Maybe you’ve seen it at your local Asian market, or have been to Indonesia and are determined to replicate some of the tasty dishes you tried there. Either way, it’s good to know about sweet soy sauce, aka kecap manis.
If you have a sweet tooth or you like Chinese, Thai or Japanese cuisine, chances are you’ll love sweet soy sauce, also called kecap manis or ketjap manis. It’s essentially soy sauce with added sugar—typically palm sugar, although some importers specify simply “sugar” on the labels— and it is sweet, viscous, and nothing like the stuff you’ll find at the local Japanese sushi spot.
Kecap manis is, in fact, almost more reminiscent of hoisin sauce, that Chinese and Vietnamese restaurant standby. Because sugar is such a primary ingredient—listed first on the bottle of ABC Sweet Soy Sauce I bought—it’s best to use this sauce sparingly. Think: Thai noodles with prawns, such as these from Nigella Lawson, that feature just a touch of sweet soy sauce. In Indonesia, where nasi goreng (a multi-faceted fried rice dish) and bakmi goreng (a noodle dish) are ubiquitous, sweet soy sauce is more often than not a player in what you’re eating. If you can’t place that strong, sweet, soy flavor in the peanut sauce served alongside your chicken satay skewers, it’s likely kecap manis.
Because of its soy component, kecap manis is a natural partner for tofu and rice. You can serve it as a side for shrimp rolls in wonton wrappers or fresh summer rolls, and you can even take a crack at making your own (although it won’t be quite the same). I’m using it for the first time, and the other day, faced with spicy leftover Chinese rice noodles and cabbage, I pressed and pan-fried tofu, needing protein to finish the dish. I looked around hastily for a flavoring for the warm tofu and settled on equal parts super-salty fish sauce and sweet soy sauce. And it was remarkable—delicious, not-too-sugary, and booming with umami.
So give sweet soy sauce a whirl when next you’re at a big Chinese, Vietnamese, or Indonesian market. It can be tough to find, but it’s a fun thing to play with in your Asian cuisine pantry.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.