Hoisin sauce is something that is generally only used as a commercial product rather than something that would typically be made at home (or even in a restaurant kitchen, for that matter). The name is rather curious, actually, as it has nothing to do with the ingredients, and little to do with its usage. Hoisin is the Cantonese pronunciation of the Chinese characters 海鮮 (‘Hai Xin’ in Mandarin) which individually mean ‘Ocean’ + ‘Fresh’ but, as a compound word, translate as ‘seafood’. Oddly, the sauce contains no marine products and is almost always used with meat or vegetables rather than fish or shellfish. Commonly, Hoisin sauce is described as being a condiment or dipping sauce but it also versatile enough to be employed as a useful recipe ingredient as well…
There is a fair amount of variety amongst the various commercially available Hoisin sauces, both in ingredients and in characteristics. The thickness and color can vary considerably (the Lee Kum Kee product is relatively thick and dark, as you can see above) but these characteristics are not, in themselves, an indicator of quality.
The Lee Kum Kee product, in addition to some colorants and preservatives, lists the following ingredients on the label:
- Fermented Soybean Paste;
- Sweet Potato Powder;
- Corn Starch;
- Sesame Seeds;
- Spices (unspecified); and,
- Salted Chili Peppers.
Hoisin sauces are typically based on a starchy ingredient as a carrier for the seasoning. Wheat, sweet potato and, in some cases, pumpkin, provide this, but soybean paste, fermented or otherwise, is also a major component. Here, it is significant that the starchy component is listed quite far down the list and includes sweet potato flour rather than the whole product. Most telling is the fact that sugar is listed first, indicating that it is the primary ingredient….
Taste and Usage
Hoisin sauces, beyond the sweetness, tend to have a rather ‘malty’ taste that is a bit like the umami quality of oyster sauces absent the marine flavor. This particular variety, unsurprising given the sugar quantity, is very sweet and, especially due to the fermented soy, quite salty. It has a fruity component, a bit like commercial plum sauces, and really needs an acid to balance it out.
As a condiment, or dipping sauce, for various dishes (spring-rolls or dumplings, for example), Hoisin sauce can be used ‘as is’ or else diluted with rice wine, vinegar, water, or any number of other ingredients.
One culinary use which is not uncommon is as a glaze for barbecued dishes (ribs, chicken and salmon especially), but it is also useful as a ‘binder’ or flavoring agent for dumpling fillings. In my kitchen, I have also found it to be a great base for stir-fry sauces and, in upcoming posts we will be investigating this a little further….