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On the sauce: Asian dipping sauces

Categories: Expert guidance

In a new series, Angela Clutton—Cookbook Club host, food writer and author of The Vinegar Cupboard—will be navigating her way through the myriad iterations and uses of sauces. This time: Asian dipping sauces

Image: Kim Lightbody

Think how fabulous freshly cooked dumplings are. All hot and steaming and beautiful with their pleats. Delicious too, yes—but on their own not yet perfectly so. Perfection only comes with the dipping sauce, which effortlessly enhances the flavours of the dumpling.

That truth of the power of a good sauce is replicated right across the culinary world—that’s the whole point of this series, after all—with few stops featuring more interesting, more delicious, or frankly simpler to make dipping sauces than the region encompassing Japan, China and Thailand and which accompany all manner of meat, fish and vegetable dishes. Dumplings included.

It is a discovery I have leapt at only relatively recently. Full disclosure: these are not the dishes of my personal heritage. Yet thanks to a panoply of wonderful modern food writing voices, from Ken Hom to Kay Plunkett-Hogge, I know that with a few core ingredients and a bit of know-how when it comes to choosing what to add to them, we can all embrace the many possibilities of these sauces that are so important to the cooking of their region—and beyond. For they are just too good to only accompany dishes that shares absolute cultural origins. These days they’re for adding flavour in a breadth of modern cooking—due respect given to where they came from, of course.

Umami laden
In making them, I think the trick is to consider the sauce base first. For Thai-style sauces, that most likely means umami laden nam pla fish sauce. Add a little sugar for extra depth, then lift it with any combo of lime juice, garlic, chopped chillies, fresh coriander, rice vinegar or light soy sauce, as the mood takes you.

Soy sauce and rice vinegar are, of course, often their own base for a dipping sauce. Just the two together can be glorious in a 50-50 mix that is popular across Japan and Korea for serving with fried fish or dumplings. Or try rice vinegar with mirin.

On the whole, these sauces are just about simply mixing elements together. I only use heat for them for two main reasons. First, for sauce to have a spiced depth to it. You won’t achieve it by adding the spices cold, they need heat to release their potential. You’ll see what I mean if you try heating light soy sauce with twice as much water, some sugar and spices such as cinnamon, fennel seeds, star anise or ginger. That sauce needs to be simmered to become a sweetly aromatic sauce. Over time it will reduce—which neatly leads me to the second thing heat can be used for in making these sauces: to achieve a thicker style of sauce that will be great over steamed buns, perhaps, or for chicken wings.

No rights or wrongs
When it comes to finishing flavours to add to the sauce before serving, there are a few thoughts below to get you going—but thoughts are all they are. What I really want is to urge you to get creative. There are no rights or wrongs here. The same goes with what any of these dipping sauces might go with.

I’ve already mentioned dumplings and steamed buns. In my recipe, I’ve gone for a mix of rice vinegar, mirin, lemongrass and spices for serving with vegetable tempura. Think too of sushi and sashimi, grilled steaks, fried fish, fishcakes, barbecued vegetables, and, well, absolutely whatever else you might possibly fancy dipping into these most vibrant of sauces.

Base ingredients:

Light soy sauce
For that distinctive, complex saltiness. Always buy soy sauce that has been brewed or fermented, as they’ll be the most authentic.

Tamari
An alternative to soy sauce and usually gluten-free. Richer flavour than conventional light soy sauces, more balanced and less overtly salty.

Nam pla
Thai fish sauce manages to be at once sweet, salty, spicy and sour. It is intensely fishy and salty, incomparable, and makes for wonderful dipping sauces.

Japanese rice vinegar
Milder than most other vinegars. A useful counterbalance to the stronger elements of soy sauce or nam pla. (Use cider vinegar if you can’t get rice vinegar.)

Chinese black vinegar
Thicker and sweeter than many vinegars. Black, obviously. Use sparingly. Good for reducing into a thick dipping sauce or glaze.

Mirin
Japanese sweet rice wine with a bit of a tang to it and an umami edge. It’s a bit like sake but with lower alcohol content. Use with rice vinegar and light soy sauce.

Shaoxing wine vinegar
Chinese sweet rice wine. Amber in colour and a little bit fruity.

If heating the sauce, you can then flavour it with star anise, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, cinnamon sticks or black mustard seeds. To finish, try lime juice or slices, finely sliced red or green chillies, Thai basil, chopped coriander stalks and leaves, chopped fresh ginger, pounded garlic, finely chopped lemongrass, or finely chopped spring onions.