Fast Food

Hoisin sauce

A classic Cantonese condiment


The best-known sauce in the Cantonese cuisine of southern China also happens to be a misnomer. Hoisin sauce, which means “seafood sauce” in Cantonese dialect, does not actually contain any seafood. It is also more typically used when preparing meat dishes rather than for seafood.

Still, the sauce is considered an essential feature in many classic Cantonese offerings, such as roast goose, char siu (barbecued pork), and pork ribs.

How is it made?

Recipes for hoisin sauce differ based on the preferences of each family, restaurant and manufacturer. They can sometimes incorporate upwards of 12 components, although the basic ingredients include yellow soybeans seasoned with vinegar, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, starch and a combination of spices.

The dark red sauce has the consistency of molasses and a flavour that is sweet and spicy at once, which makes it versatile enough to brush onto meats as a marinade before grilling or roasting, tipped into stir-fry dishes and soups, or served as a condiment for dipping.

How did it originate?

Fuchsia Dunlop, a researcher of Chinese cuisine, says that historians think that hoisin sauce used to be a generic term for wheat or bean-based sauces that contained fermented seafood for an extra note of umami. The seafood element may then have been omitted over time by cost-conscious sauce makers.

An article in Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily said that the sauce was mentioned in early literature in Lingnan, an area which covers the provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi and Hainan today.

At the time it was regarded as a luxury product due to the cost of its seafood ingredients, and it only picked up greater popularity much later with people in Lingbei, an older province to the north, and in the coastal city Wenzhou in Zhejiang, where it was likely to have been exported to the rest of the world when local residents emigrated to the West.

Others claim that the sauce originated in Beijing and that it was originally termed Peking sauce, because it is commonly served as a condiment with Peking Duck to this day.

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