Fish sauce is an extremely salty, fishy-tasting brown liquid that is a by-product of fish fermentation (which is basically controlled rotting — letting bacteria feed on the sugars in food, creating lactic acid, a preservative). The fish — usually anchovies, but sometimes squid or other shellfish — is fermented in sea salt and water, then slowly pressed and strained.
Fish sauce is great for adding a rich, salty, kind-of-fishy-but-not-in-a-gross-way flavor to savory dishes. It is often used in lieu of salt in Southeast Asian curries, and it works well in marinades, since the flavor is strong enough to penetrate the meat.
Fish sauce is pungent, so start by using it as a component in things that are already really flavorful. Put it in marinades, sauces, or curries instead of salt, but be sure to add just a little bit at a time so that it doesn’t overwhelm the dish.
The purest form of oyster sauce is made by boiling oysters in their shells in water and cooking that liquid (which becomes oyster broth) down to the desired flavor and thickness. This method is prohibitively expensive, though, and commercial oyster sauce is made from oyster extract (super-concentrated oyster broth), salt, sugar, thickening starch, and caramel coloring.
Because of its thick, syrupy texture, oyster sauce clings well to food without having to be thickened or mixed with anything else. It’s great as a salty-sweet sauce for stir-fries.
In stir-fries, start by heating your oil and then sautéing your food a little bit. Then add oyster sauce. It will flavor your vegetables, and the liquid will help them cook a little faster, but if you add it too early, it will burn.
Gluten-free soy sauce (other types are made with a mixture of soy and wheat). Because Tamari is 100% soy, it is less sweet than other soy sauces, and has a saltier, stronger savory flavor.
The flavor is more distinct than regular dark soy sauce, so a little will go a long way to season cooking liquid, vegetables, sauces, and marinades. Also, your gluten-free friends will be happy.
Use tamari exactly as you would use soy sauce — as a condiment for rice or noodles, in dipping sauces, in marinades, or as a way to season meat and vegetables during cooking. Technically, it is soy sauce, just a specific type.
Sambal, a type of chili sauce, is made by grinding fresh red chilis into a paste, traditionally with a mortar and pestle. Certain brands contain vinegar, lime juice, garlic, or other flavoring agents, but in its simplest form, sambal is made of only chilis, water, and salt. Essentially, it gives a serious spice kick to any dish you put it in.
Sambal adds heat to a dish without adding any other unwanted flavors. It’s great in dishes with already complex flavor profiles (read: LOTS of other spices, seasonings, and aromatics) when all you want to add is heat.
For most of us, sambal is too spicy to eat as a condiment on its own. Put it in sauces, but make sure to add it incrementally and taste as you go along; the spice factor is serious.
Sometimes referred to as Chinese barbecue sauce, hoisin is a dark brown sauce made of sugar, fermented soy, vinegar, garlic, salt, chili, and various other spices. Often, wheat or potato starch is added to give hoisin sauce its thick, sticky texture.
Because it has an intense, almost cloyingly sweet flavor, hoisin sauce is best used when cooking meat, as opposed to starches or vegetables. The high sugar content makes it perfect for glazing meat, or as a condiment or dipping sauce.
Hoisin sauce can be served as a cold condiment all on its own (think Peking duck). If you want to cook with it as a glaze or as part of a sauce, be aware of its seriously high sugar content. Get it too hot and it will burn, making your whole dish taste bitter.
Though there are many variations of rice vinegar (black, red, seasoned, Chinese, Japanese), the most common and multipurpose variety is unseasoned white rice vinegar. It is less acidic and slightly sweeter than Western distilled vinegars, meaning that its flavor is milder and less sour.
Because of its relatively low acidity, rice vinegar doesn’t have the abrasive sourness of most other vinegars, thus is more subtle. it is perfect with raw vegetables, in a dipping sauce, or as a pickling liquid.
Use it as you would use any other vinegar. To make pickles, just boil it with salt and sugar, then add your vegetables. Also, make sure you aren’t buying seasoned rice vinegar, which has sugar and other additives that you don’t want.
Mirin is super-sweet, low-alcohol rice wine used widely in Japanese cuisine.
Compared with other rice wines (sake, for example), mirin has a low alcohol content, so it can add flavor to dishes without adding alcohol that will need to be cooked out. It also adds more sweetness than other wines or vinegars.
Mirin can be used anywhere as a substitute for vinegar or wine. It pairs especially well with fish, as its acidity masks the sometimes unpleasant fishy smell. Put it in glazes or marinades as a sugar element.
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