Home   Whats On   Article

Subscribe Now

Suffolk private chef gives us the lowdown on the best use of Asian sauces and condiments to boost flavour

I recently had a question from a student attending one of my cookery classes: “What is the difference between light and dark soya sauce?” He had always thought that dark soya sauce is the real McCoy and the light soya sauce is the diet version, like coke and diet coke. I found that misconception fascinating, so let’s talk about sauces, condiments and the five taste senses.

The five basic taste senses

The first four taste senses of sweet, sour, salty and bitter is a more straight forward concept and these tastes can be gotten from ingredients like sugar, honey, citrus, vinegar, salt, coffee etc. Interestingly, spicy is not a taste, it is actually a pain signal, a sensation rather than a taste.

The fifth taste sense is a little more complex. Known as ‘savoury’, this fifth taste sense was discovered by a Japanese researcher around 1910, thus the word ‘umami’ (which means savoury in Japanese) is often used to refer to this fifth taste sense. I would describe ‘savoury’ as a depth of flavour that can be gotten from protein rich food and fermented products like soya sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, bean paste, chilli paste etc. Or sea products like seaweed - kombu, nori, wakame and dried bonito etc. Mushrooms are rich in umami too, the most common Asian mushroom packed with deep flavours being the shitake mushroom.

I have picked a few of my personal favourite sauces and condiments to share with you. So, amp up your cooking by using these simple products to bring more flavour to your food.


Light soya sauce

Made from fermented soya beans, a little dash adds umami to both Asian and Western dishes. You can use it as a marinate, for stir-frying, steaming, braising or in dipping sauces. When a recipe asks for soya sauce, assume it means light soya sauce. The term light merely describes the golden brown colour, it is actually more salty than dark soya sauce.

Light soya sauce is used for seasoning and adding flavour and dark soya sauce is used for flavour and adding colour to dishes.

Chinese sauces
Chinese sauces

Dark soya sauce

Dark soy sauce is aged longer than light soy sauce and is often mixed with molasses or caramel. It is much darker, sweeter and thicker and less salty than light soy sauce. Normally added to give a depth of flavour, a little sweetness and to provide an appetising glaze to the finished dish. Brilliant for braised or stewed dishes and used in noodles and rice to give them a nice deep glossy finish.

Oyster sauce

Oyster sauce is made from oyster extracts. It has a pronounced umami flavour with a tinge of sweetness and saltiness. Best known for bringing out the savoury taste of other foods, the most common uses for oyster sauce includes stir-frying, glazes, marinades and dips.

Lee Kum Kee is my preferred brand for oyster sauce, for its quality. The founder Lee Kum Sheung had invented this delicious sauce by accident, he had left a pot of oyster soup simmering away at his food stall one day, got distracted and the soup was reduced to a thick brown paste full of savoury flavours with caramelised quality. Not wanting to waste a good pot of oysters, he started selling it to his customers as a rice seasoning. Well, the success is history.

Chinese sauces
Chinese sauces

Rice vinegar

When an Asian recipe calls for vinegar, it normally asks for rice vinegar. Don’t panic if you don’t have rice vinegar at hand. Asia grows a lot of rice, so rice vinegar is produced and readily available, just like cider vinegar in UK as we have an abundance of apple orchards, or wine vinegar from the grapevines in Europe, or coconut vinegar from the Philippines.

Simply substitute white rice vinegar with any clear or light coloured vinegars that are not flavoured. Word of caution - if you are replacing with distilled vinegar, reduce the quantity stated, as distilled vinegar is stronger and tastes more acidic.

I find balsamic vinegar a fair substitute for dark rice vinegar although it does not have the toastie rice undertone. Balsamic has a fruity grape background, so water it down with a teaspoonful of water if it is too sweet or syrupy.

Chinese rice wine

Shaoxing wine has a clear, yellow-amber colour with an average alcohol content of 14%. Made of fermented rice and glutinous rice, it is an essential ingredient for preparing meat or fish in Chinese cooking. You can use dry sherry instead for similar aromas. Add it right at the end of cooking directly onto the edge of a hot wok or frying pan.

Just like Champagne can only be produced in the region of Champagne in France, Shaoxing wine must be produced in the Zhejiang province of Shaoxing in Eastern China. Inland, a lower grade of Shaoxing wine is sold for cooking, salt is added to the wine to avoid alcohol tax.

An aged Shaoxing wine can also be consumed as a beverage, served warm to accompany a meal.

Sesame oil

Extracted from sesame seeds, the distinctive nutty flavour and aroma from this delicate oil will transform any dish, be it in cold appetisers, marinades, dips, dressings or dumpling fillings. When used in a cooked dish, it is important to remember to add it at the end of the cooking process, almost at the time when the fire is turned off, to capture its pure essence.

The darker coloured toasted sesame oil has a richer flavour compared to the lighter coloured sesame oil. Be aware that most sesame oil comes blended with another carrier oil. For a pure flavour and aroma look out for ‘Pure Sesame Oil’.

Lilian Hiw's Korean Fried Chicken
Lilian Hiw's Korean Fried Chicken



A Korean fermented red chilli paste made from dried red chillies flakes called gochugaru, fermented soybeans and thickened to a thick paste with glutinous rice. It has a gorgeous, bold crimson colour, deeply savoury, slightly smoky, with a gentle sweetness from its fermentation process.

In my October Korean cookery class, we will be using gochujang to make the glaze for KFC - Korean Fried Chicken.

Gluten free sauces
Gluten free sauces


Hoisin sauce

Translated directly in the Cantonese dialect, Hoisin means ‘seafood’, however it does not contain any seafood products and is naturally vegan.

Gluten free hoisin sauces are available from Lee Kum Kee.

Mushroom sauce

Produced by Lee Kum Kee, their mushroom vegetarian stir fry sauce was designed to be used as an alternative to oyster sauce for vegetarians and vegans. Dishes cooked with the mushroom sauce has similar texture and appearance to those cooked with oyster sauce. It is also very popular to serve a dollop of oyster sauce as a dip.

This mushroom sauce is gluten free. You can also get gluten free oyster sauce by Lee Kum Kee.

Soya sauce

All soya sauce is naturally vegan.

Kikkoman makes a lovely rich Tamari gluten free soya sauce. Lee Kum Kee also produce a gluten free soya sauce.

I hope that this week’s column has thrown some light on a few basic Asian sauces and condiments and have inspired you to start building an authentic pantry. I promise that it will unlock a whole new world of taste.

Do try your hand at making the Indian Green Chutney and Vietnamese Nuoc Cham Dip.

I would love to hear of your creations, send me some pictures on Facebook or Instagram @Lilianhiw or email me at lilianhiw@lilianskitchen.co.uk

Vietnamese Prawn Summer Rolls with Nuoc Cham Dip and Hoisin Peanut Dip
Vietnamese Prawn Summer Rolls with Nuoc Cham Dip and Hoisin Peanut Dip



Nuoc Cham is the principle sauce used in every Vietnamese kitchen. Using bold flavours like fish sauce, aromatic garlic, fiery chillies and fragrant and zesty limes, it is used lavishly as a dip, sauce or marinade in many dishes from summer rolls and spring rolls to grilled meat and fried fish. It is quick and easy to make and keeps for weeks in the fridge in an air tight jar.

250ml water

60ml fish sauce

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 med red chillis, finely chopped

2 tablespoons lime, zest and juice (from 1 large lime)

2 tablespoons caster sugar

1 teaspoon rice vinegar

Simply measure out all the ingredients into a jar, cover, shake well till sugar is dissolved.

Indian green chutney
Indian green chutney



Tangy, spicy and aromatic, this condiment is eaten with all kinds of Indian snacks, chaat and wraps etc. Apart from adding zing to your palette, the herbs aid digestion and help to detoxify the body.

Tear up 50g of fresh coriander stalk and leaves and 25g of mint leaves (the mint stalk will turn the chutney bitter). Using a hand blender, blitz the herbs with 2 cloves of garlic, 2 green chillies, 2cm length of ginger, 1 teaspoon of vinegar, 1 teaspoon of ground cumin and 2 tablespoons of water to a smooth consistency. Season with 1 teaspoonful of salt and sugar.

The chutney will stay fresh for two to three days in the refrigerator. You can freeze any extra chutney on the day it is made. For best taste and colour, freshly made is always best. Whisk up small batches as needed.

If you are making a larger batch for a party using a food processor, add a couple of ice cubes while blending to help keep the chutney a more vibrant green colour because the heat created from the blender causes the herbs to turn dark.

Private chef Lilian Hiw