Surprising Asian Sauce Hacks

A primer on Asian sauces, plus how to use them without adding sky-high amounts of sodium to your diet.


Photo by: sergeyryzhov


You did some pantry reorganization, only to discover bottles of soy sauce, fish sauce, teriyaki sauce — and that bottle of oyster sauce you bought for one recipe. What are the differences between all these Asian sauces, anyway? And how can you use them up, without adding sky-high amounts of sodium to your cooking? We have some deliciously healthy ideas.

Oyster Sauce

Yes, oyster sauce is really made from oysters. Oysters are cooked down and then added to ingredients including salt, sugar, seasonings and often a thickener. Look for ‘oyster extractives’ as the first ingredient. Oyster sauce is traditionally used in Thai, Vietnamese and Cantonese dishes and tastes rich, savory and slightly fishy. If you really want to taste-test how it differs from other Asian sauces, drizzle the thick brown sauce over steamed veggies. Or, make this simple Baby Broccoli with Oyster Sauce. Our favorite brand: Lee Kum Kee’s Premium Oyster Flavored Sauce.

Fish Sauce

Fish sauce also tastes, obviously, fishy. But unlike the thicker oyster sauce, fish sauce is more watery. The fermented anchovies from which fish sauce is made give it a more pronounced fish-flavor than oyster sauce. Use it in Thai and Vietnamese dishes, in soups and salads, and to add extra umami flavor to ground meat when making burgers. Fish sauce is an ingredient in Worcestershire sauce, so you could also substitute fish sauce instead of Worcestershire sauce in many recipes. For an easy weeknight dinner, make Chicken Sate with Spicy Peanut Dipping Sauce.

Our favorite brand: Red Boat 40° N Fish Sauce

Soy Sauce

This brown, watery condiment tastes not only salty, but is also a classic definition of that savory flavor, umami. If you’ve never really ‘got’ what umami tastes like, try tasting a bit of salt and then taste soy sauce. That mouth-filling sensation given by soy sauce is umami. Soy sauce is brewed from fermented soybean paste, roasted wheat and a salty brine. Lower-sodium soy sauce generally has around 575-600 milligrams of sodium, compared to about 900 milligrams in regular soy sauce. Lower-sodium soy sauce can be used in place of regular soy sauce in any recipe including marinades, sauces, dressings, soups or stir-fries. Use it in Grilled Steak and Papaya Salad or Chinese Chicken Salad with Red Chili Peanut Dressing. Our favorite brand: Kikkoman Less Sodium Soy Sauce

Teriyaki Sauce

Teriyaki is one of the easiest sauces to make at home; it’s basically three ingredients: soy sauce, rice wine and sugar; it also often contains garlic and ginger. Making it at home is a good idea so you can control the amount of added salt and sugar, as in this recipe for Light Teriyaki Chicken Thighs. But if you have a bottle to use up, mix it with a little oil and toss with cauliflower before roasting. Or, use teriyaki sauce instead of salt in salad dressings. It’s also delicious drizzled on scrambled eggs and in these Teriyaki Chicken Rice Bowls to take to work for lunch. Our favorite brand: Annie Chun’s Teriyaki

One note: all of these sauces are high in sodium. But they are also packed with savory flavors that make Asian dishes unique. When adding to dishes, add half to three-fourths of the amount of sauce called-for in a recipe. You can always add more after tasting. 

Serena Ball, MS, RD is a food writer and registered dietitian nutritionist. She blogs at sharing tips and tricks to help families find healthy living shortcuts. Follow her @TspCurry on Twitter and Snapchat.

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