It’s a familiar scene: a sweltering summer day, a picnic table outdoors, a waitress serving up paper plates piled with meat sizzling hot off the grill. I do what millions of hungry eaters would do under these circumstances: I reach for a bottle of ketchup.
But, wait, there’s something odd here. What emerges from the bottle is the color of ebony and the consistency of molasses. It tastes like a cross between soy sauce and brown sugar, with a generous whiff of ginger and garlic.
I’m not in Kansas anymore, but in Jakarta, Indonesia, where ketchup means something radically different than it does in North America or Europe, although it’s every bit as popular. Ask for ketchup in the world’s fourth most populous nation, and you’ll be given Kecap Manis, a thick, syrupy, sweet, spiced soy sauce whose name sounds just like ketchup.
One flavoring is palm sugar, a sticky, fudge-like, tan-colored sweetener with a rich, malty caramel flavor. Palm sugar gives Kecap Manis its sweetness and thick consistency. Other traditional flavorings include galangal (a relative of ginger), licoricy-tasting star anise and salam leaves.
To make Kecap Manis, the soy sauce and palm sugar are boiled together with these spices and a generous dose of garlic and sometimes coriander. The resulting condiment is dark, thick, sweet and deeply satisfying.
Indonesians use Kecap Manis both as a cooking ingredient and table sauce. Order sate (kebabs) at any of the innumerable food stalls or pushcarts around Jakarta, and it will come with a dark, sticky puddle of Kecap for dipping. Kecap mixed with melted butter is a favorite basting sauce for grilled shrimp.
Kecap Manis is easy to make at home and it keeps virtually forever. Use it as an offbeat dipping sauce, a baste for barbecue or add it to a recipe calling for soy sauce and sugar. You’ll be amazed what a complex flavor it adds.
Besides, it’s fun to have some on hand when someone asks you for ketchup.
Kecap Manis (Indonesian “Ketchup”)
Here’s a homemade Kecap Manis that makes an intriguing condiment for grilled meats and seafood. Mix equal parts Kecap and melted butter to make a tasty baste for grilled fish.
2 cups soy sauce
1-1/2 cups light brown sugar (or palm sugar), packed
3/4 cup molasses
2 cloves garlic, flattened with side of cleaver
2 (1/4-inch-thick) slices ginger root, flattened with side of cleaver
2 star anises (or 1 teaspoon anise-flavored liqueur and 1/4 teaspoon liquid smoke)
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds (or ground coriander)
Combine soy sauce, sugar, molasses, garlic, ginger root, star anises, bay leaf and coriander seeds in heavy saucepan and gently simmer until sugar has dissolved and mixture is full-flavored and slightly syrupy, about 10 minutes. (Don’t cook too much. Mixture will thicken as it cools.) Taste for sweetness, adding sugar or molasses to taste. Strain into clean jar and let cool. Store in sealed container.
Yield: About 3 cups.
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