Soy Sauces Used in Modern Thai Cooking and How to Make Your Own All-Purpose Stir-Fry Sauce

thai stir fry recipe
Throughout 2010 and beyond1 you will see posts consistently, though not consecutively, published on this blog on how to equip your kitchen and stock your pantry with items that are sitting in the homes of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends in Bangkok as we speak as well as how to turn those ingredients into either 1. the dishes we eat over there, or 2. the dishes you can’t get enough of at your favorite Thai restaurants outside Thailand, or both.

The goal is to get you acquainted with Thai/Southeast Asian ingredients so that you won’t find them intimidating any longer, assuming that is presently the case. Then it’s just a matter of knowing how to make the most of those ingredients in the realm of Thai cooking.

Posts in this series will be under the “She Stocks a Thai Pantry” label. Yes, I do realize it is a lame title. But if at this point you are still surprised by the lameness of how I label my posts, well then … (harrumphing with raised chin and quivering lips in the manner of an over-emoting soap actress) I guess you don’t know me at all.

Our first subject is the major soy sauces (ซีอิ๊ว) used in Thai cooking. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Only what I consider to be the major players are included.

Let’s start with the ubiquitous table sauce, Maggi, a sauce generally described as being made from vegetable protein to resemble soy sauce without actually containing soy. [Maggi is by no means the only brand used in Thailand, but it has become a generic name for all brands of table soy sauces, much like Kleenex. It’s not uncommon for some people to point to a bottle of obviously non-Maggi brand of table sauce and say, “Could you pass me some Maggi?”]

However, due to the way in which it is used among the Thais, I think it’s appropriate to put this very concentrated sauce in the soy sauce category. [Added August 19, 2011: Besides, Kat of Spatula, Spoon and Saturday has alerted my attention that Maggi as marketed in some places is actually made with soy. This makes sense as I imagine this soy formula will be more readily embraced in Southeast Asians who are more familiar with soy-based seasoning sauces.]

This is the table sauce of choice for most Southeast Asian kids and adults alike. In general, Maggi is not used as a cooking sauce; its job is to accent or embellish a finished dish rather than act as a cooking ingredient. In other words, Maggi functions in a similar manner to Tabasco sauce, A-1 sauce, or — in some way — table salt and pepper. A few drops of Maggi over a bowl of pork congee, or rice and hard-boiled eggs or Thai-style omelet (ไข่เจียว) made my childhood a truly happy one.

Another major soy sauce is sweet dark soy sauce (ซีอิ๊วหวาน). This is very similar to the sweet soy sauce in the Indonesian kecap family — the essential ingredient in the much-loved Pad See Ew (ผัดซีอิ๊ว), fried flat rice noodles with sweet dark soy sauce. It is also heavily used in Chinese-influenced red-cooked or braised dishes that are found in the Thai repertoire. Nothing can replace or mimic its salty-yet-sweet, caramel-y-yet-smoky flavor. It’s one of my favorite soy sauces in the whole world.

Notably, sweet dark soy sauce is also often served as a table sauce alongside the spicy ginger-chilli-garlic-soy sauce which accompanies Khao Man Gai (ข้าวมันไก่) for those who prefer a less spicy sauce. Both sauces are almost always offered at a Khao Man Gai joint for this reason.

thai sauce recipe
When I was a little kid, Dad and I would go on dates once or twice a month. One of our favorite date spots was a neighborhood Khao Man Gai eatery that served what I remember to be the most delicious version of this chicken and rice dish I’ve ever had. (Or it simply could be that anything eaten in Dad’s loving presence tasted good.) Knowing I was too young to handle the spicy Khao Man Gai sauce, Dad would drizzle some sweet dark soy sauce over my rice. And oh, how I adored it.

The taste of sweet dark soy sauce is seared into my memory and will always be mentally associated with how wonderful life was when Dad was alive and how blessed I am to have a truly magnificent man as my father.

[You fathers out there, please go on dates with your daughters. I’m willing to bet that years from now they will write blogs or books about how everything eaten in your presence tastes wonderful. Yes, even soy sauce.]

Another major player on the soy sauce scene is light or thin soy sauce (ซีอิ๊วขาว). “Light” in this context doesn’t not refer to its lower sodium content (as in 50% less sodium “light” Kikkoman that comes with a green cap); it refers to its lighter, thinner consistency and gentler, less in-your-face taste.

Its Thai moniker, ซีอิ๊วขาว, can be misleading as it literally means, ‘white soy sauce.’ Well, there’s nothing white about it. I guess it’s a convenient way of differentiating this thinner, lighter soy sauce from its more concentrated, thicker, darker counterparts.

This type of soy sauce is less salty than the dark soy sauce and — unless my taste buds are hallucinating — sweeter. The consistency and taste of “white” soy sauce are very close to those of fish sauce, although the two are never interchangeable, in my opinion. Some have asked me whether it’s a good idea to use “white soy sauce” instead of fish sauce to make vegan or vegetarian Thai curries, and my answer is, no, use salt. But this is just a personal opinion and by no means a dogma. I happen to think traditional Thai curries that are seasoned with soy sauce (of any kind) are disgusting.

thai sauce recipe
We’re moving on to the penultimate item: dark soy sauce (ซีอิ๊วดำ — literally “black soy sauce”). Golden Mountain and Healthy Boy are what I use in my cooking and recipe testing. (They’re also two most prominent brands among the imported Thai soy sauces in the US, from what I’ve seen.) At a risk of stating the obvious, dark soy sauce is darker than light soy sauce. (Isn’t this enlightening?)

One last note on soy sauces used in modern Thai cooking: I don’t ever use Japanese-style or Korean-style soy sauces or soy sauces brewed according to the Japanese tradition (Kikkoman) in Thai cooking unless in extreme cases. The flavors of such sauces lend themselves to the East Asian cuisines for which they are designed, and I find them to be out of place in Thai cooking. The same holds true in reverse. Serve Golden Mountain or Healthy Boy soy sauces with sushi to those who know better and watch sake flasks furiously fly … in your general direction.

Lastly, oyster sauce (น้ำมันหอย or ซ้อสหอยนางรม – literally “oyster oil” and “oyster sauce” respectively). Again, this is not exactly soy sauce, but I have placed it in this category due to the manner in which it’s used in Thai cooking. I think of it as umami-filled soy sauce with built-in starch. For vegetarians, look for Chinese brands of “oyster” sauce that is made from mushrooms.

Some facts about oyster sauce:

  • While the other types of sauce listed here function either as a table sauce (Maggi) or both a table sauce and a cooking sauce (light, dark, and sweet dark soy sauces), oyster sauce is almost exclusively a cooking sauce. At least, I’ve never seen it used as a table sauce in my lifetime.
  • Oyster sauce is a complex sauce containing what I suspect to be high amounts of Monosodium glutamate (MSG). That’s why a little bit of it goes a long way in providing flavor as a stir-fry sauce or marinade. If you’re ultra-sensitive to MSG, ask your favorite Asian, especially Chinese, restaurants that put up the “No MSG” sign whether they use oyster sauce in their cooking. If so, and I think that’s mostly the case, their foods contain MSG by way of the oyster sauce even though they do not lie about using the crystalline MSG.
  • A recent Oyster Food and Culture article on the making of soy sauce around the world reminded me of someone I’d thought about introducing to you since last summer.2I had drafted a post on him and kept it in my draft folder for a long time. You see a part of me wanted people to know of him; another part of me wanted to keep him a secret.The urge to share won out. Everybody, meet Bruno.thai sauce recipe
    My dark tan (hence the name) love, Bruno, is the strong, quiet type, but gets along with others really well. He is low-maintenance and can take care of himself just fine. Though Bruno is the type that spends most of his time in a cold, dark corner minding his own business, the moment I reach for him, he can leap to work at a drop of a hat. All I need to do to get him ready is shake him up violently. Bruno’s performance is solid, stellar, consistent, and always satisfying.You know how bread geeks avid bread bakers name their sourdough starter? Bruno is the name which I have given to my all-purpose, go-to brown stir-fry sauce. I am never without Bruno. I don’t see myself parting with him. I don’t see life without him.

    Containing soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, and Chinese wine, it doesn’t take an expert to figure out that Bruno is not a traditional Thai stir-fry sauce. What would an ‘authentic’ Thai stir-fry sauce be? There’s no such thing. Most, if not all, of stir-fried dishes in the repertoire of Thai cuisine have been adapted from the Chinese. I need to get this message out there to keep some people from getting their kang keng nai in a bunch thinking that I’m calling Bruno a “Thai” sauce.

    I use Bruno in 90% of the stir-fry dishes I make on a regular basis. This is the base sauce upon which I build other Chinese-y-Thai dishes. After having experimented with different formulae over the years, I have settled down on Bruno. Deeply flavorful, Bruno pretty much meets all my needs, but I’ve been known to occasionally invite others to join us as well. You can add fresh garlic, fresh chillies, dried chillies, fresh ginger, different Thai herbs, etc. into whatever you’d like to create, and everything turns out so delicious. Bruno gets along with everyone.

    In case you’re wondering, yes, this is the way they cook at most Thai restaurants. You know what it’s like. You and five co-workers visit a Thai restaurant during the busy lunch hour. You all flip through the menu and order six different lunch specials. Less than 10 minutes later, your server places six plates of steamed Jasmine rice topped with six different stir-fry and dry-curry varieties — all complex-looking stuff that you don’t even dare attempt to replicate at home. You look around and notice that other diners also receive their orders around the same time. You start thinking that they either have a legion of cooks in the kitchen or the one they have has 5 extra sets of hands.


    In a perfect world, upon receiving your lunch order, someone in the kitchen would measure out 10 different fresh herbs and spices, grind them up into a paste with a pestle and mortar, and create one perfect single serving of Thai stir-fry for you. In the real world, it’s all about pre-fab cooking. This is fact. And I don’t see anything wrong with that. Without going all Sandra Lee on you, most, if not all, Thai restaurants have (and guard with their lives) their own Bruno formulae for various types of Chinese-influenced stir-fried dishes.

    My Bruno consists of 1 part Thai light soy sauce, 2 parts oyster sauce, 1 part Thai dark (not sweet) soy sauce, 1 part Chinese wine or sherry, 1 part cornstarch, 1/2 part sesame oil, and 1/4 part ground white pepper. I usually make about a quart of Bruno at a time and keep him in a huge glass jar in the refrigerator. You need to put Bruno in a jar with enough head space, because the cornstarch sinks to the bottom of the jar and you need to give Bruno a good shake in order to get him ready to work.

    How to use Bruno? I use 1/2 cup of Bruno, plus 3/4 cup of water, for every 2 pounds combined weight of stir-fry ingredients. This is my favorite ratio; your mileage may vary.

    thai stir fry recipe
    What’s good about Bruno is that apart from the added sesame oil I don’t put additional oil into my stir-fries at all; there’s just no need for it. When I stir-fry with Bruno, I go against the usual stir-fry protocol. I heat up the pan over medium heat, add to the pan the ingredients in the order of lengths of time required starting from the longest first, add Bruno to the mix followed by the water, and close the lid. When all the ingredients have been cooked through and the sauce has thickened, remove the pan from heat. That’s all there is to it.

    Have fun with Bruno. Use him with different vegetables, meats, add-ins (fresh chillies, sliced ginger, herbs, etc.). I bet you’ll love him as much as I have loved him and only him these past several years.

    1 This is contingent upon how long this blog lasts.

    2 Have you visited Oyster Food and Culture? LouAnn, the Oyster maestra herself, tackles ingredients, food items, and various locations around the globe on a topical basis; i.e., she focuses on one food item/group and one place in the world at a time and gives you all the information she has compiled to date on that particular food item and place all in one post. It’s not a rare occurrence that I sit in front of my computer screen, thoroughly enjoying an oysterculture post and, within 10-15 minutes, find myself going from not knowing about something to knowing a lot about that thing. And it doesn’t even feel like reading a textbook!

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