Hoisin sauce is one of the most iconic ingredients in Cantonese cooking. We delved deep into the history and usage of this ingredient. Here’s what we found.
Published July 19, 2023.
Hoisin sauce (haixianjiang) was one of the first Chinese pantry staples to make a foray into mainstream American cooking. It’s fruity, tangy, and savory with a hint of spice. Its name means “seafood sauce” in Chinese, but today’s hoisin sauce doesn’t contain any seafood nor is it explicitly used for cooking seafood. How did hoisin sauce become such a versatile and iconic ingredient and what should you know when you shop for it?
The origin of hoisin sauce can be linked to “triumphant sauce,” an ingredient favored by the Hakka Chinese people in Guangdong (also known as Canton) province for preparing fish, according to the Chinese sauce manufacturer Lee Kum Kee. The Chinese word for triumphant (“hoi syun”) sounds similar to the word for seafood (“hoi sin”), and at some point the name “hoisin sauce” caught on and stuck. People from older generations in Guangdong province recall buying hoisin sauce from street vendors selling it in large vats at the market, says Christopher Thomas, one of the creators of Chinese Cooking Demystified, a popular YouTube channel. “These vendors likely would have purchased hoisin in bulk from artisanal producers and stored it in those containers to sell loose, as is still common with some other products today” such as tofu and cooking wine. No recipe from those early days remains, so what constituted the original “hoisin sauce” is murky.
As early Chinese immigrants to the United States mainly came from Guangdong, “they probably brought this shelf-stable sauce with them,” says Sarah Leung of The Woks of Life, a popular food blog specializing in Chinese cooking. She added that its flavor profile, which has some deeply umami richness that comes from its key ingredient fermented yellow soybean paste, “appeals to the American palate,” contributing to its success in the U.S. market.
As hoisin sauce expanded beyond the culinary boundary of its country of origin, it has become ubiquitous. You can spot it as a condiment with Vietnamese phở and in restaurants around the world. Because hoisin was one of the first Chinese sauces to become widely available in America, it has stood in for other ingredients over the years. Beijing roasted duck, for example, is traditionally served with tianmianjiang, a sweet and slightly tangy sauce from northern China. This harder-to-procure sauce shares a similar flavor with hoisin, so restaurants often subbed it in instead.
Hoisin sauce is sometimes referred to as “Chinese barbecue sauce.” It shines when used alone or with other ingredients in a marinade or glaze. Just a dollop can add tang and umami to a quick stir-fry and classics su...
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Valerie is an assistant editor for ATK Reviews. In addition to cooking, she loves skiing, traveling, and spending time outdoors.