Friday, April 11, 2008

Kecap Manis

As I read Saveur magazine's top 100 list I came across a foreign ingredient that I had never heard of before. Ranked number 11 on the list, Kecap Manis is an Indonesian condiment made of soy sauce that has been sweetened with palm sugar. The article raved about this sauce's unique and "haunting" flavor. They mentioned that it has become the choice condiment for a range of foods. From French Fries to satay to eggs, and even vinaigrettes. The people at Saveur were clearly impressed with this sweet substance.

As I was reading this article I immediately knew I needed to try a sample of Kecap Manis. I needed to see for myself if it was really all that it was described to be. Upon a giant stroke of luck, I found a store selling a multitude of different sauces in Los Angeles this past weekend. The store sold small bottles of Kecap Manis, so I grabbed two and took them home.

I forced myself to wait to open a bottle until the following morning. I woke up, quickly fried up two eggs, and began pouring the dark, rich sauce over the eggs. I was surprised at first by the texture. The author of the Saveur article had written that it had a honey-like consistency, however I found it to be only slightly thicker than your average soy sauce. This misinterpretation of the consistency slightly lowered my expectations. I was worried that if the physical description of the sauce was off, the description of the flavor might be off as well. Upon my first bite however, I was happy to see that the magazine did not let me down.

The essence of soy sauce was there. It was still salty and the tangy soy flavor was still very present. The sweetness of the palm sugar was the perfect adaptation to the average soy sauce. Normally I use very small amounts of Tamari or Kikoman. While the complex flavor of these sauces can add to a dish, the intense sodium content can often overpower the entire dish. The sugary component of Kecap Manis changes this completely. It subdues the saltiness, and allows the soy to stand out on its own. The savory garlic flavor lingers in the background, and sweet, but slightly bitter, anise is present in the aftertaste. It can be added to foods like French Fries because the sauce affects so many different parts of the tongue. There is saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, and umami, four of the five major tastes the tongue recognizes. The starch absorbs these many different flavors, and takes something with very little intricacy, like French Fries, to a whole new level. Kecap Manis is a good addition to vinaigrettes because the acidity and sharpness of the vinegar is made more bearable.

While I wouldn't necessarily say that the flavor is haunting, it is one that I would happily welcome as a condiment to balance salty, savory side dishes, as well as an ingredient in many different types of food. Its complexity and richness is nearly unparalleled, and its ability to satisfy nearly every sense the tongue can throw at it makes it an intriguing and unique sauce. Saveur was right to speak so highly of this Indonesian treat.