What Is Hoisin Sauce? A Saucy Explainer

I’m a saucy gal. Not saucy like “impertinently bold and impudent or amusingly forward and flippant” (thanks, Merriam-Webster), but saucy as in, “I love sauces.” A lot.

At any given time I have four to five sauces in my fridge, ripe for the saucin’. I tend to rotate through a bunch of different ones because a variety of sauces is the spice of life (as the saying goes), but there is one constant in all of that saucy stir. That constant’s name? Hoisin sauce. If you aren’t familiar (or even if you are), stick around, because some saucy facts are coming your way.

What is hoisin sauce?

Most of us have tried it at one time or another—that deeply savory, thick sauce with a mighty tang and an unrelenting glaze-like, sugary quality. But whether you’ve enjoyed it with Peking duck, used it to make a peanut sauce, added it to stir-frys at home, or you’ve literally never heard of it before in your entire life until this (admittedly very saucy) moment, you are probably wondering the same thing: What is it made of? Well, the fact that it tastes like a non-smoky BBQ sauce with extra-warm spices, sugar, and salt should give you a clue. The two key ingredients in hoisin sauce are fermented soybean paste (aka miso) and sugar. Depending on the brand or recipe, you’ll also find garlic, vinegar, sesame (in oil or paste form), and chili peppers, although you won’t typically detect a lot of spice in hoisin sauce—generally speaking, it’s acceptable for people who can’t handle heat. Lee Kum Kee—a king among hoisin sauce brands—also includes sweet potato powder. Who knew!

What are hoisin sauce’s origins?

I mean, besides the obvious answer, which is that it was a gift from the non-denominational gods, hoisin’s history isn’t terribly well documented. Etymologically, the word “hoisin” comes from the Cantonese for “seafood,” which is a little confusing since it doesn’t contain seafood and is most frequently used with meat. But according to a food historian cited by Inside Hook, older recipes for the sauce included a “dried/fermented seafood element” for extra umami, where nowadays fermented soybean paste is used to achieve that deep, savory flavor. While its origins are Chinese, you’ll probably find it at your favorite Vietnamese restaurant too.

What is hoisin sauce good for?

According to San J, another popular purveyor of hoisin, you can get a lot of mileage out of the stuff. They recommend using it as a glaze for carrots, as a marinade for meats (just add honey, lemon, salt, and garlic), and as a mix-in for stir-frys. If you’re really ambitious in the kitchen, serve it alongside Peking duck (and please invite us over).

How many times did this article use the word saucy?

Eight saucy times. Now it’s nine.

Now get out there and try some hoisin sauce! Or if you’ve already tried it and/or are a fan, use this newfound knowledge to annoy/impress your friends with saucy (that’s ten) hoisin facts.

About the Author

Jessica Block

Jessica Block is a freelance contributor to Sporked, a comedian, a baker, a food writer, and a firm believer that Trader Joe's may just be the happiest place on earth. She loves spicy snacks, Oreos, baking bread, teeny tiny avocados, and trying new foods whenever she can. Also, if you give her a bag of Takis she will be your best friend.

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