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Chinese thick soy sauce vs dark soy sauce

I recently picked up a copy of Yan-Kit So's "Classic Chinese Cookbook", which calls for both thick and thin soy sauce. I decided this was the perfect opportunity to upgrade from my "use Shoyu for all Japanese and Chinese cooking" sloppy approach to purchasing the right ingredients for the job.

I went to my local Asian store and purchased "Koon Chun" thick soy sauce (in a glass jar) and the thin soy sauce from the same brand. Since this brand is imported from Hong Kong, I thought it would help me to cook more authentic Chinese dishes.

However, I've been very disappointed with the results from using their thick soy sauce. The sauce is really thick (thicker than honey) and it tastes very sour like molasses (in fact, molasses is the first ingredient). I am thinking that I may have purchased the wrong ingredient. Stir-fry recipes in the book call for "thin soy sauce" mostly for marinades, and "thick soy sauce" as part of the sauce added at the end. I've cooked with this sauce a couple of times, and I can very clearly taste the sourness of the sauce in the finished result, and it does not taste good at all.

I did a bit of research on the internet, and it seems that some people refer to dark and thick soy sauce interchangeably (for Chinese cooking). "Koon Chun" is the only brand in my local Asian store that brands their product as "thick soy sauce", but I did find a few selling "dark soy sauce".

I am wondering if I should be using dark soy sauce for my stir-fry sauces. If you have any favorite brands, I'd love to know.

I am also wondering what I can use my molasses-tasting thick soy sauce for (if anything).

And last, for those of you who grew up eating home-cooked Chinese food, I am wondering if your moms had both soy sauces at home and use them for different purposes, or did they just use thin soy sauce for everything?

Thanks in advance!

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  1. I'm learning Japanese cooking and have learned that there are many different soy sauces for different applications/foods. We haven't talked about thick soy sauce yet, nor have I ever seen it, but that doesn't mean anything. It very well could be used for some dish. I'll ask my friend if it's used in Japanese cooking, and again. All dishes do vary from household to household, and the cooks adjust the sauces to suit their taste. You should of seen how she made her miso soup. I would of never dreamed that it be added to the pot the way she did it. Technique might be the answer here.

    2 Replies
    1. re: chef chicklet

      Thanks for the reply! It would be great if you could ask this question in your class - I'd love to know what comes out of that discussion.

      The "Japanese Cooking: A simple art" (page 91) says that the Japanese soy sauces "are generally clearer in color and thinner than the dark, thicks browns of Chinese sauce" and that Japanese classify their soy sauce as "light" and "dark". So maybe thick soy sauce is only a Chinese thing.

      1. re: ethnicchower

        I'm not in a class, but instead learning from a Japanese family. They are from an area north of Tokyo, and even then I think dishes vary. But I will ask, because even still I am so surprised at the techniques and ingredients. And yes you are correct that they use lighter versions of soy sauce for different applications. I might tend to agree with you since your cookbook is titled "Classic Chinese Cookbook". But now that I think about it, the mother made me a stew, and it had such wonderful smokey undertones, now I wonder if that was used in the making. ... My friend was telling me that the most of the dishes I'm learning are not ones that you can get in restaurants, but recipes for meals that families cook. (which is what I want!)
        From what I can see on the internet, I've seen that product you mention. Seems they use it in fried rice. I can also see it being used as part of another sauce for the molasses flavor. I'm sure it's very intense in flavor, and I'd mix it with lemon, ginger, the traditional white wine, garlic. Thin it out and use it for grilling. I probably not use it on delicate seafood.
        Dark soy sauce,yes is thicker, but not like this. I do use it for different dishes, and I also have mushroom soy sauce which is wonderfully rich. If you ever noticed when making fried rice and you use say regular Kikkoman soy sauce, you're fried rice would be quite salty to get that darker color. Here is a fried rice that I make that originally stemmed from a recipe I found called Indonesian fried rice. Much more hearty lol!

    2. There is a product put out by Kimlan that's a thick soy (jiang you gao - "jiang you" is soy sauce, "gao" means a thickish liquid) - not a black soy - doesn't taste at all like black soy. It's labeled soy paste or sauce in English. Same bottle as the regular Kimlan (my favorite soy sauce), white label. See here: http://members.fortunecity.com/sarahg...
      Pearl River Bridge dark soy is quite molassesy but I far prefer it to Koon Chun brand.

      4 Replies
      1. re: buttertart

        Kim Lan soy sauce paste is great for a lot of things, mostly dipping sauces (season with some vinegar, garlic, and it's great for pork slices of any sort) and of course a little bit on a fried egg elevates it to new heights.

        1. re: buttertart

          Kim Lan is very popular in Taiwan and my mom loves it. Me, however, find it too sweet. :P

          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

            What one do you use? It was my Chinese prof's mom inTaipei who introduced me to it.

            1. re: buttertart

              I tend to use more Cantonese style soy sauces, which means a tad saltier but the real difference is the lack of sugar. Currently the brand I use is Koon Chun, the same brand mentioned by the original poster. It has very simple ingredents, no perservative, no artificial coloring, of course, no sugar either. Here is a photo I took sometime ago:


              My mom likes Kim Lan, so it is just a personal taste. She is from Taiwan.

        2. I'm no expert on soy sauces, but have several. For same sort of reasons as yours, I bought some LKK Premium Dark. It doesn't list molasses in the ingredients, but there is something about it that does not fit with my idea of a soy sauce. LKK Double Deluxe fits my idea of a Chinese soysauce better. I also prefer the DD to Pearl River Light. But if you really want an molasses character, try the Indonesian Kecap Manis.

          1 Reply
          1. re: paulj

            If I've matched KK's characters with the bottles correctly, the LKK Premium Dark is a 'lo tsau'; the other 2 are 'sahng tsau'

          2. In Cantonese cooking there are three kinds of soy sauce and unfortunately wikipedia does not have English entries for these:

            生抽 (sahng tsau) - you can say this is a lighter toned soy sauce (also in consistency) but is very salty. Mostly used for seasoning

            老抽 (lo tsau) - sometimes roughly translated as old soy sauce. It is much darker in tone, less salty, and richer in flavor. Lo tsau soy sauce gives the dish a boost in the color or tone (with a little flavor). It is said you do not need a lot of this. It also gets its name from being fermented an additional 2 to 3 months (versus the above that is not fermented, or at least nowhere near as long)

            頭抽 (tau tsau) - "head" or "first brew" soy sauce. When yellow beans are fermented, the first pass that comes out is this head brew or premium soy sauce. This is a lot more expensive than both, and is typically given as gifts or used in high end Chinese cooking, and also the least mentioned in non Chinese food media (but widely used nonetheless).

            2 Replies
            1. re: K K

              "In Cantonese cooking there are three kinds of soy sauce.... "

              You are confusing two things.

              There are two major styles of soy sauces in Cantonese. The light soy sauce (生抽) and the dark soy sauce (老抽). It is like red wine and white wine -different.

              First brewed soy sauce (頭抽) is a more like a grade, than a style. Soy sauce can be brewed three times. There is the first brew ((頭抽), second brew (二抽), and third brew (三抽). You can have first brewed light soy sauce, second brewed light soy sauce and third brewed light soy sauce. Being first brewed (頭抽) does not mutually exclude it from being a light soy sauce (生抽). Being a California wine, does not exclude it from being a red or white wine.

              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                This is a fantastic explanation that really answers my questions. Thank you KK and Chemicalkinectics!

            2. I have Koon Chun, and I can tell you that Koon Chun sells both the dark soy sauce and the thick soy sauce, which are two very different beast. Koon Chun calls the dark soy sayce as the black soy sauce. There is a much bigger difference between dark soy sauce to thick soy sauce, than between dark soy sauce and light soy sauce.

              For Koon Chun, the dark soy sauce is in a bottle like this double black soy sauce


              The thick soy sauce (醬油膏) is this, which come in a paste in a bottle. You don't really use it for cooking:


              To answer your last question, the light soy sauce is more useful, but both light and dark soy sauces are used.

              1. I am amazed at the thorough answers I received in this post. Thank you everybody!

                Based on the advice in this post, I have added a Chinese dark soy sauce to my soy sauce collection. I now own:

                - Chinese dark soy sauce
                I bought Pearl River Bridge Premium Dark soy sauce. It has a wonderful complex, rich and sweet flavor.

                - Chinese light soy sauce
                I already had "Koon Chun Thin Soy Sauce". It's saltier, less sweet, and less complex than the dark one I own. As Chemicalkinetics mentioned, Koon Chun has no sugar. Pearl River Bridge has some sugar. Since I have a sweet tooth, I like the sweet flavor of Pearl River Bridge, but this is entirely personal taste.

                - Japanese dark soy sauce
                I already had San-J. This one is similar in color to the Chinese light soy sauce. The flavor is completely different though. In fact, my biggest conclusion of this taste test was that I'll never use Japanese soy sauce for Chinese cooking again. It just doesn't result in the right flavors. I love this sauce for Japanese cooking though.

                - Japanese light soy sauce
                I have some Japanese imported sauce that I can't pronounce (it has no English translation in the package). This is a fairly recent addition to my collection because Japanese cookbooks often call for thin soy sauce in clear soups and other uses. It's the saltiest of the bunch and has a very simple and clean flavor.

                - Chinese "thick" soy sauce
                I own Koon Chun Thick Soy Sauce (in a glass jar). This sauce is mostly molasses.
                As "chef chicklet" mentions, I also found some websites saying that this sauce is used primarily by Chinese-American restaurants to add color to fried rice. The same website says that home cooked fried rice it not usually dark and that this ingredient is not used in home cooking. At this point, I am inclined to throw it away… sadly…

                It seems that I should be able to achieve pretty authentic flavors in all my Chinese and Japanese cooking with this set.

                3 Replies
                  1. re: ethnicchower

                    Now you just need some Pearl River Bridge Mushroom Soy and you'll have the whole shebang.

                  2. Don't overthink the room.

                    Use what tastes good. To you.

                    1. Chinese soy sauces can be region separated.

                      I am Cantonese, and in our households are usually a bottle of "light" or "superior" soy sauce for everyday tasks and a bottle of "dark" for heavy duty dying in long cooking dishes/stews.

                      As for the thick soy sauce that you used, I think that stuff originated in Taiwan. I don't know anyone personally that knows how to use it, but lots of companies make them due to cross-regional demand.

                      If I am correct, Taiwanese soy sauces doesn't really have a light vs dark scenario, at least in the Cantonese sense. Cantonese "light" soy sauces are one of the few that is reliably absent of sugar across most brands.

                      1. I went to the Asian market last night for some dark soy, and they didn't have a single bottle on the shelf with that on the label. The only thing I found was Pearl Gold River Black Soy (it has superior in the name somewhere.) I was terrified I was getting the wrong thing, too scared to ask the employees, don't have internet on my phone to look it up....

                        But I think I'm okay, based on what I've read here. It's interesting, though. The store carries Pearl River Bridge Superior Light, which I have, but they didn't have the Superior Dark that everyone is mentioning.

                        1. Thick soy is a coloring agent. Regular 'thin' soy is a flavoring agent. You bought the right thing, but used it the wrong way. Don't throw it away, though. It's wonderful for adding deep brown color to many dishes, not just fried rice. I am a former Chinese chef; I live in Mexico City and often ask friends who are coming to visit to please bring me a jar of exactly what you bought: Koon Chun thick soy. I couldn't cook correctly without it.

                          1. I found thick soy sauce easily living in HI. I moved to TX and can't find it in the Ft. Worth or Houston area. I like to use it to coat a whole chicken before seasoning and then roasting it. The skin gets wonderfully crispy and tastefully seasoned. If anyone has found it in these cities,please let me know. Willing to go to Dallas.