Plum sauce is a classic Chinese condiment with a sweet, spicy and fruity flavor profile. It has a thick and sticky consistency that allows it to cling to the surfaces of fried foods. It is distinctive enough that you should make an effort to find the real thing if at all possible. If that’s not an option and you need it away, try one of the plum sauce substitutes below.
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Your best bet: Duck sauce
The duck sauce that will often accompany dishes in Chinese takeout restaurants is the best plum sauce substitute and has a similar heritage. It’s not a Chinese sauce but it is Chinese-American. It was most likely invented as an American alternative to plum sauce, which is why it has a similar flavor. Both sauces have a balance of sweet and tart flavors with spices and umami.
Duck sauce and plum sauce are so similar in flavor that many people believe them to be the same condiment but they aren’t. Duck sauce can have plums in it but is more likely to contain fruits commonly found in the West like apples and pears.
One drawback of duck sauce is how difficult it can be to source. Most people encounter duck sauce in the little packets that accompany dishes in Chinese restaurants. It is not the easiest condiment to find outside of the restaurant environment. As a Chinese-American product, it is not always available in Chinese grocery stores that carry mostly imported goods. You may be able to find it in the Asian sections of some standard American grocery stores.
A decent second choice: Sweet and sour sauce
Sweet and sour sauce hits many of the same flavor notes as plum sauce. The main flavor notes are in the name — it‘s sweet and sour just like plum sauce. Sweet and sour sauce has two main benefits over plum sauce, the first is its availability. You can find pre-made sweet and sour sauce in many grocery stores. You will probably be able to find it far more easily than you will plum sauce in many parts of the US.
If you can’t find it, sweet and sour sauce has a second benefit of being easy to make at home. The main ingredients can be found in most Western kitchens. Sweet and sour sauce consists of staple items like vinegar, sugar and ketchup.
Sweet and sour sauce is not a perfect plum sauce substitute. Its flavor is not as complex and it is not as thick and jam-like as plum sauce.
In a pinch: Hoisin sauce
Another Chinese condiment, hoisin sauce is traditionally used in the same way that plum sauce is used — as a dipping sauce for fried foods. Hoisin sauce is sweet with a sticky consistency similar to that of plum sauce. Hoisin sauce is easier to find than duck sauce. You can find it in most Asian food stores and in many large Western grocery stores that have an Asian section.
While it does have a similar sweetness as plum sauce and can be used in the same way, hoisin sauce is not an exact match. It has a distinctive flavor in which spices and umami play greater roles than they do in plum sauce.
Char siu sauce is typically used as a marinade or glaze for pork but can be adapted to a range of other dishes. It is thick, sticky and sweet like plum sauce. Commercial char siu sauce is available in most Asian grocery stores and a quick version of it can be made with hoisin sauce.