What is Brown Sauce?

Kelly Hailstone / Heavy Table
Kelly Hailstone / Heavy Table

What exactly is brown sauce? No stranger to Chinese take-out, I have had a burning desire to know for years. If you’ll allow me a few moments of your time to explain:

My love affair with brown sauce was sparked by the Village Wok’s “Eggplant With Brown Sauce.” I imagine the restaurant felt no creativity was necessary when they added the dish to their menu, so perfect is the saucy accoutrement in its oily, rich simplicity. However, in my mind, this condiment, so prevalent and cherished on many an Asian restaurant menu, deserves a clear, concise definition in the culinary canon, beyond the vapid adjective “brown.” How abominably inadequate and nondescript a description! It is not lost on me that “red sauce” and “white sauce” are also prevalently used in the hospitality world, but red and white are marketable colors because they appeal to our senses. Red says “tomato” and sends reminders of zippy, basil-rich marinara sauce inhaled deeply off a wooden spoon held over a simmering pot; white is reminiscent of cream and milk, as with decadent, peppery alfredo sauce clinging to languid fettucine noodles. As for brown, well, do I need to venture into the bowels of what “brown” conjures before the mind’s eye?

Oddly enough, when I contemplate my love of brown sauce, which I readily admit is strange in and of itself, my mind naturally wanders to the cinematic roles of Meg Ryan. I’ve seen her gritty and alcoholic in When a Man Loves a Woman and in City of Angels as the doctor who is simultaneously earthy and cerebral and googly-eyed over the lost-in-space-faced Nick Cage. And while those films were fabulous natural sleep remedies for my years long insomnia, I couldn’t help but be disappointed over having wasted my time watching her act out of her natural element: the romantic comedy. (For heaven’s sake, I hope I’m not the only one who thinks she killed it in You’ve Got Mail.)

As with Meg’s movies, I’ve experienced brown sauce out of its desired element — too thin in a pork and cabbage stir-fry, too musty among black bean-laden lobster chunks. But the Village Wok’s eggplant in brown sauce is beatifically drenched in When Harry Met Sally perfection, gleaming in its meaty, dependable succulence. To my discriminating taste buds, the brown sauce in this dish manifests itself as it was meant to be: thick like Thanksgiving gravy, savory without being overly salty, faintly sweet, and, well, really, really brown. Not chocolately hues of brown, though. Or nutty brown. And certainly not a brown that reflects glints of auburn in certain slants of light. Just plain, muddy, lackluster brown. But that brown doesn’t reveal the mystery behind its goodness.

So I made some phone calls to a handful of local Chinese restaurants. The responses I received ranged from politely dismissive to befuddled by my question:
“Well, it’s, ya know, traditional Chinese brown sauce.” Duh.
“Um, I have no idea. Soy sauce?”
“What? You want to know what’s in the brown sauce!? It’s just brown sauce… you know, brown sauce, [pause] soy sauce.”
And then I got a slightly more helpful response: “Soy sauce and some sort of thickening agent, I think. Stuff like that,” followed by the ever non-helpful phrase that repeated itself with every other call: “It’s just a traditional Chinese brown sauce.”

I wasn’t getting anywhere, so I turned to my mom, a native Hong Konger and my prophet of brown sauce, having ordered the legendary eggplant in brown sauce on a family dinner to the Village Wok when I was in college. Much of the stir-fried meat and vegetables served at my family’s table when I was growing up was smothered in one shade of brown or another. And being my mom, she would be straight with me, right?

“Mom, please tell me how you make your brown sauce. I want to know the exact ingredients. Don’t leave anything out.”
“Just soy sauce.”
“Come on, mom,” I implored. “I know there’s more to brown sauce than just soy sauce. Don’t mess with me.”
“And some corn starch.”
“That’s it.”
I knew that wasn’t it, though. Growing up, I had watched her toil about the stove, throwing into her wok brown splashes and spoonfuls of this and that from opened jars labeled in Chinese, which I couldn’t read. And when I’d ask her what she put in the ginger chicken besides ginger, or the jumble of beef and pea pods, her response was always “soy sauce.” I don’t know why I expected any other response.

I guess some great things will always remain a mystery, so I’ll do what every parent tells their kids at some point: “Just shut up and eat.”


  1. Christine

    I think normally there’s some oyster sauce in there. Maybe a little Chinese cooking wine, ginger, and garlic too.

  2. Kim K

    I’m not sure you’d be checking the comments close to 4 years later, but I have to say your article made me laugh. I particularly enjoyed the bits about Meg Ryan as I’m a big fan of her romantic comedies myself. When Harry Met Sally is just slightly edged out by You’ve Got Mail in my book :)

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