Asian food products never fail to keep me guessing. Not long ago, I was in desperate need of hoisin sauce for Vietnamese tuong, the dipping sauce that I use for salad rolls (goi cuon). My preferred brands of hoisin are Lee Kum Kee and Koon Chun, the former being easier to find in regular supermarkets than the latter. I don’t have an Asian market in my town, so I went to my well-stocked local health food market, Staff of Life. I discovered that they had squirt bottles of hoisin sauce that were labeled in Vietnamese as “tuong an pho” – meaning bean sauce for eating with pho.
For years, if I wanted a little hoisin sauce for dipping my pho meat balls (bo vien), I’d simply dilute some of my regular jarred hoisin sauce. I always use the jarred stuff and figured that pho restaurants did the same. I’m not one to squirt hoisin sauce into my pho bowl because in my mind, that’s sacrilege. Given that, my personal knowledge of the hoisin sauce used for pho is limited.
I took the squirt bottle of Lee Kum Kee hoisin sauce home and used it for my spicy garlic tuong dipping sauce. It didn’t quite taste right, was somewhat flat and strangely tart. On that day, I thought I was off my game.
But I recently bought a new jar of Lee Kum Kee hoisin sauce and realized that the contents of the jar and those of the squirt bottle are NOT the same. Who can tell from the labeling at the top of this post? In either English or Vietnamese?
Check it out in the ingredient labels below:
the jarred version's label below.
The important thing was the flavor. I did a side-by-side taste test. The Lee Kum Kee hoisin in the squirt bottle didn’t have as strong of a flavor as that in the jar. The jarred condiment offered a more complex flavor as it is based on sweet soybean paste, an earthy, savory fermented bean sauce that’s a favorite in northern Chinese cooking. The southern Chinese use of the bean paste for Cantonese hoisin sauce marries the hearty flavors of the north with the delicate qualities of the south. Ah-so.
The squirt bottle hoisin was actually bland tasting in comparison and not interesting whatsoever. Per the text on the bottled version of hoisin sauce, it is for dipping foods such as pho and Peking Duck. Perhaps that's why it is for pho but not for cooking? Lee Kum Kee should re-label the squirt bottle of hoisin so that consumers are not misled.
But it doesn't matter because I don't even care for the bottled hoisin. In fact, I threw out the bottle of hoisin.
From here on in, I’m sticking to the jarred hoisin sauce for cooking and eating. The jarred sauce is more versatile and more complex. And, my friends, they cost about the same.
Have you experienced or noticed this difference between the hoisin sauces?