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Five-sauce Comparison

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Spring Volume: 1998 Issue: 5(1) page(s): 16 and 18

People who peer into my refrigerator as I am extracting a sauce or two while preparing dinner, and those more brazen who prowl through my food storage areas, are fascinated with the plethora of bottles. When I open several of them and place them on the counter ready to prepare dinner, they often ask why so many that look so alike in the jar, even with the very same color. I show them labels, let them taste the concentrates, and do a little explaining. All this, while trying to concentrate on the cooking.

As this is the first issue of the fifth year, it is appropriate to fulfill a promise about taste-testing. The intent was to taste-test the contents from a handful of those jars. Actually, it was a handful plus one because I thought one might be so different that it should be eliminated. However, after tasting and looking for the odd one out, so to speak, decided to compare them all.

The sauces were more than just look-alikes with similar color. They all were or intended to be the classic set of sauces made with fermented foods of the sea. Three were called barbecue sauce, two called XO sauce, and one called sa cha. They were piquant sauces made with chili peppers and tiny fermented sea critters, mostly brill and krill.

In many restaurants and some homes, these sauces are used extensively. Perhaps you have seen them named, even mis-named on a menu at your favorite Chinese restaurant. One misnomer, for example, is Lamb with Tea Sauce. This was incorrect on a menu and reported in a restaurant review. The error originated in a mistranslation followed by misinformation. The former comes from the notion that every Chinese syllable is a word, the latter mistake is translating the syllable cha as tea. It is similar to buying womens sweaters considering only the last syllable and purchasing men's ones instead.

But back to the sauces, those considered for this taste-testing included: Barbecue Sauce by Bull Head, Chili XO Sauce by Yank Sing, Yang's Barbecue Sauce by Toong Li, XO Sauce by Lee Kum Kee, Sa Cha Sauce by Lee Kum Kee, and Vegetarian Barbecue Sauce by AGV. The sauces tested were manufactured in Taiwan, this country, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, respectively.

All the sauces were the same color, brown. Except for the last one, all have shrimp (krill), conpoy (dried scallop), brill, or anchovy in them, and all come in glass containers. For this testing, they were purchased in local Chinese supermarkets. Should you buy any, keep in mind that after opening, they should be refrigerated. They keep for a year when stored properly and that means that if you use up all the oil that floats to the top because you forgot to mix a sauce before using, then replace the oil, and do so preferably with sesame oil.

In this taste-testing, these sauces were made with vegetables then tossed with a few pieces of cooked chicken, beef, and pork. The amount of meat, each vegetable, and the one tablespoon of sauce (to one cup of meat and vegetable) was identical in each dish. They were made and tested twice by eight folk experienced in eating, talking about, and loving Chinese food.

What follows is a summary of information and comments from all of the taste testers, herewith, publicly thanked for their dedicated efforts:

Bull Head's Barbecue Sauce: $1.95 for 4.5 ounces, was subtle and somewhat grainy It had a distinct fish aroma and an after bite of chili. A few tasters did not find that the taste distinct enough for recognition on future occasions. One person commented that an owner of several Chinese restaurants, himself Chinese, personally preferred it. He used it in his restaurants, as well, because his American customers found it an acceptable taste.

Yank Sing's Chili XO Sauce: $5.00 for six ounces, had a piquant chili taste and a label saying "mildly hot!" There were lots of chili and other solids in it. Tasters commented that it had a mild fish taste and that the chili remained on the palate after eating. Shreds of scallop were visible throughout the sauce. Most agreed that it was the most piquant of all.

Master Yang's Barbecue Sauce: $1.98 for 4.5 ounces, had more of a fish taste on vegetables than it did on the meats. This sauce had a distinct fish aroma and though it was visually grainy it did not taste grainy. Several tasters described it as rather bland with a slight aftertaste; a few called it not distinctive.

Lee Kum Kee's XO Sauce: The most expensive of the sauces in this tasting, and probably of all sauces available at this time, was this Lee Kum Kee XO Sauce. The 2.8 ounces are a hefty $7.50 and are sold in a tiny jar in a fancy box. This sauce was the lightest in color and had the most subtle of tastes. One taste tester referred to it as the most minimal of any, another said it had the least amount of taste. One person thought there was something hairy in the dish. Actually, that was the conpoy in it shredded the finest of any of those with these dried scallops. After the formal taste-testing, I remade all the dishes just with vegetables but with twice the amount of sauce. Several tasters said that this was the only sauce to use in large concentrations.

Sa Cha sauce: was also made by Lee Kum Kee. It was $2.45 for 6.5 ounces, was reported by almost everyone to have no aroma, one actually said: said no fishy aroma. It, too, had minimal flavor as reported by most of the participants. A few expressed surprise because it was the darkest one. One person reported that the contents in the jar looked grainy and ugly, another reported it grainy when cooked, and yet another said that it tasted burnt.

Vegetarian Barbecue Sauce: was made by AGV and was the least expensive, $1.29 for 4.23 ounces. It was the only product with an expiration date (a year from the date of purchase though the label itself said "expiry date: 2 years"). Everyone reported that this sauce the sweetest and with no aroma. Some referred to the taste as caramel, others liked the little bite, and one person found it the best sauce on the vegetables but the worst on the meats.

Overall: All taste testers reported rank order of preference. Summing these, the top and bottom choices are clear, the middle group less so. Bull's Head and Lee Kum Kee's Barbecue Sauce came out best liked, the Vegetarian Barbecue Sauce least preferred. Many of the testers liked the sauces but did not appreciate them as much when used in higher concentrations. Their recommendations: Gather some sauces and friends and do your own taste testing. It is fun and social, and provides the best one for your own taste. Must confess, that I'll be changing brands based upon this taste testing. Flavor and Fortune will do a similar tasting with other Chinese products; one person suggested that we do oyster sauces next. Any suggestions?

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