Char siu sauce is sometimes referred to as Chinese barbecue sauce possibly because of its similarity to Western barbecue sauce. It is thick, sticky, and sweet. It is also used as a marinade and basting sauce for slow-roasted meats. If you run out of it, there are a few options available. Here are some of the best char siu sauce substitutes:
Your best bet: Make your own char siu sauce
It’s relatively easy to make a version of char siu sauce at home if you have a few Chinese ingredients on hand. The most important components will be five-spice powder and hoisin sauce, which make up most of the char siu flavor profile.
Of course, other components like sugar and Shaoxing wine will also be essential background flavor notes. The sweetness comes from honey and/or sugar. The result will be a sauce that is as aromatic as the jarred version and that has a similarly rich umami flavor profile.
One of the most important characteristics of char siu sauce is its color. Some recipes for homemade char siu sauce will call for a few drops of red food coloring to get the color, others will use ketchup or a combination of food coloring and ketchup.
Making your homemade char siu sauce has a couple of downsides such as the fact that it will take additional time to make and the ingredients list for some recipes is quite long.
A decent second choice: Hoisin sauce
Much of the sweet and salty flavor that homemade char siu sauce gives to dishes comes from hoisin sauce. Hoisin sauce was originally used as a dipping sauce for fried foods but is also a versatile addition to stir-fry sauces and other Asian preparations.
Hoisin sauce consists of some of the same ingredients that you will find in commercial char siu sauce such as fermented soybean paste and garlic. Hoisin sauce has the benefit of being a relatively common ingredient. You can find hoisin sauce in the Asian sections of many Western-style grocery stores as well as in Asian grocery stores.
The downside of hoisin sauce as a char siu sauce substitute is that most versions won’t be quite as sweet or as complex a flavor as commercial char siu sauce.
In a pinch: Plum sauce
Another sweet Chinese sauce, plum sauce can work as a char siu sauce as a last resort. A syrupy reduction of Asian plums, plum sauce has some of the spices that you might find in char siu sauce. It is primarily sweet with an umami note and a glossy appearance. Like hoisin sauce, the original application for plum sauce was as a dipping sauce for deep-fried dishes. Plum sauce is relatively easy to find and can be found in many stores with Chinese goods.
There are a few ways in which plum sauce is not an ideal substitute such as the fact that it is not usually the intense red color of char siu sauce.
Teriyaki sauce is not Chinese — unlike the substitutes above — but it does have the main characteristics that you want char siu sauce to provide: sweetness and umami. It won’t provide the complexity from spices that you would get from char siu sauce or the red color unless you add other ingredients to it.