The Asian Classic
Soy sauce is probably one of the most important components in the Asian cuisine. In the US it is the third most popular seasoning after ketchup and mayonnaise. But soy sauce is not just soy sauce: find out about the most significant regional differences and get a small insight into the variety of the favourite Asian seasoning sauce.
Production & Fermentation
As the name suggests, one of the most important ingredients of soy sauce is the soybean. It further contains water, salt and grain, mostly wheat. Traditionally, soy sauce is created through a fermentation process that takes place over a period of several months, ideally even several years. During this process, the natural glutamate is split off from the wheat proteins and a natural umami aroma develops. As with wine, quality depends on many external factors such as weather, climate, the storage or barrel, salt and water quality.
Nowadays, there are industrial process technologies that can significantly accelerate the maturing process. However, innumerable additives such as corn syrup or caramel are used in such processes. Roughly speaking, the fewer ingredients and the longer the ageing process, the better the quality of the sauce. So it is definitely a good idea to take a closer look at the ingredients when buying soy sauce.
Yamaroku: A manufacturer with tradition and passion
The manufacturer Yamaroku, also known through the Netflix series “salt, fat, acid, heat”, combines exactly these qualities: water, soybean, wheat, salt and a total ageing period of four years in wooden barrels. The special wooden barrels, the so-called “kioke”, were originally used for the production of sake. However, it was later discovered that the barrel was even more suitable for the fermentation of soy sauce and provided an exceptional taste. Nevertheless, the number of producers using the traditional casks is decreasing every year, as many switch to more efficient steel containers to speed up production. Today there are only two manufacturers of the casks in the whole country. In 2012, Yasuo Yamamoto started training with one of the two masters to be able to make his own barrels, thereby keeping the tradition alive. Every year he organises an event where he passes his knowledge on and, together with volunteers from the surrounding area, produces numerous other kiosks, which then he and other breweries can use.
Mimi Ferments: From Tokyo to Berlin
Mimi Ferments in Berlin is another noteworthy manufacturer of particularly high-quality soy sauces. Its creator, Markus Shimizu, was himself born in Tokyo, where he spent the first eight years of his life. Part of his passion for soy sauce and miso is probably owed to his childhood. The real trigger to experiment with fermentation, however, were his numerous allergies. Encouraged by the information that fermented food could counteract the allergies, he began to experiment with these very processes. Today the passionate soy sauce producer and artist produces and sells in Berlin and supplies well-known restaurants and delicatessen shops.
Shibanuma: 320 years, 18 generations
The traditional company Shibanuma has been producing its traditional and high-quality soy sauce since 1688, for over 320 years and 18 generations. The soy sauce is produced in Tsuchiura in the Japanese Kanto region, where it was one of the best sauces in Japan during the Edo period. Its fermentation has always been done in the traditional wooden barrels, which give the seasoning sauce its distinctive flavour.
But it is not only the manufacturer, ageing time and list of ingredients that must be considered when choosing the right product. The type of soy sauce can also make a significant difference in taste. In addition to light and dark soy sauce, there are numerous other varieties of the Asian seasoning sauce, most of which vary regionally. – And what is actually to be done if a recipe only mentions “soy sauce” and does not specify which type? Let’s start with this: Here too, the origin of the sauce and the kind of dish is the key.
China: the origin of the salty seasoning sauce
Soy sauce has its roots in ancient China more than 3,000 years ago. Originally, its ingredients were just soybeans, water and salt. Wheat was added later in the 16th century in Japan.
Nowadays, China basically distinguishes between two different types of sauce, namely light and dark soy sauce. The light soy sauce is the typical soy sauce that is also meant in Chinese recipes when only soy sauce is mentioned. It is thinner and saltier than the dark version. Dark soy sauce is a slightly thicker, sweeter version, which plays a particularly important role in the colouring of dishes.
Development & „Kikimi“ in Japan
Soy sauce found its way to Japan as early as the 6th century. There, it was later developed further by adding wheat to make it as we know it today. In Japan, it is called “Shoyu”, from which the term soya is derived. This is where the so-called “Kikimi” takes place, namely the tasting and thus quality control of the soy sauces. In this sensory test, colour, consistency, smell and taste, especially umami, are assessed.
As in China, Japan also generally differentiates between light and dark soy sauce. Paradoxically, the version typical of Japan is the dark soy sauce (“Koikuchi“), which in turn has little in common with the dark soy sauce in China. The light Japanese soy sauce (“Usukuchi“) is used less frequently, is saltier, thinner and can be used for seasoning, just like the dark one.
Another popular variety in Japan is the so-called Tamari. Generally, tamari is similar to the original form of soy sauce as it is fermented with less or no wheat. If no grain is used at all, it is also suitable for people with gluten intolerance. Traditionally, tamari is a by-product of miso production. It goes particularly well as a dip sauce with sashimi, for which white soy sauce, i.e. “Shiro”, is also suitable. It is mainly made from grain and contains fewer soybeans than the traditional Japanese Shoyu. It is usually used in cooking to achieve an intense umami flavour without affecting the colour of the dish too much. Mimi Ferments is also an excellent example of how good soy sauce can taste and does everything right with its “Kibi Shiro Shoyu“.
The Japanese “Saishikomi” describes a double-brewed soy sauce, which gives it a particularly intense flavour. For those who like to try new things and are not afraid of adventurous combinations, Saishikomi can be tried in combination with vanilla ice cream.
Korea, Indonesia & Philippines
Soy sauce plays a key role not only in China and Japan. In other Asian countries and regions, too, the importance of seasoning sauce should not be underestimated.
In Korea, in addition to the Shoyu typical of Japan, there is a special soy sauce which is used especially in the preparation of soups, the “Guk-ganjang”.
Indonesia has a sweeter version, the so-called “Kecap Manis”. If the name sounds familiar: “Kecap” was supposedly the inspiration for the English tomato ketchup. In the Indonesian cuisine, Kecap Manis is used to give dishes a sweet umami flavour. Kecap Manis is used in dishes like Nasi Goreng, for example. You can learn more about Indonesian cuisine in our cooking course “Bali Kitchen“.
Ponzu & Co
Soy sauces enriched with various citrus fruits are also very popular in the Asian countries. The Philippines, for example, produce soy sauce with calamansi, which is an excellent dip for grilled dishes. Soy sauce should also not be neglected as a component of the so-called “Ponzu”, a Japanese seasoning sauce. Ponzu is a Japanese sauce made from mirin, rice vinegar, katsuobushi and kombu seaweed. These ingredients are boiled together, sieved and then mixed with the juice of one or more citrus fruits, such as yuzu or sudachi. Soy sauce is usually also added. Strictly speaking, it is then called “Ponzu Shoyu”, although it is usually simply called Ponzu. Many Ponzu sauces are also simply made from soy sauce and citrus juice. This means that a wonderful Ponzu can be quickly made at home, for example by mixing high-quality soy sauce and yuzu juice. Ponzu, like traditional soy sauce, is available from various manufacturers. The Wasabi Company, for example, produces its own yuzu soy sauce or sudachi kombu ponzu, which can be used as a dip with sashimi and tataki.
How can I get a general overview of such a variety of products?
The range of products and varieties may seem overwhelming at first. But if you follow a few basic rules, you should be able to get a general idea quickly.
Traditionally brewed soy sauces are of higher quality than industrially produced soy sauces. It is therefore a good idea to always read the label carefully before buying them.
- Few ingredients and a long ageing period are an important quality feature.
- The typical soy sauces as we know them are the light Chinese and the dark Japanese soy sauce. If only soy sauce is written on a product, it is usually one of these two products.
- More unusual sauces such as tamari, white soy sauce, Irizake or Ponzu are available for those who like to experiment a bit in the kitchen.