Have you ever wondered what gives Indonesian dishes like mi goreng or nasi goreng (stir-fried noodles and fried rice, respectively) their distinct savory-sweet flavor? The key ingredient to making this crave-worthy Asian fare is a sauce known as kecap manis. It even adds the signature caramel color to the dishes.
Continue reading to find out how to substitute kecap manis and replicate that umami flavor in your food, even if you can’t get your hands on this secret ingredient.
What is Sweet Soy Sauce? (Kecap Manis)
Sweet soy sauce, commonly known as kecap manis, is an essential component of Indonesian cuisine. It accounts for 90% of the total soy sauce production in the region. Kecap manis is also a common ingredient in the cuisines of other Asian nations, such as Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Kecap manis is made with traditionally-brewed soy sauce and specific seasonings. More precisely, it’s made from a fermented paste of boiled soybeans, various roasted grains, salt, water, and Aspergillus wentii mold, into which palm sugar is mixed.
A significant amount of palm sugar is responsible for its syrupy viscosity and sweet flavor. But you can also use molasses, jaggery, coconut sugar, and other sweet substitutes to achieve the right consistency. Though it’s because of its high sugar content that most people use the sauce sparingly, not wanting to overdo the sweetness of any dish.
Bottled kecap manis is available in most supermarkets and specialty Asian stores, though depending on your region, it may not always be in stock. The ingredient list of commercial sweet soy sauces includes palm sugar, white sugar, corn syrup, rice syrup, soy extract, and salt. Most brands also add stabilizers, artificial flavoring, caramel color, and acidity regulators; gluten-free kecap manis is also sometimes available.
However, you can reduce the sweetness and sugar level by making your own kecap manis. Simple components like regular soy sauce, sugar, and spices can be boiled together until they reach a thick consistency. Spices like cinnamon, star anise, black pepper, coriander seed, and clove may also be used in homemade kecap manis recipes.
How to Use Kecap Manis
Kecap manis is the base for many Asian stir-fries, marinades, and dipping sauces. It works well in typical stir fry, whether rice or noodles, with meat or vegetables. The thick sauce and dark caramel color also add texture and color to many dishes.
It’s actually the marinade used in an Indonesian favorite— chicken satay. The sweet soy sauce marinade tenderizes the meat and enhances the flavor. It can also be brushed onto meats before grilling to lend greater flavors and a lustrous finish, not unlike a natural MSG.
Sweet soy sauce serves as the foundation for peanut dipping sauce, satay’s partner in caloric crime, which is typically made from a thick mixture of ground peanuts, garlic, shallots, lime juice, and chilis.
When using kecap manis, however, you are not limited to Asian cuisines. Pair it with meatloaf, steaks, pork chops, sea bass, or anything else you think will benefit from a sweet, salty punch of flavor. It will undoubtedly enhance the taste, aroma, and flavor of your dishes.
5 Best Kecap Manis Substitutes
Kecap manis is incredibly simple to make. You can use this distinctive sweet-salty taste to complement a wide range of dishes. Make your own homemade sweet soy sauce, or try a sweet soy sauce substitute from the list below.
Soy Sauce + Sweetener
Sweet soy sauce can be made by combining soy sauce and any sweetener of choice; no need to cook the ingredients together. Light soy sauce (which is less salty and less sweet than dark soy sauce) combined with brown sugar is an excellent substitute for sweet soy sauce.
But you can use whatever sweetener you have on hand, even molasses. Just make sure to add 1 teaspoon of sweetener to each tablespoon. of soy sauce and work your way up. Some sweeteners, like molasses, bring too much flavor and may overpower the soy sauce.
The fact that you won’t have to make a big batch and worry about not being able to use it again adds to the ease of this alternative. Simply make it as needed and leave room in your fridge for more difficult-to-find sauces and condiments.
Homemade Kecap Manis
Sauces provide flavor, moisture, and added texture to our food. Making homemade sauces allow us to use better ingredients, and skip the preservatives and other unfamiliar ingredients in our food.
Make a flavorful yet healthier kecap manis by combining a soy sauce or a soy sauce substitute with palm sugar or coconut sugar. Gluten-free, soy and wheat-free, coconut aminos are a good alternative to soy sauce. Made with little to no wheat, no MSG, and more soybeans, tamari is another good substitute for soy sauce in our mock kecap manis recipe.
Enhance the flavor of the mixture by adding ginger, garlic, star anise, clove, or other spices of your choosing, then reduce it until it reaches a syrupy consistency. There you have it, delicious homemade kecap manis that pairs well with a variety of dishes.
Oyster Sauce + Soy Sauce + Sweetener
Oyster sauce is a great substitute for kecap manis due to its distinct sweet-salty umami flavor. The flavors, though similar to kecap manis, are briny since they come from oysters. We would recommend adding dark soy sauce to lend a deeper color, and palm sugar to bring the sweetness closer to that of kecap manis.
Hoisin Sauce + Soy Sauce
Hoisin sauce is a direct substitute for kecap manis. This popular dipping sauce in Cantonese cuisine is thickened by cornstarch, whereas kecap manis is reduced to a syrupy state. The sauce is sweeter than kecap manis so we would recommend increasing the saltiness by adding light soy sauce. If the mixture is still too paste-like, thin it out some more with water.
Tianmian Sauce + Soy Sauce / Sugar
Tian Mian sauce, also known as sweet bean sauce or sweet flour sauce, is popular in Chinese cooking. This thick dark brown or blackish condiment varies from sweet to savory. So using whatever variety you have on hand, tweak the taste to mimic kecap manis by adding either more soy sauce or sugar.