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Soy Sauce, China's Liquid Spice

by Patricia Greenberg

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Summer Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(2) page(s): 21 and 22

Originated in China and known as yiang yong, soy sauce has been a staple in China for thousands of years. When it comes to cooking Chinese food these days, it is the most widely used ingredient. As a result of travel, and broadened trading routes, soy sauce is now widely used in Japan, Korea, and throughout virtually all Southeast Asian Countries, as well as being popular in the western world. Soy sauce is used with rice, when stir frying, as part of a main dish, or as an ingredient in dipping sauce. Most people are not aware of the differences between light and dark soy sauces, or differences between brands of one type or another, or those slowly aged or artificially prepared.

Soy sauce and other foods, made from soybeans are items the Chinese have been relying on for at least for five thousand years. The soybean plant was first known as ta teou which means big bean; and it was revered as one of the five sacred grains, along with rice, wheat, barley, and millet.

From early history, soybeans have been providing the Chinese people with a meat alternative that is highly nutritious, healthy, and inexpensive. In addition, soy is known for its ability to replenish crops because of its high nitrogen content, also the bean itself fixes nitrogen in the soil. When was first brought to the United States, these beans were referred to as 'Green Manure.' They were also used as feed to sustain the animals for farming and agriculture.

Soy sauce, as a by product of soybeans, was developed about two thousand years ago. Historically, it was the cooked and mashed beans that were fermented for thirty days with salt and water yielding a dark brown liquid and a mash. When the aging process was completed, the mixture was strained and jarred. Today, many variations of soy sauce are made from soybeans. They are mixed with grains, usually wheat, also with yeast. The best soy sauces are made slowly and fermented for several months.

There are two basic types of soy sauce used in Chinese cooking, light and dark, also more recently called thick and thin. Dark soy is aged much longer than the light or thin variety, giving it a brownish black color and much thicker texture. As its name suggests, light or thin soy has a lighter color, plus a saltier flavor. Many people say the light or thin is used more in cooking, whereas the dark soy sauce is used more as a condiment; others say exactly the reverse. When stocking the pantry, one should always keep both on hand. Today, there are also mushroom, fish, and may other soy sauces, each with a different flavor.

The best soy sauces are the ones imported from China. If necessary, Japanese brands can and are used for light soy sauce, although many Chinese cooks claim that Japanese soy sauce is too sweet for Chinese cooking. Try to stay away from chemically prepared soy sauces, they lack the rich taste of the slowly brewed fermented soybean varieties.

Soy sauce has a salty taste, but it is lower in sodium than traditional table salt. It can be used as a flavor enhancer for vegetables, for fish and meat, in stewed dishes and marinades, and in many other food preparations.

Derived from the soybean, the traditional Chinese method of preparing soy sauce needs cultivation, time and nurturing. The start of preparation comes in the fall of the year when soybeans are boiled and pounded into mush. Next, they are pressed into cone shapes and set out to dry and harden. When just right, these are hung in rice-straw bags and left to ferment for several weeks. This can be done for just one month or stored throughout the winter.

In the spring, bits of the hardened soy are broken off and put in jars with water, salt, and spices, even charcoal can be added. These jars are left out in the sun for a few days. The molded clumps of soybean float to the top and the liquid turns black. This liquid is removed and boiled to become soy sauce. This process produces a sauce with a different flavor profile, one that enhances food flavors without overpowering them. Chinese soy sauce fermented for thirty days without yeast has lower alcohol content and lactic acid.

In the sixth century, Buddhism became widely practiced in China and was brought into Japan. With the new religion came the spread of vegetarianism, which created the need for meatless seasoning. Early substitutes consisted of salty pastes of fermented grains, thicker products that resembled some modern soy sauces. Legend has it, that while studying in China, a Japanese Zen priest came across this new seasoning. Upon returning to Japan, he began making his own version and introducing it to others. The Japanese further modified the ingredients and the brewing techniques, the processing they kept almost the same with wheat and yeast additives to speed up the fermenting process. In Japan, this is known as koji.

Commercial preparations are quicker, the process similar. Whole soybeans are soaked in water and cooked in large cylindrical steam cookers. When making Japanese soy sauce (shoyu), cracked roasted whole wheat is added to the soybeans. The cooked beans are formed into nuggets and lightly dusted with 'seed koji' known as Aspergillus oryzae. These nuggets are then placed in a temperature and humidity controlled incubation chamber called a muro. During the next two days they develop fuzzy pale yellow mold. The matured koji is put in fermentation tanks with salt and water. Now called moromi, they age for six to eight months and are carefully monitored. Then, they are wrapped between layers of press cloth, stacked in a cage, and pressed to yield raw soy sauce. The raw tamari or shoyu produced is pasteurized and filtered to produce the finished liquid products that are bottled, cased, and sent to market.

Non-brewed soy sauces are chemically produced by hydrolyzing plant protein then adding colorings, salt water, caramel, and corn syrup. Semi-brewed soy sauces are also produced by combining the two methods just described. When chemically produced, the proteins in the soybeans are decomposed by high heat and the addition of hydrochloric acid, then neutralized by bicarbonate, and finally they have sugar, salt, and caramel added. This method is said to result in a product lacking in flavor and aroma compared to fully brewed versions.

Soy sauce came into western culture primarily through Dutch explorers in the 17th century. It became popular in French cooking and throughout Europe as a flavor enhancer, and is now one of the most widely used bases for seasoning and flavoring throughout the world. Soy sauce has many uses from dipping sauces, bases in soup, fish sauces, marinades poured on meats, and as a cooking medium for wok cooking.

Soy sauce, one of the most important seasonings in Chinese cooking, comes in many varieties and grades. It is important to use one of good quality. Below are listed a few soy sauces for your reference. Be sure to store any of them capped tightly. In the refrigerator, they will keep for months. Try different brands and determine the one you like best. The editors are doing that now and will report their results in the next or a future issue. When you try soy sauce varieties, try them type by type. Below are major groups or types of soy sauces.

BLACK SOY SAUCE is also known as dark soy sauce. This type of soy sauce is made from soybeans, caramel coloring, sugar, wheat, salt, and water. It has both a salty and a slightly sweet taste. It is used as a dipping sauce and in cooking, often mixed with light or thin soy sauce.

DOUBLE BLACK SOY SAUCE is darker and heavier in taste than black sauce and is known as 'Superior Soy Sauce.' The ingredients are the same as in black soy but the amounts and time of fermentation are not. This sauce is popular in red-cooked foods. Red cooking refers to the process in which food is covered with soy sauce with or without water or stock and cooked slowly over low heat until it turns brown or black. The color depends on how much black soy sauce is added. This process is called red cooking because red connotes happiness and celebration.

THIN SOY SAUCE was known as light soy sauce, but this term now has legal definition about its calories or slat content. so that term is now legally called 'thin' soy sauce. it is made from soybeans, flour, salt and water, is amber in color and thinner and saltier than black or dark soy sauce. It is more suitable for quick cooking whereas black soy sauce is used for longer cooking and used in soups, fish, light meat, and poultry dishes.

LIGHT, LITE, OR LOW SODIUM SOY SAUCES are made to be and legally must be at least twenty-five to forty percent lower in sodium than regular soy sauce. They do not enhance the flavors of cooking as well as their traditional counterparts, but are great when watching salt/sodium intake.

FISH-FLAVORED SOY SAUCE is characteristic of Southern China. It is made by adding salt water and extract of fish to the soybeans; and it can be one of a variety of fish or shellfish as an extract. It works very well as a dip or in any dish that requires fish flavor. It is also popular throughout Southeast Asia and now can be purchased as shrimp soy, crab soy, cuttlefish soy, etc.

MUSHROOM SOY SAUCE is made the same way black soy sauce is prepared but with mushrooms, usually straw mushrooms, added early in the process. Mushroom soy is used the same way that black soy sauce is, and is widely used in cooking Beijing-style.

PORK SOY SAUCE is this meat added to the manufacture of black soy sauce. It is more characteristic of Cantonese cooking than of any northern cooking styles.

SHOYU is the Japanese adaptation of yiang yong mentioned above. It is a blend of soybeans and wheat fermented into a dark, rich soy sauce. The fermentation process can be and usually is considerably shorter than that used for Chinese soy sauces, and after fermentation it is bottled more quickly.

TAMARI is a byproduct of making miso, and traditionally there is almost no fermentation in the process of making it.

TERIYAKI is a thicker sauce than other types of soy sauce and it can include many other ingredients such as sugar, vinegar and spices. It is popular in Japan as a glaze for open fire cooking.
Patricia Greenberg is the author of The Whole Soy Cookbook. She can be contacted at www.joyofsoy.com

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