The Internet-available information about hoisin sauce is all very, very shallow: it’s Chinese, it’s sweet, it’s good with many things. But what is it? Where does it come from? When was it created? Its name means “seafood,” but the sauce contains no seafood. The trail goes cold quickly if you want to know something substantive about the stuff that comes with your pho.
I reached out to Hong Kong– based food company Lee Kum Kee, which has been making hoisin for more than thirty years, hoping they could answer me. Their response:
Hoisin was traditionally used in southern Chinese cooking, specifically for seafood. The word hoisin is from the Chinese word for seafood. At that time it was used for stir-fries and dipping primarily. Now it has become a staple ingredient for all types of cooking and is used as a base, glaze, and marinade. It has become a multi-purpose sauce.
For a company that could fill swimming pools with the stuff, I was hoping for a little more insight. Plus, there’s plenty of informed opinion out there to the contrary: in a 1997 issue of the Chinese food-focused magazine Flavor & Fortune, Eva Koveos wrote, “Ironically hoisin means ‘sea freshness’ sauce in Chinese, but it contains no trace of seafood and usually is not served with it; rather it is popular in Chinese dishes containing poultry and pork.”
I was flummoxed. So I enlisted the help of Chinese-cuisine expert and scholar Fuchsia Dunlop to clear things up:
Hoisin sauce (hai xian jiang) is mainly a Cantonese thing. Many sources on Chinese ingredients don’t mention it at all. I did find one entry in a good culinary encyclopedia that says hai xian jiang is a collective name for seafood sauces, such as shrimp sauce, crab sauce, and clam sauce. I also found one Hong Kong chefs’ handbook that says it’s made from a smooth black bean sauce with added “seafood (hai xian),” cane sugar, garlic, vinegar, and five-spice powder. I’ve also found some recipes online that are made with fermented shrimp sauce.
So, without being able to answer you definitively, I would guess that it was originally a kind of sauce based either on fermented black beans or sweet fermented wheat sauce with some kind of dried/fermented seafood element added for extra umami flavor, as well as other seasonings, and that over time manufacturers cut back on the more expensive seafood ingredients. This seems the most likely explanation, because, as you know, hoisin sauce is more commonly used for ingredients such as pork, and not much for seafood, which would be the other logical reason for the name.
This would explain the absence of any seafood and/or shellfish product in today’s bottled hoisin. But I can’t fully corroborate any one theory about hoisin’s origins. Maybe hoisin once had seafood in it, maybe it didn’t. Maybe it made its way from China to Vietnam in the twentieth century, or maybe it evolved out of another bean-based condiment in Vietnam. Maybe it’s from Mars.
So after my futile quest for discovery, the most important facts about hoisin are those that you can confirm for yourself: it tastes good on char siu, Peking duck, and moo shu pork. It’s great in a Taiwanese-style pork bun. And it is very nice to have along- side a bowl of pho.