sweet chili sauce a great dipping sauce for dumplings and spring rolls.
Oyster sauce is primarily made from oyster extract. Juices from oysters are boiled down and caramelized and then combined with sugar, corn starch, and MSG to make a super dark, thick sauce that is rich and full of umami with a complex sweetness.
Oyster sauce can be used all over in Asian cuisine to add flavor to braised meats, stir-frys, marinades, and dipping sauces. Some people even add oyster sauce to spaghetti!
Fish sauce is popular with some and disliked by others because of its fishy taste. This sauce is very common in Asian cuisine and can enhance a marinade or sauce.
Fish sauce is made by taking salted fish and fermenting them for several months. It’s got a distinct salty, sweet flavor that is accompanied by rich seafood umami.
Mirin is a popular Japanese cooking wine. It is very similar to sake but has less alcohol and more sugar. The light acidity and sweetness of mirin have a way of really balancing a dish and bringing a sauce together, so it’s commonly used in dishes with a lovely sauce.
Shaoxing wine hails from the city of Shaoxing in China. Shaoxing wine is made by fermenting glutinous rice, water, and wheat-based yeast. This wine is actually used for both drinking and cooking. This amber-colored cooking wine has a more complex and deeper taste than clear rice cooking wine.
Chili oil is often used in Asian cooking, and one of the most notable brands of chili oil is Lao Gan Ma! Lao Gan Ma translates to “old godmother.” This brand of chili oil sauce seems to find its way into pantries. It is made of flash-fried chilies soaked in oil, resulting in a spicy and deeply flavorful condiment that goes great with noodles, stir-fry, fried rice, and more.
Lao Gan Ma is a mixture of chili peppers, preserved black soybeans, and soybean oil. It’s got a delicious spicy and savory taste that is incredibly well-loved.
Dashi is less of a sauce and more of a stock. But this umami-packed base is used throughout Japanese cuisine. In fact, over 800 years ago, it was simply made with kelp. Now, dashi recipes can include bonito flakes, baby dried sardines, and shiitake mushrooms.
Japanese cuisine has some additional sauces worth mentioning, as they have become popular throughout Asian food culture.
The first is, of course, teriyaki. Teriyaki sauce has become incredibly popular beyond Asia and the rest of the world. You can buy it pre-made, but you can also make a simple teriyaki sauce at home with brown sugar, honey, garlic, ginger, mirin, and a quality soy sauce.
This sauce is used in various meats, rice bowls, noodles, and all sorts of other dishes. Teriyaki sauce has become beloved for its deep sweetness that perfectly pairs with its umami flavor
Ponzu sauce is a combination of soy sauce, mirin, rice vinegar, seaweed, and katsuobushi flakes and then combined with the juice of a lemon or yuzu.
This sauce delivers a punch of umami, tangy flavor thanks to the addition of the citrus juice. Derived from the Dutch word for punch, ponzu translates to “punch vinegar.” If that’s not the best name for a sauce, it’s hard to say what is.
If you’ve had miso soup, you know why we had to mention this one. Miso is a paste made from fermented soybeans. It’s savory and salty, and is used in so many ways.
From soup to stir fry, miso has a delicious umami flavor that warms the soul and picks up your heart.
Unagi, or eel sauce, is a sauce fully focused on deliciousness. To make unagi sauce, soy sauce is thickened with caramelized sugar. Unagi sauce is sweet, salty, and out of this world.
Unagi sauce is most commonly used with grilled eel like in unagi nigiri or unagidon.
But when it comes to Asian sauces, there is none more popular or integral in cuisine than soy sauce.
There are all sorts of different soy sauces out there, each with its own unique flavors and purposes, but one thing is for sure: without soy sauce, your pantry is just not complete.
Light soy sauce makes up about 10% of the soy sauce that is produced in Japan. This style of soy sauce comes from the Kansai region and is characterized by a lighter color.
To achieve this light taste, the fermentation process is drawn out slightly by adding less salt than in regular soy sauce. The less dark color and lighter fragrance are designed to preserve the flavor of whatever food it’s being cooked with.
Dark soy sauce is darker, richer, yet slightly less salty than regular soy sauce, and it’s most commonly used for its color.
Dark soy sauce flavors include rich umami, a light sweetness, acidity, and a unifying bitterness. It is used in dishes everywhere — fried rice, stir-fry, teriyaki, the list goes on and on. And it can be used as a dipping sauce as well.
Thick soy sauce is most commonly used in Taiwanese and Indonesian cuisine. It’s thickened by adding more wheat during the fermentation process and reduced even further with sugar. This sauce is so flavorful, you will only need a tiny bit to enhance the taste of fried rice.
Sweet soy sauce is also called re-fermented soy sauce. While regular soy sauce is made by blending koji, a fermenting bacteria, with brine, sweet soy sauce mixes the koji with the soy sauce, making it a double fermented soy sauce. Because of this, it’s got a dense color and flavor.
Tamari is brewed in the Chubu region of Japan. It’s a little bit thicker than dark soy sauce and has dense umami with a unique fragrance. It’s also called sashimi tamari because it is commonly used with sashimi and sushi.
The simple fact is that hundreds of recipes utilize the flavor force of all of these sauces. But if you’re a home cook who likes to experiment, go ahead and grab a bunch of sauces to experiment. Here are some techniques most commonly used for these sauces.
One of the most common (and delicious) ways to utilize these delicious sauces, broths, and pastes is in a marinade for a meat dish. Marinades work to tenderize your meat and enhance the flavor. Many of these sauces are fermented and high in salt or sugar content, making them ideal for marinades.
Soy sauce makes for a great base. Maybe mix in some chili oil for spice and mirin for a touch of sweetness. Or, go for a simple teriyaki marinade to add that tangy sweetness to your meats.
And don’t forget to combine some spices into your marinade. Chopped garlic and ginger go very well with many of these sauces and give your meats a nice, cohesive flavor.
These sauces can also be used as a glaze for vegetables. If you need a sauce for your vegetable stir fry, try some soy sauce for saltiness, rice vinegar for tang, and sesame oil for a nice toasty finish.
There are limitless possibilities for bringing together the flavors of an assortment of veggies, and it doesn’t just have to be a stir fry. You can also use these sauces to make a dressing for a salad. A simple Asian salad dressing is made with oil, soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, and sugar.
But if you’re looking to change up the flavor profile, get creative and have some fun with it.
Lots of soups are enhanced by the flavors of these quintessential Asian sauces. While miso is frequently used as a soup base, other sauces can also shine.
We’ve all added sriracha or chili oil to a finished soup to give it a little more kick, but that’s not the only way to do it.
Cooking wine in particular, like mirin or Shaoxing wine, releases some lovely flavors when used in a soup. As the alcohol evaporates out, the flavor is concentrated, strengthening the umami and heightening the dish as a whole.
You could also add hoisin or oyster sauce to give the soup a thicker, sweeter feel!
Making a delicious sauce for a stir fry or other dish might seem a little tough. So, to give you a better idea of how to go about it, let’s walk through one recipe that is wildly popular: Chili Garlic sauce.
If you ever want to create the takeout experience in the comfort of your own home, this is a great way to go.
First thing’s first, you need to gather up all the ingredients. This recipe calls for red Thai chili to bring out the spice and bright, red, peppery, hue. You’ll also need garlic, sugar, salt, vinegar, and a slurry of cornstarch and water to create the right texture.
Except for the cornstarch, add all the ingredients and blend until it forms a chunky texture. Separate ¼ cup of the mixture and blend the rest of the mixture into a smooth sauce, and strain. Once you’ve strained the mixture, add the blended peppers back into the sauce and let simmer.
After the flavors have had enough time to unify, it’s time to get it to your desired thickness. Whisk the cornstarch and water into a slurry, and, little by little, add the slurry to the sauce until it thickens.
After that, you’re done! The chili garlic sauce is now ready to enjoy!
There are so many sauces that are essential to Asian cooking, and you’re going to need a large arsenal to execute restaurant-quality dishes. But it’s so worth it! The experience of making those classic foods in your home is unlike any other.
So if you need to pick up a few sauces to complete your pantry, check out Umamicart for all your Asian grocery needs.
Umamicart delivers right to your door, so you can get started with your new sauces without breaking a sweat. They even have a Mega Pantry set to get you started with all the essentials.
Chemical and Sensory Characteristics of Soy Sauce: A Review | Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry
Eat This Word: Ponzu | James Beard Foundation
Essential Asian Sauces | The Splendid Table
The Best General Tso Sauce | Pickled Plum
Types and how to use them | SOYIC
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