Plum sauce does not have to be relegated to a duck-only, restaurant-ish experience. This Asian-style plum sauce recipe started out as a way to use up a bunch of plums that my brother, Dan, had given me. He’s a pharmacist in Fresno and many of the patients that he interacts with are local farmers who literally gift him the fruits of their labor. During winter, Dan came to my parents’ home with boxes of Oro Blanco grapefruit, which I turned into a Vietnamese grapefruit salad. This summer, there were more plums than all of us could eat. I needed a way to preserve the fruit and went looking for a Chinese plum sauce recipe but there was nothing in my extensive collection of Asian cookbooks. It was as if people had written off plum sauce recipes as being unworthy or best left to the professional Asian sauce manufacturers.
The only recipe I found was for Asian-style plum sauce recipe in Joyce Goldstein’s Jam Session: A Fruit-Preserving Handbook, which yields a spice-laden jam that has a slightly rough texture. She flavored the sauce with vinegar, sugar, plus garlic and ginger and ground cinnamon, star anise and five-spice. The jarred plum sauce sold at supermarkets and Asian markets was smooth in texture, but I took some cues from Joyce (a San Francisco-based veteran chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author) on loading up the sauce with spices for extra flavor. I’ve had plum sauces in Southeast Asia made with chile flakes and salted plums, which I replace with fine sea salt since salted plums require a trek to an Asian market.
Carolyn Phillips writes that plum sauce is typically thickened with starch — which explains the smooth, slightly gloppy texture of commercially-produced sauces. I bought a jar of Dynasty plum sauce and it contained tomato paste — rendering it more like American barbecue sauce. For my own version, I went three rounds to make this recipe using red fleshed plums, yellow-fleshed plums and apricots. Why apricots? Because I found this passage in anthropologist E.N. Anderson’s The Food of China:
While some commercially-made plum sauce sold in America is made with plums, the fruit to use is perhaps an apricot! When it came to present Chinese plum sauce to the world, something got lost in translation.
I’ve seen recipes suggest mixing plums and apricots, which I did for batch number 1 made from yellow-flesh plums and Blenheim. For batch number 2 made from purple-fleshed plums, I didn’t want the cloudiness from the skins so I peeled the plums. It was no big deal because they were big and firm-ripe plums.
For batch number 3, I used Blenheim apricots picked from a neighbor’s tree. We have a lot right now, more than we can eat. The flavor was wonderful and the color very handsome. Blenheims are intensely flavored so they took to the vinegar, sugar and spices well.
Which was best? We tried all three of them and they’re all good. I kid you not.
Peel fruit or not? The plum sauce recipe below doesn’t require you to peel fruit because it can be a mess and it also reduces the volume of product. Plums are watery fruit and I got a jewel-toned bright looking and tasting result with batch 2, but I only made about 1¼ cups whereas with batch 1 and 3, the yield was between 1½ and 1¾ cups cups. Apricots are less watery than plums.
You can use more plums, say 1½ pounds and if you want to eliminate the skins, which can be thick and somewhat astringent, cook the chopped fruit briefly to soften, then put it through a hand-cranked rotary food mill, which is amazing for fresh tomato sauce, too! I’d use the mill if I were making a large batch. The plum sauce recipe below is for a small batch and it’ll take about 30 minutes. Seriously. Half an hour to make plum sauce with fresh summer fruit and spices that you like — with no weird chemicals.
I don’t know how long the sauce will last in the fridge but I venture at least 1 month, if not 6 months. The vinegar and sugar should preserve it well. So far, we’ve eaten it with grilled pork steaks. I bet it’ll be great with chicken and duck too. Go pick or buy fruit for this plum sauce recipe.
The Pho Cookbook just went to print for the 7th time! And while the sale lasts, you can get the ebook version for a very sweet price — $2.99. This summer, I am working to polish up Vietnamese Food Any Day (“VFAD”) due out in February 2019. We go through three rounds of reviewing book proofs before it goes to print. Sign up for the occasional news blasts about VFAD developments (it’s listed as the last newsletter option). My work situation:
Yield About 1 1/2 cups
Enjoy with roasted or grilled pork, duck, chicken, or turkey. I've swiped boiled green beans through the sauce too! Get creative and make this with your summer fruit bounty.
- 1 1/4 pounds firm-ripe apricots or plums, peeled, if desired
- 1/3 cup cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, plus more as needed
- 2 strips lemon peel, use a vegetable peeler to obtain
- Chubby 3/4-inch (3/4-ounce) section ginger, peeled, quartered and bruised
- 1 medium garlic clove, bruised
- One 1 ½-inch cinnamon stick (use half for a less cinnamon flavor)
- 2 whole star anise
- 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon dried red chile flakes (use maximum if you like a lick of heat)
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon Chinese five spice
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch or potato starch diluted with 1 tablespoon water
- Coarsely chop the fruit and put into a 1½- or 2-quart saucepan. Add the vinegar, 2 tablespoons water, sugar, lemon peel, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, star anise, chile, salt, and five spice. Bring to a raucous boil over medium heat, then let cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and let sit for 5 minutes to settle and continue cooking on the burner’s residual heat.
- Use chopsticks and/or a fork to remove the garlic, ginger, lemon peel, cinnamon, and star anise from the pot. Make sure to remove the whole spices. If you want to leave the aromatics which are soft enough for the blender, go right ahead.
- Transfer the fruit mixture to a blender and puree until smooth. Return the mixture to the pot, bring to strong simmer and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until thick enough to nicely coat the back of a spatula or spoon.
- Give the cornstarch slurry a stir then stir half of it into the fruit mixture. Stop there if the mixture is thick enough for you. Otherwise, add a little more.
- Remove from the heat and let cool for 10 minutes. Retaste and add up to 1 tablespoon sugar to balance out flavors. Let cool completely then transfer to a jar, cap, and store in the refrigerator.