Shacha: The Taiwanese Condiment You Should Know

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In most Taiwanese homes and kitchens, there are standard pantry and fridge items used for cooking. There are the obvious ingredients like garlic, shallots, sesame oil, soy sauce, and then perhaps lesser-known sauces like oyster sauce, fermented black beans, and schacha jiang, or shacha sauce, which is billed as a barbecue sauce but is crucial for any hotpot dinner. While other types of hotpot, like málà hotpot, are known for spicy broths and intense dipping sauces, Taiwanese hot pot traditionally has a more simple bone broth, and the go-to sauce is usually a heaping spoonful of flavorful shacha mixed with a raw egg, which the cooked meats and vegetables are dipped into.

Shacha, however, is an underrated condiment that is most famously made by the brand Bullhead, sold officially as Bull Head Sacha BBQ Sauce (you can get it online at places like Umami Cart and Amazon). Here's everything you need to know about the beloved Taiwanese shacha sauce.

The traveled history of shacha sauce

According to a presentation given by Lin-Yi Tseng, professor at Taipei Medical University, during the 2021 LunarFest Vancouver, shacha sauce is not indigenous to Taiwan but rather is a result of migration and a mixing of cultures and tastes. Workers of the Chaoshan region of China sought better work opportunities in Southeast Asia, and on the ground, they noticed the locals enjoying their beef and chicken brochettes with satay sauce. When the workers returned to China, they decided to iterate upon the sauce by reducing the amount of peanut butter and removing any spicy pepper that made it hot. 

Eventually, the shacha sauce made it over to Taiwan when waves of Mainland Chinese of the Nationalist party fled to Taiwan post-Civil War, many of which were from the Chaoshan region. Taste reports that in 1958 a noodle shop owner created the famous Bullhead brand, sold in an iconic silver can with a cartoon bull bearing a fork and knife. The bullhead shacha sauce available today is made up of soybean oil, brill fish, garlic, ginger, shallots, sesame, coconut powder, chili powder, dried shrimp, salt, and pepper. 

Uses of shacha sauce

While shacha is a popular dipping condiment, it is a workhorse refrigerator staple that can be added to just about anything for an umami flavor boost: as the main flavor in stir-fries or as a marinade base for meats that will sear perfectly on the grill. Shacha sauce can also be drizzled into congees, used to create an instant broth, and even used to be mixed into salad dressing or on cucumber salads. The taste of shacha can even be enjoyed on its own by serving a spoonful onto a bowl of freshly steamed white rice, which is recommended by BonAppetit writer Stacy Akazawa.

For those looking for an easy stir-fry recipe that uses shacha sauce as the star of the show, this beef-stir fry recipe by food writer Clarissa Wei, who is based in Taiwan, uses water spinach and "showcases the full range of shacha sauce."

Where to buy shacha sauce and alternatives

Your local Chinese grocery store or H Mart will most likely carry shacha sauce (the original and the red lid variety, which is a spicier version). Once it's opened, it's good to stock in your refrigerator for a few months. For vegetarians and vegans, The Woks of Life recommends a Buddhist brand. If you're in a pinch and you find yourself mid-recipe that requires shacha sauce, you can use XO sauce (or even try to make an Italian XO sauce twist by Chef Chris Jaeckle on your own).

For spice lovers, the New York-based Taiwanese restaurant 886 offers a modern take on shacha that furthers its story of migration and mixing of cultures: the Sze Daddy Chili Sauce, which draws "inspiration from the Taiwanese sha-cha sauce" while paying tribute to the restaurant's chefs Sichuan heritage by incorporating a hint of numbing málà.