I was asked by my friend Jeff: "What, exactly, is 'brown sauce' and what is its history in Asian cooking?"
When we hear "red sauce," we can rest assured that there was at least one tomato harmed during its creation. When we hear "white sauce," we can more or less assume that cream or milk saw the inside of the pan. Yet, when we hear "brown sauce," that's a horse of a different color. For those of you who are too young to appreciate a profound "Wizard of Oz" reference, the answer is "no." There is no horse in brown sauce. Though, it would not be out the question, more on that down the page...
Sauces that are brown in an Asian recipe will always include soy in one form or another. Primarily, soy sauce would be the assumption. Some places will also add oyster sauce (yes, it is made from oyster goop and soy beans) or hoisin sauce (also has soy bean paste). I suppose the general rule would be that "brown" in this regard means a protein stock, plus fermented-soy-base, plus a mandatory thickener: typically corn, tapioca or potato starch. On protein stock: Largely, in Chinese joints in ths US, this is almost always canned or boxed chicken or beef stock. (Warning: Joke resolution from above...) Horse stock could be used, but I would imagine not, at least not south of Mongolia.
Now that the definition is out of the way, onto the meat of your question: There simply is no significant history and the term "brown sauce" should be outlawed. I can't remember the last time I was out dining on the town and heard," Oh my gosh. I love brown things. I have to try this beef and brocolli with brown sauce. Thanks, Mr. Ping, you really know how to please a diner!" There's nothing wrong with the brown food. It can be delicious. but when the color provides the only descriptor for a food stuff, we have to wonder.
My guess is that we still see "brown sauce" on US Chinese menus due to a perceived 1970s need for simplicity and the fact that the cuisine has sadly not matured since then. If you were the owner of a Chinese joint in 1974 in New York City, you probably wanted to draw customers into eating your food (fairly exotic, at the time) . Telling them what was in the sauce would likely send (even) New Yorkers running for the hills. Americans love their "brown gravy" on meat. Why not "brown sauce," right?
The history of Chinese food in the US has everything to do with laborers and immigrants looking for gold-lined streets, and little to do with sharing awesome food ways. The large majority of Chinese that entered the US between the 1850s and today were not cooks in China. Due to US laws and desperation, many immigrants ended up working in existing Chinese restaurants or starting their own and learning on the ground. Learning on the ground unfortunately meant immediately catering to the American expectation of 'Chinese' food.
My hope is that one day, the US Chinese cuisine market will begin to appreciate the details and nuances that define the vast number of Chinese sauces, some of which happen to be varying degrees of brown. Here is a terrifically simple recipe for Jin Jiang Rou Si (home style pork strips in a sauce that happens to have a medium-brown hue).
1 lb - pork tenderloin
1 - egg white
1 tsp - corn starch
1 Tb - soy sauce
2 tsp - any vinegar
1 Tb - any light oil
1 Tb - ginger minced
1 tsp - garlic minced
2 Tb - shaoxing, rice wine or sherry
2 Tb - soy sauce
3 Tb - chicken stock
2 tsp - corn starch
2 tsp - water
Start hours ahead. I wish every recipe told you when to start in the first sentence. Cut your tenderloin into long, thin strips. I don't want to dictate, but 1/4 inch X 1/4 inch X 2 inch would be cool. Marinate the pork in the fridge for hours in a mix of the other marinade ingredients. The vinegar and the egg white act to break down the pork proteins. Mmm. Soft pork.
Get your pork to room temp, drain off the marinade. Mix together the cornstarch and water with a fork. Turn the big element on your stove to a high heat. Choose a pan that can handle alot of heat. I use cast iron for alot of Chinese dishes. This is all very quick. So, pay attention...
After getting the pan hot, drop the oil in, drop the pork in, toss with spatula until it starts to turn light on the outside; maybe 1-2 minutes. Drop the ginger and garlic in, stir for 1 minute. Drop the wine or sherry in and back the #@%$ up. Relax. Let it sit with the booze for 30 seconds before reacting. The alcohol is burning off and the pork is finishing cooking. Drop in the soy sauce and the stock. Let it come to a boil. Drop in the corn starch mix. Back to a boil. Swirl to bring together the sauce.
Traditionally, this is served with thin, pasta like wraps of pressed tofu. I have also had it with thin pancakes, similar to what you might eat with Peking duck. At the end of the day. If someone presented me with Jin Jiang Rou Si and a bowl of steamed rice, I would be their best friend until the food ran out.
Thanks for the question, Jeff. Who's next?
To watch the premiere episode of Sauced In Translation on evōx Television click here.