Some sauces are so addictive, if you are too ashamed to eat them by spoon alone, you will tear up the kitchen for anything halfway legitimate to carry the sauce to your mouth. Imagine the desperate person who first dipped a potato chip into Nutella, if you will.
I think of our house created version of ketjap manis like that. We created it for the basis of our Vietnamese banh mi sauce and then paired it with some fried onion rings to offer up as an appetizer. Nothing really inventive about that. But we now believe we could have as well served it with fried grass, and it would have been a hit.
The onion rings are merely a vehicle and if we had good sense, we would bottle it up and put it on every table, the way they do in its birthplace Indonesia, as well as surrounding adoptive countries. It is that good, yes.
Ketjap manis is a forefather to our national condiment darling, ketchup; but mostly in etymological ways. Its history is full of romance; like any food that traveled along the spice route. American ketchup, at best, could be considered a sort of watered down, tomato based, spice-less version. If that sounds derogatory, don’t misunderstand. I love ketchup.
But ketjap manis is in another league. The sauce starts with caramel as its base, which can only be considered genius. And I do mean the real caramel: sugar and water swirled around in a pan together until they meld into that thick, dark, right to the edge of burnt liquid that will peel your skin off when hot (be careful if you try this at home!) and when cooled can take you in a million directions towards heaven. You could add some heavy cream to the caramel base, for example and end up with a silky, smoky-sweet sauce for ice cream.
But for the ketjap, we go in the direction of zest and spice. We add so much lime peel to this sauce that whoever is making it hates their life that day. And then we add soy sauce. And pomegranate molasses. And then the spices: star anise is the high note. There are others but they are only there to provide background harmony. All of this is simmered for hours into a sticky syrup.
Next time you’re in, try our Jakarta Rings. Or order a side of ketjap manis (small upcharge) to go with whatever you’re having. It won’t matter. It’s just about the sauce.