Sauce

Indonesia’s Favorite Condiment (& How to Make and Use It Yourself)

March  2, 2016

If you've eaten nasi goreng—or had your eye on Yotam Ottolenghi's Black Pepper Tofu in the Genius Recipes cookbook—you're familiar with kecap manis (though maybe you've seen it spelled ketjap manis).

Photo by Julia Gartland

Pronounced kuh-CHOP MAH-nees, it translates to "sweet sauce": "Kecap" is a catch-all term for the five essential Indonesian fermented sauces (and yes, it's related to kê-tsiap, the distant fermented-fish-sauce ancestor of our beloved ketchup), and "manis" means sweet (in this case, the source is palm sugar).

Syrupy where Japanese soy sauce is thin, caramelly and slightly smoky where shoyu is salty, kecap manis is, by many accounts, the most popular sauce in Indonesia. In "History of Soybeans and Soyfoods in Southeast Asia," soy expert William Shurtleff reported that kecap manis accounted for 90% of the country's total soy sauce production as of 2010.

Photo by James Ransom

Add it to marinades, stir-fries, soups, barbecue sauces, glazes, or anywhere else you'd normally use maple syrup, honey, brown sugar, or agave to counter the saltiness of Japanese or Chinese soy sauce. Nigella Lawson, who describes it as "treacle-ish soy sauce," recommends replacing 1 tablespoon of kecap manis in her recipe for Thai noodles with cinnamon and prawns with 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce sauce mixed with 1 tablespoon soft dark brown sugar if you can't find it.

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But kecap manis adds a layer of flavor (as well as a sticky richness) that a hacked version does not. Unlike other Asian soy sauces, it's frequently flavored with star anise, garlic, ginger, galangal, or chile.

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Top Comment:
“Ground beef cooked in Ketjap in a large deep skillet, top beef with fresh bean spouts cover and cooked until the sprouts wilt. Serve over white rice. Best Indonesian dish I ever had. Easy and delicious. : )”
— I_Fortuna
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While you can pick up a bottle at any well-stocked Asian market, making a good imitation at home is simple, much like reducing balsamic vinegar:

  1. Mix together equal amounts of soy sauce and palm sugar (or brown sugar or molasses) and add any flavorings (sliced garlic or ginger, dried chiles, star anise, curry leaves).
  2. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the sugar is dissolved and the liquid is viscous (10 to 15 minutes).
  3. Let cool completely, during which time the mixture will further thicken. Store in the fridge.
Thick and syrupy. Photo by Julia Gartland

Kecap manis is used as both a cooking ingredient and a tableside condiment, and I'm happy eating it poured over a bowl of plain rice. But for something more elaborate, use your store-bought or homemade kecap manis to make...

  • Nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice) or mie goreng (fried noodles), two dishes in which kecap manis is a primary flavor
  • Pad see ew, using the kecap manis as a substitute for Thai black soy sauce
  • Chicken or beef satay, mixing kecap manis into the marinade and the dipping sauce
  • The dressing for a tofu or seafood salad
  • A spicy peanut sauce for gado gado
  • A marinade for baked or pan-fried tempeh

Or go rogue and try it in less-than-traditional settings:

  • Make a spicy-sweet tomato jam (using either canned or fresh), then fry up some toast, drizzle with kecap manis, and mash the tomato mixture over top.
  • Dribble on avocado toast or scrambled egg tacos.
  • Thin it with sesame oil, then use it to flavor a tofu scramble.
  • Stir a tablespoon into chili, roasted tomato soup, or mushroom Bourguignon.
  • It isn't Japanese, but it does taste great on top of okonomiyaki, where it can take the place of okonomi sauce) or heated with miso and used as a marinade for black cod.

  • In the summer, dab it on fresh corn on the cob before sprinkling with flaky salt.

What soy sauce variety do we need to get our hands on A.S.A.P.? Tell us in the comments.

16 Comments

Linda D. April 7, 2018
Thank you for providing a simple way to make Ketjap Manis, Sarah. I used molasses and while it was cooling, I asked my husband, Bob to sample it. He was born in Indonesia and well remembers the taste. He pronounced it, "perfect!"
 
Nanda D. March 10, 2016
This stuff is used in all Dutch homekitchens, since the 60ties, when 'our' colonies fled to the Netherlands, being original Dutchies or Indonesian Dutch sympathisers. Even my Grandma always had it in her home. 'Normal' soysauce was never used before we discovered sushi :)
 
I_Fortuna March 4, 2016
Here is a recipe taught to me about 40 years ago from an Indonesian friend.<br />Ground beef cooked in Ketjap in a large deep skillet, top beef with fresh bean spouts cover and cooked until the sprouts wilt. Serve over white rice. Best Indonesian dish I ever had. Easy and delicious. : )
 
Eleanor F. June 28, 2017
I'd love to know more about this dish. Do you know its name or the region your friend is from? Are there only 3 ingredients?
 
E March 3, 2016
Brands like ABC, Kaki Tiga or Bango soy sauce are delicious, the kind that are used in the real Indonesian kitche. Conimex soy sauce is too much adapted to the western, Dutch flavor imho, it's too thin, genuine ketjap is thick-liquid.<br />Another tasty recipe is babi-ketjap, pork with soy sauce. <br />Thera are several types of ketjap, like ketjap asin, wicht is salty.
 
Henk V. March 3, 2016
Couldn't agree more! Most of the Dutch people have no taste in good food, they cook with lots of stuff from jars cans and sachets, most of their flavours come from ready made packets or shakers with spices (even though theres more salt then spices in them) I think they forgot how to cook fresh traditional and healthy. Some people I know don't even know how to make a basic pasta sauce (one of the most simple tasks in the kitchen) The Dutch just love easy, readymade and quick stuff. You see it all over the magazines and television, They make it look like its good and tasty food.. while in fact all those quick to prepare meals are full of salt chemical junk and E-numbers but no taste what so ever.
 
Nanda D. March 10, 2016
It's changing though :) My mom only cooked with sachets, but people of my age are more and more going back to cooking with as less as possible prepared and pre-packaged stuff, except for things like 'bouillonblokjes' and of course frozen pizza's when we feel lazy ;)
 
Frans B. March 3, 2016
That's cool to see the Conimex Ketjap here. Did you know it's a Dutch brand. Besides the b(s)ad things the Dutch did in Indonesia long time ago, the good things was many Indonesian cooking ingredients made it to Holland. And we would actually be happy to ship some Conimex Ketjap Manis to New York, or wherever your are! See my link, https://www.hollandboutique.com/brands/Conimex.html.
 
Henk V. March 3, 2016
Actually I am from Holland, but i really don't like Conimex products. I prefer the real stuff from the "Oosterse Toko's"
 
C2K March 2, 2016
kecap Manis. I prefer Kecap Bango label
 
Henk V. March 2, 2016
With so many choices for a good Ketjap and you guys choose Conimex which my Indonesian friend refers to as wood stain, and actually he's right. The Conimex Ketjap isn't a really good ketjap. I prefer Kaki Tiga, Kental A label or ABC ketjap.
 
Loves F. March 2, 2016
Oh man, I would love a good recipe for bami goreng!! A friend made it for us in Amsterdam, and I just can't seem to recreate it (I know leeks and kecap are key ingredients). The pics in the how to make any stirfry link actually look a lot like bami/mie goreng, but the recipe links are for other things...
 
foofaraw March 2, 2016
PS: 'Ketjap' is a old spelling (<1970) of the modern 'kecap' (pronounced the same). All 'c' are spelled 'tj' in Indonesian language before '70. <br />Some brands use/keep the 'ketjap' spelling to illicit old time-ness or showing that they have been established for quite some time (<'70)
 
foofaraw March 2, 2016
My post was accidentally deleted right before posting:<br />*PS: 'Ketjap is an old spelling of 'kecap', both pronounced the same. All 'tj' are spelled as 'c' in Indonesian language before 1970. Some brands keep/use ketjap spelling to illicit old-timeness or to show that they have been established for a long time (at least before 1970).<br /><br />Also, 2 well known brands is Kecap ABC and Kecap Bango (Bango=stork)
 
beejay45 February 11, 2018
Linguists! You can't live with them -- you dice 'em and stir fry 'em. And before anyone becomes mortally offended, a good portion of my working life was spent as a linguist. I know whereof I speak. ;)
 
foofaraw March 2, 2016
Or as snack: cubed firm tofu, fried, and eaten with kecap manis as condiment (if you want to be spicy, you can add cut Thai chili in the kecap manis)