Peanut sauce is an important condiment in Thai, Malay, and Indonesian food cultures. Each culture has its variation of it with different ingredients to enhance the nutty flavor of the peanuts. Indonesian sambal kacang is different from the Thai satay sauce. Here a few substitutes for peanut sauce that will provide the most important flavor notes.
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Your best bet: Make your own peanut sauce
The easiest substitute for peanut sauce is to make your own. If you regularly cook Indian or other South Asian dishes, you will likely have most of the ingredients on hand. The main ingredient will be raw or fried peanuts that you grind yourself.
Some Western recipes will suggest peanut butter — an American ingredient — as a substitute for peanuts, but it is not ideal. Even natural peanut butter will have a different taste from freshly ground peanuts. As a result, using peanut butter will give your peanut sauce a distinctive peanut butter taste as opposed to the purer nuttiness that you would get from peanuts.
The downside of making peanut sauce is that it does take time and may require ingredients that you don’t have on hand. For example, some recipes require ingredients like galangal and lemongrass that are not commonly found in most Western kitchens or grocery stores.
A decent second choice: An alternative nut sauce
One of the reasons that you may need a peanut sauce substitute is because of a peanut allergy. If this is the case or if you simply dislike the taste of peanuts, using another nut butter may be the best option.
A wide variety of nuts can provide similar results to those of peanuts. These nuts include hazelnuts, almonds, and cashews. If you want to try using a nut butter, sunflower butter may be able to provide you with a similar consistency to some Western peanut sauces.
The downside of using an alternative nut is that you won’t get the traditional peanut taste. In addition, many of these alternative nuts will be more expensive than peanuts.
In a pinch: Shacha sauce
Sometimes written as sha cha sauce, shacha sauce is one of the two sauces commonly referred to as Chinese barbecue sauce. The other sauce is char siu sauce. Shacha sauce is made with seafood along with shallots, chili peppers, and garlic. Shacha sauce is versatile and some of its applications are similar to the uses for peanut sauce. It is sometimes used as a sauce for roasted meats, including chicken and beef.
Even though it can be used to make the same kinds of dishes, shacha sauce is not a perfect substitute for peanut sauce since it will lack its distinctive nuttiness.
Hoisin sauce is a traditional Chinese condiment with a complex flavor profile that has a lot in common with peanut sauce. While it does not have the peanut flavor, it does have umami notes along with a little heat from chiles and ginger. Because it is a dipping sauce, it has the right texture to replace peanut sauce as a baste for satay.
Chinese sesame paste can provide some of the nutty flavors of peanut sauce. While you may need other ingredients to better replicate the consistency and spiciness of peanut sauce, Chinese sesame paste is a fast and easy way to get the nuttiness if you are in a hurry.