Barbecue sauce is often associated with famous American destinations like Kansas City, Texas, or Carolina. But there’s a hidden gem that takes center stage in the world of flavor: Chinese barbecue sauce. However, we’re not talking about the usual sweet and sticky char siu sauce that accompanies pork buns. No, we’re diving deep into the realm of Chinese satay or sacha sauce, an extraordinary umami bomb that can be found at hot pot restaurants.
Picture a silver can adorned with a charming bull wearing an apron and posing with a fork and knife. This is Bullhead Barbecue Sauce, a Taiwan-made creation that will make your taste buds dance. Inside this can, a magnificent paste awaits, made from dried seafood, garlic, ginger, shallots, chilies, and oil. Its versatility allows it to enhance a wide range of recipes, making it a pantry staple for many.
The journey of my love for sacha sauce began when my husband introduced me to it at his family’s Chinese restaurant. Later, I noticed its frequent presence at the sauce-making stations of various Chinese hot pot establishments, often labeled as BBQ sauce or satay sauce. Since then, it has become an essential item in our pantry, capable of adding that subtle yet distinctive savoriness that completes a dish in need.
The true origins of shāchá jiàng (沙茶酱) remain somewhat mysterious. However, scholars believe that the sauce is a Chaozhou adaptation of Malaysian and Indonesian satay sauces, likely discovered during maritime explorations. Originating in Chaozhou, sacha sauce has since evolved into an indispensable condiment in Fujianese and Taiwanese cuisine. Today, it is widely used as a stir-fry sauce, a dipping sauce for hot pot, or as a marinade for grilled meats, infusing dishes with the perfect blend of savory and spicy flavors.
The taste of sacha sauce is a delightful medley of complexity and depth. When you crack open the container, a good mix is necessary to combine the thick brown paste at the bottom with the layer of oil on top. At first, the umami-forward profile with a hint of brininess, reminiscent of Japanese katsuobushi due to the dried shrimp and brill fish, dominates your palate. But as you savor it, a subtle sweetness lingers, despite the absence of sugar as an ingredient. This magical combination of flavors is what sets sacha sauce apart, making it a truly versatile culinary companion.
Bullhead offers various sacha sauce varieties, including the standard flavor (with a white lid), a hot and spicy version featuring Sichuan peppers (with a red lid, my personal favorite!), and a vegetarian option (with a green lid). Once opened, the container can be refrigerated, easily lasting for months (although you’ll probably finish it before then!).
I’ve discovered that adding a couple of scoops of sacha sauce elevates almost any dish in need of that umami boost. Stir-fries, Chinese sticky rice, congee, fried rice, and even salad dressings (imagine an amped-up Caesar salad) all benefit from this remarkable condiment. Even a simple bowl of plain white rice, when combined with soy sauce and a touch of sacha sauce, becomes a symphony of flavors.
To get you started on your own sacha sauce culinary adventure, here’s a simple recipe:
Sacha Stir-Fry Chicken
This classic Chinese restaurant-style stir-fry chicken brings out the best in sacha sauce. Begin by mixing sacha sauce, soy sauce, grated garlic, Shaoxing wine (or sake), Lao Gan Ma chili crisp, and a pinch of white sugar in a small bowl. In another bowl, coat bite-size pieces of skinless, boneless chicken thighs with cornstarch, oil, egg, salt, and pepper. Heat a wok until very hot, add oil, and then throw in the chicken, cooking it until almost done. Set the chicken aside in a separate bowl.
By incorporating the unique flavors of sacha sauce into your cooking, you’ll embark on a culinary journey that will captivate your taste buds and elevate your dishes to new heights of satisfaction. Give it a try and savor the delights of umami with every bite.