How to CookSauce

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

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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.

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.

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.
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
Tempeh and Sweet Potato Hash
Tempeh and Sweet Potato Hash

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.

Tags: Pantry, Ingredients