Extra savory than spicy; a bit smoky, candy, and vaguely tropical because of a touch of coconut powder and ginger; shacha sauce is a cyclone of flavors that’s beloved in Taiwan—although it has not fairly had its second within the web cooking highlight like other condiments have. The burnt orange oil, streaked with a heavy sediment, would possibly remind you of crispy chile oils with loads of fried alliums. However take a whiff, and you'll encounter a wave of dried seafood that has been crushed up within the combination—dried child shrimp and brill fish, cured and concentrated within the solar—together with shallots, garlic, and chiles. With origins in satay, it took this condiment plenty of journeys all through Southeast and East Asia, because of migrant employee patterns and warfare, to turn into the complicated sauce that it's.
“It’s tremendous umami-packed, so I really feel prefer it simply makes all the things style higher,” says Diana Danxia Zheng, writer of the cookbook Jia! The Food of Swatow and the Teochew Diaspora. She explains how, all through the 20th century, males from the Chaoshan area in Southeast China typically labored seasonal jobs in Indonesia, Malaysia, and different components of Southeast Asia, and they might carry again meals traditions from these locations, adapting them to native tastes again dwelling. In Southeast Asia, satay sauce was a extra peanut-forward mix of chiles and herbs. However a chunky, oil-based sauce emerged in and round Chaoshan in lieu of the nuts—with native additions like dried seafood—and an entirely new model was born.
The best way the sauce’s identify is pronounced even sounds much like “satay” within the Teochew and different Minnan dialects; “sha-cha” is simply the way it’s pronounced in Mandarin. Due to this fact, Zheng calls it “satay sauce” in recipes all through her cookbook. (Although it's derived from a reputation that was probably coined in Tamil, the Chinese language written characters for the sauce roughly translate to “sand tea,” probably for its grainy texture.) And in response to Zheng, the composition of the sauce can fluctuate fairly a bit all through these areas, blurring strains between Southeast Asian–type satay and its Southeast Chinese language interpretations; she’s had varieties again in Chaozhou which are simply barely peanutty, or much less fishy, or extra spicy.
But whereas Indonesian satay sauce is generally related to grilled meats, shacha is usually served with beef-based noodle soups or scorching pot, or used as a seasoning in stir-fries, equivalent to a easy sliced beef stir-fry with chunks of scallions or Chinese language broccoli within the Chaoshan area and its diaspora. “Even right here in [Southern California], some Teochew-Vietnamese or Thai locations might be promoting their very own do-it-yourself variations of satay sauce, particularly if it’s a extra noodle-soup-oriented place, and so they take pleasure within the sauces that go together with them,” Zheng says of diasporic Teochew-owned companies in America.
A kind of diasporic areas took the sauce even additional. Throughout China’s Civil Struggle, hordes of mainland Chinese language adopted China’s Nationalist Celebration to resettle in Taiwan, a lot of them from Chaoshan. In 1958, a noodle store proprietor in Tainan named Liu Lai-qin, initially from Chaoshan, created the Bullhead model of shacha sauce. It's, in response to Katy Hui-wen Hung, coauthor of A Culinary History of Taipei, “offered in a silver tin practically as iconic because the Taiwan Beer can.”
Bullhead shacha sauce has a world presence right this moment and is out there in each vegetarian and unique varieties (in addition to a powdered type of shacha sauce, which was the model’s first providing, actually). Its label typically incorporates a yellow cartoon bull sporting a bib—which isn't the one affiliation that shacha sauce has with bovine creatures. When Liu was first promoting the funky-flavored sauce and powder within the late Nineteen Fifties and early ’60s, many Taiwanese folks have been sluggish to just accept it, together with the customized of consuming beef. According to Lin-Yi Tseng, assistant professor at Taipei Medical College, Liu initially acquired a bump in gross sales after a widely known radio host fell in love with Liu’s shacha-smothered noodles and featured the dish on his meals radio program within the late ’50s. Liu scrapped the store and opened a manufacturing facility to mass-produce the powder and sauce as an alternative.
Thought-about a taboo meat by earlier, agrarian generations in Taiwan, beef consumption slowly grew extra acceptable over the Sixties and ’70s, mirroring the rise in shacha’s reputation. By the late ’70s, meaty scorching pot had develop into a nationwide craze, popularly eaten with a small dish of shacha sauce for dipping slivers of just-cooked beef and different meats. In line with Tseng, the restaurant that helped encourage this pattern, Xiao Haozhou, was opened in Tainan within the Seventies by Chen Musheng, a retired navy soldier who had as soon as served as Nationalist Celebration chief Chiang Kai-Shek’s private bodyguard and driver. He was initially from town of Shantou (aka Swatow, within the Chaoshan area) earlier than fleeing with the social gathering to Taiwan, and his restaurant served shacha beef stir-fries and shacha beef scorching pot utilizing a shacha sauce recipe derived from his uncle, who had been a plantation laborer in right this moment’s Singapore.
Tseng writes: “In truth, as a teenager in Shantou, Musheng discovered from his uncle that wherever Shantou folks went, they may enhance their livelihoods by making ready and promoting good sha-cha sauce.” As soon as shacha beef delicacies caught on in Taiwan’s cities, it unfold to households, and—thanks partly to the rising enterprise of Bullhead model sauce—by the Nineteen Eighties, most Taiwanese households may afford to buy jars to make use of of their dwelling cooking.
Given its fishy taste and number of makes use of, it'd come as a shock to Individuals that shacha sauce, together with Bullhead model’s, is often translated on jars and cans as “barbecue sauce” in English. That is in all probability owing to its origins in Indonesian-style satay, although it’s exhausting to say for positive. Maybe the same conundrum is how the American notion of “barbecue sauce” turned generally understood as a candy, ketchup-based condiment—in spite of everything, you may taste grilled meat with any kind of sauce, and that’s not even stepping into the controversy about what it actually means to “barbecue” it.
My mom, who grew up in Taiwan, retains a silver can of Bullhead shacha sauce in her fridge always, scooping out a spoonful to construct an instantaneous “broth” for noodle soups when combined with scorching water and a splash of soy sauce. I do that as nicely, and I often add chile oil or crisp because the ending drizzle for a bit extra warmth. Eric Sze, the Taiwanese-born proprietor of the Taiwanese restaurant 886 in New York Metropolis, sells a sauce impressed by each shacha sauce and chile oil—alas, one other huge class in itself—with a touch of Sichuan mala spice, a nod to his dad’s household’s roots. He calls it “Sze Daddy” sauce, a New York–born spin on a sauce that has spun a great size across the globe, buying extra perfume and nuance every step of the best way.