Ingredient Spotlight: Kecap Manis

kecap manis art II
Kecap Manis II — Jackson Pollock would be proud!

A very important person once said, “You can’t argue with taste.” This V.I.P. happens to be my dad. He’d make this declaration while pouring kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce, literally “sweet sauce”) over whatever food was on his plate, be it fried noodles (normal) or spaghetti (not so normal). When it comes to food, Dad’s tastes are simple. He likes Asian food and he likes it cooked by my mom. Any other dish can be remedied by drowning it in kecap manis. Seriously. When Dad travels, he carries a miniature bottle (just like those pint-sized Jim Beams and Johnny Walkers) in his waist-pouch, tucked in nice and snug next to his passport and wallet. No doubt, he equates kecap manis with the elixir of life. Dad must be on to something. Kecap manis is popping up more and more on the culinary landscape as chefs are discovering the wonders of this thick, viscous sauce made from sugar, water, salt, soybeans, and wheat. Heck, even Yotam Ottalenghi, the famous Israeli-born chef who owns five London eateries, uses kecap manis in his Black Pepper Tofu recipe (Plenty, Chronicle Books, 2011). Kecap manis is used both as a flavoring sauce and a condiment at the table. It is a mainstay in dishes like babi kecap (soy sauce pork), nasi goreng (fried rice) and satay. I like to float cut Thai chilies in a tiny dish of kecap manis to serve with fried fish, and I find that a squirt or two of kecap manis in my bowl of chicken noodle soup adds subtly sweet undertones. Don’t restrict kecap manis to Asian dishes though. Marinate your steak, simmer your stews, and baste your roasts with it. You can find two brands of kecap manis in the U.S.: Cap Bango and ABC. More Asian markets carry the ABC brand but I always pick Cap Bango if available for its thicker consistency and sweeter, more complex flavor. Molasses is a worthy substitute although I think it tastes more similar to the Chinese version of sweet soy sauce that accompanies Hainanese chicken rice or popiah. If you can’t find kecap manis, I’ve provided a quick method to make your own at home below.

English: Kecap Manis Achli Masak(left) and Kec...
ABC brand kecap manis                                             Photo courtesy: wikipedia.org

I used to be offended that my dad would pour kecap manis over every meal I served him at my house. I’ve since learned to put things in perspective. My dad was a chain smoker for more than three decades and at the ripe old age of 72, his taste buds are probably a little worn and weary. So a taste of something familiar is comforting to him ??. Now I’m just proud he’s at the forefront of a new food trend, plus he’s taught me a very valuable lesson–you really can’t argue with taste.

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Quick and Easy Kecap Manis

Some methods will have you simmering herbs and spices like galangal, star anise and cinnamon in the sauce. I don’t think it’s necessary but feel free to do so if you’d like. If you can find Indonesian palm sugar (gula jawa/merah), use it. A brand called SweetTree has it in granulated form and is available at Whole Foods. Time: 2 minutes Makes: 1/4 cup Mix 1 tablespoon water, 1 tablespoon regular soy sauce and 3 tablespoons brown sugar together in a small bowl. Microwave on medium for 20 to 30 seconds. Stir to mix. Microwave a few more seconds if the sugar has not completely dissolved. The flavor is similar but the consistency will be thinner than store-bought. To make larger quantities, use the same ratio 1 water:1 soy sauce:3 sugar and simmer on the stove top over low heat for about 10 to 15 minutes until the sugar has completely dissolved and the sauce is thick and syrupy. Store in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 months.

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Here are more recipes for making kecap manis:

Here are recipes that use kecap manis:

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Noodling Around the Kitchen

Auntie Rairat works in the kitchen at my family’s restaurant Julia’s Indonesian Kitchen. During meal breaks, she whips up some simple Thai dishes for the staff like this, pad see ew, a standard at Thai restaurants in North America. Auntie Rairat was kind enough to show me how to make it one day. So here it is!

 

Sweet and Savory Wide Rice Noodles (Pad See Ew)

 

 

Churairat Huyakorn used to own a Thai restaurant in Bremerton, WA, and this was one of her most popular dishes. She developed a system for standardizing every order: Per order, she would add 2 dashes fish sauce, 2 drops vinegar, etc. It was a fun task interpreting these amounts, and once that was done I realized this dish is easy to make and tastes fabulous–anyone can give it a whirl. Ideally, purchase fresh rice sheets available at Asian markets so you can cut them to the desired width. If not, the precut ones will do (they tend to be about 1/2-inch wide), and as a last resort, dried rice sticks work as well. Have all the sauces ready before you start cooking as things move very quickly once you get going.

 

Time: 30 minutes
Makes: 2 servings

 

1 pound fresh rice sheets, or 7 ounces dried wide rice noodles (it will say XL on the package)

8 ounces meat (chicken, beef, pork, or shrimp) cut into very thin 2- by 1-inch slices (1/2 cup)

1/2 pound Chinese broccoli             

1/4 cup canola or other neutral oil

2 teaspoons minced garlic (2 large cloves)

2 eggs

1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce

2 tablespoons sweet soy sauce 

1 tablespoon oyster sauce                   

1 tablespoon sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons white distilled or rice vinegar          

White pepper to taste

 

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Auntie Rairat separating rice noodles in the kitchen of Julia’s Indonesian Kitchen.

 

Cut rice sheets into 2-inch wide strands and separate them. If using dried noodles, soak them in boiling water for 6 to 8 minutes. You want them soft and pliable but not falling apart. Rinse in cold running water, drain and set aside.

 

Separate Chinese broccoli into leaf and stem pieces. Cut stems into 2-inch pieces and halve the thicker stems lengthwise as they take longer to cook. In a heatproof bowl, soak vegetables in boiling water for 30 seconds until wilted but not fully cooked. Rinse under cold running water and drain.

 

Preheat a 14-inch wok or 12-inch skillet over very high heat for about 30 seconds. Swirl in oil to coat the bottom of the wok and heat until smoking. Add the meat followed by garlic. Add 1/2 tablespoon fish sauce to flavor the meat. Stir and cook until meat is no longer pink, about 1 minute. Push meat to one side and crack the eggs in. Let eggs cook undisturbed for about 15 seconds until the whites start to turn opaque then stir to mix with the meat.

 

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Here, the eggs went in after the meat. But if the wok is searing hot, Auntie Rairat prefers to throw in the eggs first. Somehow that day she couldn’t get the wok to heat up to her satisfaction.

 

Throw in noodles and stir to break them up. Toss to mix noodles with the meat and eggs. Try to spread the noodles around the bottom of the wok to make as much contact with the hot surface as possible. That’s how you get the nice charred noodle bits and the unmistakable “burnt flavor” peculiar to frying in a searing hot wok. Add more oil if noodles start to stick to the wok.

 

Add remaining fish sauce, sweet soy sauce, oyster sauce, and sugar and use your spatula to spread seasonings over the noodles. Toss quickly to distribute evenly. 

 

Add Chinese broccoli and vinegar, and toss with a couple more flourishes until well mixed and vegetables are cooked through but the stems are still crunchy, about 1 to 2 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Turn off the heat.

 

Divide noodles between 2 dinner plates and sprinkle with white pepper. Serve with fish sauce, vinegar, and crushed dried chilies.

To make more servings, rinse wok with hot water (no detergent required) and give it a quick scrub just to remove all the brown bits stuck at the bottom. Give it a quick wipe and set the wok back on the heat to dry completely before carrying on.

Pat’s notes:
For a vegetarian version, skip the meat and add firm tofu, or just have it with egg. One difference: Add the eggs first, then the garlic to prevent it from getting burnt in the ultra-hot wok.

 

Dark sweet soy sauce gives the noodles color while fish sauce and oyster sauce season the dish. If you can’t find sweet soy sauce, substitute with a mixture of 3 parts soy sauce plus one part brown sugar.

 

Grandma says:

Noodles will get broken if they’re not big enough and if you have a strong fire, the noodles don’t break.