The great-great grandmother of ketchup is a flavor bomb for plant-based dishes.
Every culture has its condiments. Soy sauce, hot sauce, even mayonnaise and ketchup are essential to enjoying certain foods to the fullest. Once you start exploring the condiments of far away lands, you may end up with bottles and bottles of sauces, each adding a hint of where it came from. One standout in my collection is Kecap Manis.
What’s Kecap Manis?
Kecap Manis is the sweetened, seasoned soy sauce of Indonesia. It sounds simple enough, but it’s an amazingly complex little sauce. I’ve used the bottled kind, which is often not vegan and sprinkled with unpronounceables, so I’ve included a recipe for making your own, with clean ingredients.
If you’re going to try to say it out loud, say “Kuh-Chop Mah-Nees.” Say it a few times and you start to hear the word “ketchup” in there. Food historians have traced our ubiquitious, sweet tomato condiment all the way back to Indonesia, where The original sweet-salty, fishy sauce was the most popular condiment of the country. Each bottle held potent, umami-packed flavor, and had the ability to make a plain bowl of rice or any simple food much more interesting. So, in the way of culinary evolution, the sauce went everywhere people went, and people started making their own variations.
Add Kecap Manis to Tofu for an Umami and Flavor Boost
When you are cooking with plants, condiments like Kecap Manis are powerful tools for building complex, satisfying flavors. Once you make this easy sauce, you’ll want to drizzle it on everything. The key to its caramelly, deep flavor is palm sugar. Palm sugar is the juice of the palm tree, boiled down to a syrup, then dried into cakes. I use the disks of it that you can buy at the Asian markets. It’s a whole plant sweetener, complete with vitamins and minerals, and a low-glycemic index.
I infused mine with a piece of star anise and some fresh ginger. If you can get some galangal, use that. Lemongrass and garlic would be good, too. Once you get all this flavor into a concentrated pot of sauce, you can see how valuable it will be when you are putting together a quick meal. A plain bowl of cooked grain, a stir fry, or a can of mock duck is suddenly really appealing when it’s drizzled with kecap manis.
Indonesian Tofu with Kecap Manis and Rice Noodles
- 1/2 cup soy sauce preferably tamari
- 1/2 cup palm sugar or dark brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon molasses optional
- 1 piece star anise
- 2 slices fresh ginger or galangal
- lemongrass, garlic if desired
Tofu and Noodles
- 1 block extra firm tofu drained and pressed, cubed
- 2 tablespoons avocado oil
- 2 large shallots minced
- 4 cloves garlic minced
- 2 tablespoons minced ginger
- 1 large bay leaf
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 large tomato diced
- 1 large carrot shredded into strips with a peeler
- 8 ounces wide rice noodles
- slivered red chilis optional
- pea sprouts
- chopped roasted peanuts
- To make the sauce, combine the soy sauce, palm sugar, molasses, anise, ginger, and any other seasonings in a small pot. Stir over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture thickens slightly. It will thicken more as it cools, so don't overdo it. Let cool with seasonings in the pot, then strain into a small jar. You'll need 2 tablespoons for this dish, plus more to pass at the table, so store the leftover in the refrigerator for up to 4 months.
Tofu and Noodles
- Line a dinner plate with paper towels to drain tofu. Put on a pot of water for cooking the noodles.
- Place a wok or large saute pan over high heat for a minute to get hot, then swirl in the oil. Add the tofu and let it brown on the bottom before turning with a spatula. Keep frying until all the tofu is golden, reducing the heat to medium-high if it is sticking. Scoop the tofu out onto the plate.
- Add the shallots to the pan and stir, scraping up any crusty bits of tofu. When softened, add the garlic, ginger, bay leaf, chilis, and tomato and stir until very soft and almost dry, about 4 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons of the Kecap Manis.
- Cook the rice noodles and carrot shreds together, the should take about 4 minutes. Drain and drizzle with a little oil, toss to coat.
- Fold the tofu into the shallot mixture and stir until it is hot.
- Serve rice noodles topped with tofu, garnished with red chilis and pea shoots and topped with peanuts.