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
about 2 3/4 cups
1 1/2 cups
water, divided into 1/4 cup and 1/2 cup
bottle (500 ml) regular Chinese soy sauce (Kim Lan or Wan Ja Shan recommended)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (MadameHuang.com), 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.