Hoisin sauce is an indispensable ingredient if you are going to be cooking Cantonese dishes. You should try to always have a jar or two of it on hand, especially since it is relatively easy to find. Most Asian grocery stores will have it and many traditional American stores as well. If you find yourself out of it and are unable to get any, here are a few hoisin sauce substitutes that you can try:
Your best bet: Make your own
There are various options for making your own hoisin sauce, including versions that use Western ingredients to simulate the flavor. One example is the combination of American-style barbecue sauce and five-spice powder. Another uses a blend of molasses and peanut butter. Neither of these substitutes will give you hoisin sauce’s complex sweet and umami flavor profile, but they might be suitable for someone who doesn’t like the authentic taste.
For a closer approximation, you can combine black bean sauce with five-spice powder and add some sesame oil and soy sauce. Sweeten the mixture with some brown sugar and you will have something closer to a more traditional-tasting homemade hoisin sauce. Another authentic-tasting version is similar and uses miso paste instead of the black bean sauce.
A decent second choice: Oyster sauce
Like hoisin sauce, oyster sauce is all about the umami flavor. It consists of an oyster reduction to which thickeners and seasonings have been added. The seafood is the source of its umami character and according to some resources, was responsible for the umami note in early versions of hoisin sauce as well. It even has a little sweetness similar to oyster sauce though it is not quite as sugary. While it is not as dense and syrupy as most brands of hoisin sauce, oyster sauce is pretty thick.
Oyster sauce is also used in the same kinds of recipes that call for hoisin sauce. For example, it is a common ingredient in many stir-fried noodle dishes. Oyster sauce has several benefits, including the fact that it contains no soybeans and so is safe to eat for people who need to avoid soy.
Oyster sauce lacks the characteristic reddish-brown color of hoisin sauce as well, though it’s not particularly obvious difference since it is brown too.
In a pinch: Char siu sauce
Hoisin sauce is one of the ingredients in char siu sauce and makes up much of its flavor profile. Both sauces are Cantonese staples and while traditional char siu is used mainly as a glaze for pork, its applications are actually much more varied. Along with the hoisin sauce, it contains five-spice powder and sweeteners that result in an intense combination of sweet and umami notes. One drawback is that char siu sauce is sweeter than hoisin sauce, which may be noticeable in some dishes.
Worcestershire sauce can provide some of the umami profile that you would get from hoisin sauce. It is not sweet and has a watery consistency so it won’t be a perfect substitute for all of hoisin sauce’s applications; however, you can sweeten and thicken it to make it a more viable alternative.
A1 Steak Sauce is similar to Worcestershire sauce but has a slightly thicker consistency. It won’t be as thick as hoisin, but it should be close enough to serve as a dipping sauce.