What exactly is Chinese plum sauce, anyway? I’ve often pondered this while making the stuff according to my own recipe in The Joy of Pickling, which produces a delicious chutney, thick and chewy with mustard seeds. But there is nothing Chinese about my beloved Chinese plum sauce besides the inclusion of rice wine, which I’m sure was one of my own additions to the recipe as it was passed down to me, by whom I don’t remember. My Chinese plum sauce, I’m afraid, is basically English, with a strong, nostalgic whiff of India.
Plum sauce is supposed to be Cantonese. It has long been served in Cantonese-American restaurants, where it accompanies duck or deep-fried foods. It usually takes the form of a gloppy, pink sweet-and-sour sauce that may or may not include plums or any fruit at all. But what exactly was plum sauce in China, if it even had a life in China before appearing in the United States?
Some plum sauce recipes, including Kikkoman’s, include apricots. That’s a clue: Apricots are closely related to China’s most common plum, Prunus mume, the very tart, golden fruit that’s salted and dried or used to make plum wine. The Chinese call the plant mei, the fruit meizi. The Japanese call the fruit ume, the name I know it by, too. With its high acid content and beautiful golden color, ume would make a fine sauce for meat or fried foods with no added vinegar at all.
Most plum sauce manufacturers are in the United States. At least one is in Malaysia. Kikkoman is Japanese but operates two plants in the United States and sells its products all over the world. I’ve located just one plum-sauce maker in China—in Hong Kong, actually: Lee Kum Kee. Lee Kum Kee’s founding legend goes like this: Lee Kum Sheung, the company’s founder, accidentally invented oyster sauce in 1888, when he simmered some oysters for too long. He liked the result so much that he introduced the sauce to the world. Today Lee Kum Kee makes not only oyster sauce but plum sauce from salted ume, which are spiced only with ginger and chile.
Sadly, I have no ume tree. Not yet, anyway—the grafts from a friend’s tree, with the rare virtue of producing fruit in our climate, have failed to take. But last week my friend Renata brought me two grocery bags full of Methley Japanese plums, and Robert and I couldn’t eat them all fresh. It was time to make plum sauce.
I didn’t want to use my old recipe. I wanted something more like real plum sauce, if I could figure out what that might be. I scanned recipes on the Web. Some contained soy sauce, but that would darken the plum sauce. Some included a slough of muddying spices. Some called for starch—cornstarch or potato starch or yams.
I didn’t want my sauce to be gluey, overspiced, oversweetened, or any darker than it needed to be (Methley plums are purple). But I did want it to be smooth, so I would leave out any vegetables or seeds, and I would put the mixture through the food mill. I would keep the sugar content moderate and the spicing typically Chinese. Here is the recipe I developed.
Methley Plum Sauce
3 whole star anise
2 teaspoons chile flakes
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppers
1½ tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 pounds pitted Methley or other Japanese plums
1 tablespoon pickling salt
1½ cups rice vinegar
1½ cups sugar
Put the star anise, chile flakes, cinnamon stick, and Sichuan peppers into a spice bag. Put the spice bag along with the remaining ingredients into a large nonreactive pot. Bring the mixture slowly to a simmer, and simmer it uncovered for about an hour, until it has thickened substantially but is still thinner than hot jam or chutney.
Press the spice bag with a spoon against the side of the pot, and remove the bag. Press the plum mixture through the medium screen of a food mill. Return the sauce to the pan, heat the sauce just to a boil, and then ladle it into pint or half-pint mason jars. Process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes.
Makes 2 to 2½ pints
With no duck on hand, we tried the sauce on ham. The sauce is tart, mildly tannic, and aromatic, and not too sweet. I like it very much, though I think I would like it even more with lighter-colored plums.
Feel free to vary this recipe according to your tastes. You might leave out the chile flakes, the Sichuan peppers, or both if you dislike them. The ginger and star anise should be the dominant flavors—though you might leave out even the star anise if you prefer; after all, star anise probably isn’t traditional in Cantonese plum sauce.
I look forward to re-inventing plum sauce once more when I have some fresh ume plums to work with. In the meantime, I may try making a small batch in the Lee Kum Kee style, from ume plums that I salted myself last year.
Now, tell me: What is Chinese plum sauce to you? Do you have your own unique way of making it?