If I had to pick only one Asian ingredient to have in my kitchen, it would be soy sauce. I'll tell you why. To me, it's as important as salt, and acts like salt in cooking and as a condiment, but with an unmistakable punch of flavor that comes from fermented soybeans.
As part of the March Asian Kitchen Project series, I've been sharing key ingredients I'm stocking my new kitchen pantry with that let me cook with a twist of Asian flavor no matter where I am in the world. I've previously written about using dried jujubes, goji berries and Chinese Five Spice in some of my favorite Eastern-Western fusion recipes, but soy sauce was absolutely the first thing I had to get when I moved from Southeast Asia to the US.
I found a great article that explains what soy sauce is and clears the air about the different types of soy sauce available, which you can read here. In a nutshell, soy sauce is made from fermented soy beans and wheat mixed with brine. Bacterias like Aspergillus and lactobacillus are added in the fermentation process. The common variations you may have come across include the Japanese shoyu and Indonesian kecap, and while I've used them interchangeably, I'd like to focus on Chinese soy sauce, or light soy sauce.
Used in stir-fries, marinades and dipping sauces, soy sauce is the foundation of Asian cooking in my kitchen. Through this easy Malaysian noodle recipe, I hope to show you how it's commonly used both as a flavoring agent and a condiment.
The "Economy" Stir-Fried Noodles is named such for its simplicity and affordability. It's the most basic noodle stir-fry I know, with minimal ingredients of mainly noodles and vegetables (usually bean sprouts and spring onions, both of which are inexpensive sources of nutrients) cooked quickly over high heat in a soy sauce mixture to produce a delectably satisfying meal on its own or topped with side dishes for anytime of the day.
The dish comes with several choices of noodles (rice vermicelli, yellow egg noodles or flat rice noodles) and I've taken the liberty to make it with spaghetti noodles, because why not? Popular toppings include some form of curry and a fried egg. I believe that any dish can be made better with a fried egg on top, but there's one more thing that takes it over the top for me, and many Malaysians I know.
My mom likes telling the story of how as a kid I wouldn't eat anything unless it came with cut chilis in soy sauce. It remains true until today, and it's a "tradition" I'm glad my American husband shares. It's not uncommon for us to get up mid-meal to cut some chilis and drench them in soy sauce upon realising something was amiss from the table.
Go to any restaurant in Malaysia and you'll find cut chilis and soy sauce on the table. They make a dipping sauce that functions like salt in a Western meal, and almost any kind of red chilis can be enjoyed this way, but the kind I like the most is cili padi or bird's eye chili—tiny little devils that burn your lips and exhilarate your senses like the first fizz of Pop Rocks in your mouth.
Sometimes labeled as Thai chili, they are pinky finger-small, come in either green, orange or red, and can usually be found at Asian supermarkets. Their intense heat transmits so easily into the soy sauce that you don't even need to eat the chili to appreciate the flavor. Just the soy sauce, and for this purpose, you do need a really good soy sauce. Or at least one that you like.
Truth be told, I'm still on a quest for the soy sauce that hits the spot, so if you have any to recommend, leave me a comment below. And feel free to ask me any questions you may have about soy sauce or those crazy chilis.
Don't forget to come back next Wednesday to read about another essential ingredient in my pantry as part of the Asian Kitchen Project series! In case you missed it, read the previous posts on dried jujubes and Chinese Five Spice.
Economy Soy Sauce Stir-Fried Noodles + Chili Soy Sauce Dip
Rice vermicelli or flat rice noodles are popular choices for this dish, and in my experience, spaghetti noodles work just as well. A stir-fry recipe is not as much a set of instructions as it is a rhythm. Once you find your rhythm in the kitchen, you can rarely go wrong, and it's often easy enough to salvage the occasional boo-boos: add water if it's too dry and add seasonings if it's too bland, but always do them in small increments because we all know we can't turn back from soggy, over-salted noodles. But if the dish is under-salted, you can count on cut chilis in soy sauce to come to the rescue. This recipe serves 4, and you can halve or double it easily.
12oz noodles of your choice
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
2 cups bean sprouts
10 stalks spring onions, cut into 2-inch length
DIPPING SAUCE: A few chilis + enough soy sauce
To make the dipping sauce, cut some chilis and let them sit in enough soy sauce to cover. Feel free to remove the seeds beforehand. Here's a video that quickly demonstrates how you can do that effectively, but if you really want less heat, you may have to slice them open length-wise and scrape off the pith and ribs together with the seeds. And if more heat is what you want, press the cut chilis onto the soy sauce with a fork. Let the chilis and soy sauce marinade while you cook.
Prepare your choice of noodles according to package instructions, making sure that they are not overdone because nobody wants soggy noodles in a stir-fry. You can do that while you prepare the other ingredients, or you can focus on one thing at a time and have everything you need on hand before you start.
The next thing to do is to mix the light soy sauce, dark soy sauce and hoisin sauce in a bowl. And once you've minced the garlic and shallot, and cut the vegetables, you're ready to go.
Heat a wok or a deep frying pan in medium-high heat. You'll know it's warm enough when you see a little smoke rise up. Add oil, followed by garlic and shallots, and sauté until they are soft and the aromas are released but be careful not to burn them.
Add the noodles and sauce mixture and use a pair of chopsticks or tongs to quickly toss all the ingredients until the noodles are evenly coated. You can add a splash of water at anytime if things get too dry but not so much that you are boiling the ingredients.
Then make a well in the center and add bean sprouts. Give them a good toss to cook lightly on their own before mixing everything together. Add spring onions, give the noodles a final toss and turn off the heat. Serve immediately with the dipping sauce on the side.