Sweet Soy Sauce (Chinese Mother Sauce #3)

April 19, 2017
1 Ratings
Photo by Bobbi Lin
  • Prep time 10 minutes
  • Cook time 35 minutes
  • Makes about 2 3/4 cups
Author Notes

Popular throughout China’s south-central region, this turns plain old soy sauce into the food of the gods through caramelization and a perfect balance of spices with aromatics. Caramelizing the sugar first keeps it from overwhelming the sauce with sweetness, since this amber liquid offers a slightly bitter edge and more complex flavors. Plus, your house will smell like heaven when you make it, so consider whipping it up before a romantic night at home. Read the full article on Chinese mother sauces here. —Madame Huang

What You'll Need
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup water, divided into 1/4 cup and 1/2 cup
  • 1 bottle (500 ml) regular Chinese soy sauce (Kim Lan or Wan Ja Shan recommended)
  • 1 teaspoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
  • 2 slices licorice root
  • 2 pieces star anise
  • 2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
  • 5 thin slices fresh ginger
  • 1 splash boiling water, as needed
  1. Place the sugar in a heavy stainless saucepan and moisten it with 1/4 cup water. Caramelize the sugar until it is a lovely amber color and smells like toffee. Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool down slightly before proceeding to the next step.
  2. Pointing the pan away from you, pour the remaining 1/2 cup water into the caramelized sugar, as it will sizzle and boil. Add all the other ingredients and bring the liquid to a full boil as you stir it to melt the hardened caramel. When a fine foam forms on the surface, watch it closely so that the sauce does not boil over. Reduce the sweet soy sauce to a molasses-like consistency, which will take 20 to 25 minutes.
  3. Strain the sauce into a measuring cup and add the amount of boiling water needed to bring the sauce to 2 3/4 cups. Cook the sauce completely and refrigerate it if you do not use it often.
  4. Tip: Any of the spices can be swapped out to fit your taste and your menu, like black pepper for the Sichuan peppercorns, fennel seeds or stick cinnamon instead of the licorice or star anise, and green onions instead of (or in addition to) the garlic.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Madame Huang
    Madame Huang
  • Chris Glenn
    Chris Glenn
Carolyn Phillips is a food writer, scholar, and artist. She is the author of the fully illustrated All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China (McSweeney’s + Ten Speed Press, August 2016) and The Dim Sum Field Guide: A Taxonomy of Dumplings, Buns, Meats, Sweets, and Other Specialties of the Chinese Teahouse (Ten Speed Press, August 2016). Her work has appeared in such places as Best Food Writing 2015, Lucky Peach, Gastronomica, Buzzfeed, Alimentum, Huffington Post, Food52, Zester Daily, and at the 2013 MAD Symposium in Copenhagen. She and her husband were cultural consultants on the third Ghostbusters movie, her weekly blog is Madame Huang's Kitchen (, she Tweets as @madamehuang, and Instagrams as @therealmadamehuang. Carolyn’s art has appeared everywhere from museums and galleries to various magazines and journals to Nickelodeon’s Supah Ninjas series. She worked for over a decade as a professional Mandarin interpreter in the federal and California state courts, lived in Taiwan for eight years, translated countless books and articles, and married into a Chinese family more than 30 years ago.

2 Reviews

Chris G. April 23, 2017
Madame Huang:
I have some questions! My question is: How much is "2 slices?" And assuming that I was using fresh, would it be double the dry amount(?) Or should I just use Anise oil, and if so how much?
Google Search for "licorice Root."

licorice root
Licorice is an herb that is native to the Mediterranean, southern and central Russia, and Asia Minor to Iran. Many species are now grown throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
Many "licorice" products manufactured in the U.S. actually don't contain any licorice. Instead, they contain anise oil, which has the characteristic smell and taste of "black licorice."
(Contrary to Web M.D. Licorice Ferns grow wild here in the Pacific N.W, (of U.S.A.) and probably British Columbia, Canada and S.E. Alaska, anywhere there are Big Leaf Maples!)
Swanson Health Products
I could get a whole pound of Organic Licorice Root, but what would I do with it? Especially since I could just go out in some "near woods" and Pick a root or two if I knew what a slice was?
One last question: how close is this to kecap manis? I do have a Large bottle of "Healthy Boy Brand" Sweet Soy Sauce, which, I assume is not exactly the same, and that your recipe would yield a different flavor profile, just curious?
Madame H. April 25, 2017
Excellent questions! Dried licorice root comes in pretty much standard sized slices. These are available in good Chinese markets and especially in Chinese herbal shops. If you can't find it, don't despair... use some spice with a a good anise note instead, like star anise or either fennel or anise seed. It's just a seasoning that you can adjust to fit your palate. Don't use anise oil or Wedtern licorice candies, which aren't the same. Commercial brands - from China or Southeast Asia - might share some similarities, but the flavor of homemade sweet Soy sauce is simply astounding and perfumy!