I once read that Chinese food was “a cuisine of condiments,” and it set my hair on fire. Chinese people invented stir frying. They dry, fry, cure, smoke, braise, poach and double boil their food. They invented noodles, for God’s sake—how can you reduce all that to “a cuisine of condiments”!?!?
Well, once I took my Captain Indignant cape off, I could see their point. I mean, there’s the ginger scallion sauce that knocks you out of your seat the first time you try it. Hoisin or oyster sauce, both dark as melted chocolate, are eminently smearable on most anything that could use sweetness, saltiness, and depth. A drop of sesame oil gives soup or rice a beguiling nuttiness. And if you ever need a punch in the nose, a dip in Chinese mustard will do you right.
But the condiment I want to tell you about today isn’t traditional like those are—it’s my adaptation of another classic: chile-spiked soy sauce. You see this served mostly with simple food: tender poached chicken or quickly-boiled whole shrimp, still steaming from the pot and burning your fingers while you strip their shells, breathing in their scent. It’s gorgeous, a black pool with bright red and green chile slices floating around, too beautiful to have any right to be as menacing as they are. It gives you a sharp hit of salt, and a fermented depth that tails off just as the heat starts to tingle your lips.
There’s no recipe, really: You just pour some of the best soy sauce you can get your hands on in a little dish and float a few hot chile slices into it; Thai bird peppers are great because they’re small and pretty and hurt so good.
But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about caramelizing sugar as a background flavor in dishes, and I love the mysterious sweetness and thick, rich body a little caramel brings to this sauce. And slightly cooking some chile in the caramel brings a different, mellow layer of heat to the sauce. It’s fantastic for the same poached chicken, fish, or boiled shrimp that the original loves so much, but the sugar also lets it stand up to roasted meats too. And it’s also an amazing dip for slices of fresh, ripe tomato or cucumber. Get your burn on!
Chile caramel soy sauce
Makes about ½ cup; a little goes a pretty long way as a dip, but recipe is easily doubled or more
2 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons sugar
¼ - ½ Thai bird chile, sliced thinly, seeds optional (use to taste)
¼ cup excellent quality soy sauce
Begin caramelizing sugar: Have your chile slices and soy sauce, measured, next to the stove. Set a small, heavy pot over medium heat. Add water and sugar and let come to a boil. As it cooks, keep an eye on the color of the sugar. When it starts to turn tan, gently swirl the pot to help it color evenly.
Stop caramel with soy sauce: Carefully watch the color of the sugar—it takes a while for it to start picking up color, but it speeds up once it starts. The darker it is, the more complex the flavor, but be careful; if it burns, it turns bitter and acrid and basically gross. When the caramel is the shade you like (I like a rich, dark-leather brown), add about half the chile slices you’re going to use and take the pot off the heat. Immediately add the soy sauce and swirl it around. (It’ll bubble angrily. Be careful.)
Finish sauce: Pour the sauce into a bowl or dipping dish. If it’s too thick, thin with a little water, and if you’d like it saltier, add a little soy sauce. Float a few slices of chile on top. Serve right away, or store for later use. When refrigerated, it keeps for a real long time.