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What's up with wasabi and other secrets

Catch ketchup's magic or fish sauce's formula. Worcestershire nobility
By Cathy Thomas
The Beacon Journal

``What's in this stuff?'' my friend Steve asked, his judgmental nose twisted into a disapproving knot.

I'd given him a bottle of my favorite fish sauce to use in a Thai fish dish, but the very next day, it was back on my desk, wrapped in a plain brown lunch bag.

Suspicious smells had made it an unwelcome house guest.

I'll admit that when the bottle is opened, it smells, well, like a cross between mature Camembert cheese and week-old fish. But once you've combined fish sauce with other ingredients (often lime juice, sugar and a little chili), it's delectable, almost addictive. Really.

Not stinky, but sweet-and-sour subtle. It's one of the essential flavor elements of Southeast Asian cuisine.

Many mixtures that we use may have ingredients that are mysterious. So here's the lowdown on some favorites: soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup and wasabi.

Soy sauce

This dark, salty sauce is basically made by fermenting boiled soybeans, roasted wheat or barley, and salt, generally for at least one year.

If you get into the technical production aspects, words such as tane-koji culture starter and Aspergillis molds creep into the blend. Maybe it's best to just think about the basics.

According to The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson, soy sauce was developed in China during the Zhou dynasty (1134-246 B.C.).

Davidson writes that early soy sauce was a solid paste. The paste developed into two products, liquid shoyu and solid miso (a soybean paste with a peanut-buttery consistency). In China, the liquid sauce is used more than the paste, while in Japan the two are of equal importance.

``The European name `soy' originates with the 17th-century traders who brought the sauce back to Europe, where it became popular despite its high price,'' Davidson writes.

Soy sauce is used in Asia as freely as salt is used in the West. It's salty, but it also has a tangy taste with a mouthwatering, meaty quality.

There are a number of varieties, ranging in color from light to dark and in texture from thin to thick. In general, light soy sauce is thinner and saltier than dark soy sauce. It can be added to dishes without darkening them.

Dark soy sauce is often darkened with caramel. Chinese dark soy is thickened with molasses. Japanese tamari, made without added grain, is similar in thickness to Chinese dark soy. There are also reduced-sodium soy sauces, often labeled ``lite.''

Many soy sauces can be stored for several months in a cool, dark location, but some labels, especially on the reduced-sodium varieties, suggest refrigeration once the bottle has been opened.


This hard-to-get-outta-the-bottle tomato sauce is based on a Chinese pickled fish sauce, ke-tsiap. British seamen brought it to England in the 1700s, where cooks augmented it with everything from mushrooms to walnuts.

When Americans adapted it to include tomatoes, ketchup (also spelled ``catsup'') took on a whole new meaning.

In 1876, Henry Heinz introduced a commercial version of tomato ketchup. According to The Great Food Almanac by Irena Chalmers, Heinz billed his product ``blessed relief for mother and the other women in the household.''

Call me crazy and in need of relief, but I've made ketchup from scratch. Once, a long time ago.

In the heat of summer, I cooked an enormous pot of fresh tomatoes, sugar, vinegar, onions, garlic, cloves, allspice, paprika and cinnamon. After an hour or so, I pushed the mixture through a food mill. Then I cooked it some more and ended up with a truly delicious ketchup. One cup, and only one cup, of truly delicious ketchup.

Maybe Heinz had a point.

Some gourmet markets carry a variety of condiments dubbed ``ketchup.'' Bottled mixtures with mangoes are labeled mango ketchup; pureed cranberry concoctions are called cranberry ketchup.

But it's tomato ketchup that's so hard to get out of the bottle. Chalmers' book gives some insight.

``Ketchup belongs to a family of substances called plastic solids, which retain their shape until a certain level of stress is applied,'' she writes. ``The stress we all know well is a few firm thwacks with the heel of the hand on the base of the bottle. Technically, this mild violence is sufficient to make the ketchup flow....

``Unopened bottles of ketchup will keep indefinitely if stored in a cool, dark location. Once opened, ketchup can be stored indefinitely in the refrigerator, well-sealed.''

Worcestershire sauce

According to the Lea & Perrins folks, back in 1835, Lord Sandys, a nobleman from the county of Worcestershire, England, commissioned a pair of chemists, John Lea and William Perrins, to duplicate a sauce he had acquired during his travels in India.

According to the Lea & Perrins Web site, initially the product proved to be anything but pleasing. Disappointed, they banished the brew to the cellar.

Two years later, before discarding the concoction, they tasted it. It had aged like fine wine, ``exhibiting a savory aromatic scent and a wonderfully unique taste. Lea & Perrins Original Worcestershire Sauce was born.''

The company says the ingredients come from all over the globe, including tamarinds from India, peppercorns from Zanzibar, chilies from Kenya, unpeeled garlic cloves from Spain and anchovies from Morocco.

To be the ``genuine article,'' the Lea & Perrins Co. says, Worcestershire sauce must contain vinegar, molasses, sugar, soy, anchovies, tamarind, shallots, garlic, red onion and salt. Ingredients are fermented in vinegar over a long period of time, then the mixture is strained and aged in wooden casks.

Once mature, the sauce is strained again, although some solids are retained because their presence is essential to its flavor and character.

``Worcestershire sauce'' has become generic, as other companies now produce more than 100 brands. The Lea & Perrins Co. contends that sometimes those products aren't aged properly and rely on caramel to get a dark, rich color.

Shake the bottle before each use and store at room temperature.


This fiery, bright green accompaniment to sushi and sashimi, often referred to as ``Japanese horseradish,'' is not really related to horseradish. It's from the root of a perennial herb, Eutrema wasabi, that grows wild in or on the banks of mountain streams or is cultivated in flooded mountain terraces of Japan and eastern Siberia, according to The Oxford Companion to Food.

The plants take years to reach maturity and need great care because they require that the water temperature remains 51 to 57 degrees.

Fresh wasabi isn't easy to find outside Japan. It's sold ground and dried in the United States, both in Asian markets and many supermarkets, either in a paste (usually in tubes) or powdered (in small tins). Mix powdered wasabi with water to reconstitute.

Unless you use wasabi frequently, buy the smallest container possible. Once it's opened, the pungent flavor will deteriorate. Store tins in a cool, dry place and use within one year.

When served as a condiment with sushi or sashimi, wasabi is most often combined with soy sauce.

1,046 Posts
Anyone ever had fresh wasabi? What a difference between the powdered stuff and the fresh! The powdered is actually a blend of horseradish and mustard, not even the real thing!

2,550 Posts
Yep, if you can find it fresh, don't hesitate.

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