Home Cuisines Chinese Ponzu Vs Soy Sauce – What’s The Difference?

Ponzu Vs Soy Sauce – What’s The Difference?

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An Asian dish next to a bottle of ponzu and soy

Asian cuisine loves sauce for adding extra flavor to dishes. Two much-loved condiments that have grown in popularity in western countries are ponzu and soy sauce. They originated in Asia centuries ago, but they’re still perfect for dipping, marinades, and adding umami flavor to your favorite savory dishes. So, what sets ponzu and soy sauce apart? Keep reading to discover their similarities and differences so that you know how to use them in the kitchen.

A comparison of ponzu and soy sauce

Ponzu sauce is a Japanese condiment that is salty and sweet, but also bitter and tangy all in one mouthful. It is dark brown in color with a vinaigrette-like consistency, ideal for splashing into soba noodles, dressings, or added to meat such as ceviche or tuna tataki. Its acidic flavor cuts through gyoza and tempura, which can be quite heavy.

Soy sauce is a Chinese sauce that has a strong salty flavor with a mildly sweet, umami undertone. It is a dark reddish-brown shade and has a texture that is thin and runny, a lot like ponzu. Soy sauce dates back to around 180BC and can be combined with other ingredients to make a marinade. It’s also ideal for adding to a stir fry or stew, or used in a wide range of other savory Asian dishes.

Soy sauce is commonly made from soaked soybeans, wheat, and yeast culture, that are combined and then fermented for as long as two years. This condiment is ideal for adding salty and umami flavor without the citrusy tartness that comes from ponzu.

Beef tataki covered in ponzu sauce
Ponzu sauce is delicious on beef tataki.

Comparing the two sauces side by side, ponzu has more tang than soy, thanks to the addition of citrus fruit. It is also a sweeter, more intense flavored condiment. If you’ve grown up eating soy sauce, then ponzu may shock the senses, first taste. But, give it a chance and you’ll probably warm to its unique balance of flavors.

Did you know?
Soy and ponzu sauce can be combined to make ponzu shoyu, a delicious dipping sauce for dumplings, or for marinating meat.

How variety affects the flavor

Both sauces will vary in flavor depending on the recipe or brand that you use. Ponzu is often made with a combination of rice wine, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and seaweed. Bonito flakes further add to the mix of high-impact flavors. But it’s the citrus element, which can impact the flavor the most. Lime, orange, or lemon are often added; while some more expensive brands will include more exotic fruits such as yuzu.

Soy sauce tipped onto rice nodles and vegetables
Soy sauce adds saltiness and umami to savory dishes.

The Chinese have three common types of soy sauce which are thick, dark, and light soy. The light version is ideal for adding to food when you don’t want to impact the color of the other ingredients. It is this type of sauce you’ll often see at a Chinese restaurant in the United States. Dark soy sauce has been aged longer and often has added ingredients like molasses and caramel for a thicker, darker consistency. Dark soy adds amazing color to dishes like Cantonese pan-fried noodles or red-cooked pork. With the addition of starch, wheat, and sugar, thick soy sauce is sweeter and is suitable for dips, stir-fries, and marinades. You may also be interested in some excellent dark soy sauce substitutes.

The Japanese have their own types of soy sauce such as tamari, usukuchi, and shoyu.

Can ponzu and soy sauce be used interchangeably?

Ponzu is a good alternative to light soy sauce for marinades and dipping sauces. However, it doesn’t cope with high temperatures like soy can, so it shouldn’t be added at the start of cooking food on high heat. Instead, splash it in towards the end. Ponzu sauce also doesn’t add much color to a dish, so you wouldn’t use it to replace dark or heavy soy sauce.

A bamboo basket of dumplings and soy sauce
Dumplings are perfect for dipping in soy sauce.
  • Ponzu has a prominent tart, sweet flavor profile which won’t always work in recipes that call for soy.
  • If you’ve got no ponzu sauce, you can use a mix of soy sauce with a splash of rice wine vinegar and citrus juice.

Is soy sauce gluten-free?

Most Chinese soy sauces aren’t suitable for those on a gluten-free diet as they contain wheat. Some supermarkets and specialty grocers will stock tamari sauce brands that are free from wheat and gluten.

Related reading:
What’s the difference between tonkatsu and teriyaki sauce.
Find out how fish sauce and fish stock differ.
Read a comparison of oyster and hoisin sauce.
Learn what to use if you have no tamarind paste.

Summing up

Are you trying to decide whether ponzu or soy sauce is the best option for your next recipe? The simple answer is they’re both the perfect addition to a marinade, dressing, dip, and many other savory dishes. If you were to pinpoint the main difference between the two, it’d be that soy sauce adds mostly salty, umami flavor to food; umami provides an extra kick of bitter, citrus flavor.

If you enjoy cooking with Asian sauces then check out our article that gives you some great ideas for yakisoba sauce substitutes.

Have you tried ponzu sauce before? Let us know what you think of it in the comments below.