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It seems to be a popular ingredient in Asian (esp. Chinese?) food. I encountered them on pork spareribs, and some side dishes. Apparently it turns everything completely black when it is added.

I can rule out soy sauce (which is too salty and tastes entirely different) and I realise that this question is rather vague. What additional information could I provide?

Edit: I can rule out oyster sauce. I asked in a restaurant what the black stuff was, but either she didn't understand me or she didn't want to (all she told me was that it contained salt). Finally she said she made it herself. Anyway, I bought Hoisin sauce:
Hoisin sauce

and I think it's as close as it gets (perhaps the restaurant uses a slightly different version of the one I bought, as mine is a bit saltier and a bit less sweet).

Update: I finally discovered the exact sauce I was looking for. It turned out to be Black Bean Garlic Sauce.

Black Bean Garlic Sauce

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Maybe you can ask at a restaurant that serves one of these dishes? – Jefromi Oct 21 '11 at 2:58
Aside: not all soy sauce is salty; in particular, Indonesian Kecap Manis doesn't taste particularly salty. – Erik P. Oct 21 '11 at 17:17
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, and black bean paste seem to be the most likely culprits. What is the texture of the sauce? If it's smooth, it's hoisin; but hoisin tends to be salty. If it's not smooth, it's black bean paste. Oyster sauce is a little oilier than the other two, and is used in almost every Asian sautee.

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Whether it's smooth depends on the particular dish, so I'm not sure if it's the sauce or something else. If I think about it, it reminds me a bit of liquorice. Could they actually be throwing that in? – bitmask Oct 21 '11 at 2:22
It could be liquorice root, or anise, which would explain the different textures. The sauces I listed above are all "sweet," in the Asian style; but none taste like liquorice. – syrion Oct 21 '11 at 2:27
Oyster sauce is sometimes not particularly sweet at all, whereas hoisin is often cloyingly so. – Ray Oct 21 '11 at 2:31
@bitmask : the licorice flavor was most likely star anise, which is fairly popular in asian barbecue rubs. As you specifically mentioned spareribs, I'm guessing syrion's right on it being hoisin, but there's enough variation in recipes, and it may be mixed with other stuff so it's not as obvious. – Joe Oct 21 '11 at 15:31
@Joe You should make this into an answer. – Hank Gay Oct 27 '11 at 17:37

Two things spring to mind: it could be dark soy sauce, which is much less salty than light soy sauce. It's thick and very dark and is almost exclusively used for colouring, which sounds like the sort of thing you're thinking of.

It could alternatively be black rice vinegar, which is much sweeter than normal vinegar, and in fact doesn't taste vinegary at all.

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The only thing I can imagine that would turn it black would be be black beans (or black bean sauce). It's often used with pork spare ribs as well. It isn't generally sweet though, so that'd have to come from another ingredient.

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Spare ribs are usually dressed with a combination of soy sauce, vinegar and sugar. A sort of sweet and sour sauce. The sugar will mask the salty edge or the soy sauce.

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It may also have been Kecap Manis, or other soy sauce. There are a vast number of soy sauces out there, some are sweet, some are salty, some are subtle, and some are very strong.

They certainly do differ substantially in taste.

Also, there may have been sugar added as well, even in addition to the already sweet Kecap Manis.

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Possibly molasses as a lot of recipes I've seen call for brown sugar which is often a substitute. However it could also be a combination, particularly with hoisin, that causes the result you're describing.

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If u encountered them on pork spareribs, and it turns everything completely black ,as well as it tatse slightly sweet..I think it just becuase the cooker flavored the pork spareribs with sugar and vinegar.I'm a Chinese girl,my family always flavored the pork spareribs in that way. Btw:at last,we usually mix a little soy sauce on it,just for the color of a dishes.

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It's also on aubergine. However, it has a very specific taste (I'm just not eloquent enough to describe it). Nothing I would expect from simple vinegar and sugar. Is this a specific vinegar you are referring to? – bitmask Oct 24 '11 at 18:39
Yes.Chinese cookery is very complicated n interesting.Not that dressing is so comlicated,but that different dishes we put different seasoning on a different scale.They fit toghther creat different flavor. – Katy wu Oct 25 '11 at 14:52

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