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Soy Sauce Favorites: A Tasting

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Spring Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(1) page(s): 29

Responses to the most recent article about soy sauce by Patricia Greenberg in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 7(2) on pages 21 and 22 and a much earlier item about soy sauce in this magazine's Volume 2(2) on page 22 raised many questions about brand preferences and recommendations. That, and readers report they never saw a many-brand taste testing of this most important Chinese food item. Neither have we, though we do recall articles where people express their preferred product and a wonderful tasting session at a west-coast Gastronomy Conference in October 1996 led by Barbara Tropp called: The Many Flavors of Soy Sauce.

That conference session taught component tasting, was sponsored by Kikkoman, and though twelve items were tasted, three were different salts (coarse, sea salt, and iodized table salt), six were soy sauces (three by products of the sponsor and three others by Pearl River Bridge), and three were different flavor infusions (all using the sponsor’s lite soy sauce product). While it was a superb tasting adventure and very informative, no preferences were tallied for the participants. The purpose was not that, but to learn how to taste differences. With no tasting revealing preferences, we set out to learn people’s favorites and why they selected what they did.

As we explored how to go about this, the first dozen people we queried selected eight different products but only two reasons why. The most popular rationale offered by two thirds of this dozen was: “my mother (father or family) always used this brand.” The other was economic, people advising that they selected that brand because it was the least costly or the best buy, ounce for ounce. These reasons were rather shallow we thought for an item considered one of seven daily household necessities as least since the Song Dynasty, which was from 960 to 1279 CE.

Considering that soy sauce is a flavoring agent made by a long and painstaking process fermenting a mash of soybeans for from six to twenty-four months, frankly, we were startled by these preliminary findings. While the predominant flavor may be salt, better varieties do have a complex even wine-like taste. How could something reported in an early reference in the works of Confucius be treated so lightly? Yes, it is universally used, but so were soybeans used by Henry Ford in every plastic part in each 1935 car he built.

Fixing our questions, based upon comments in our first dozen responders (who were not part of our final sample) we used a sample of almost one hundred fifty people, Chinese and non-Chinese, almost equally divided. The questions were simple, what soy sauce do you use most frequently, and why. As in the early sample, the results were startling.

There are dozens upon dozens of manufacturers of soy sauce. Many of them make more than one kind. Our early samplers recommended we not offer choices nor ask about differences between light and dark or other varieties and we took their advise. So what was it that we learned? Firstly, seventeen different brand names were mentioned by this large group of people. All of them with one exception were very interested in responding and in eventually learning what others had said.

The soy sauces named were made in five countries: China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and the United States. In alphabetical order, the brand names of them were: Amoy, Chun King, Golden Smell, Kikkoman, Kimlan, Koon Chun, La Choy, Lee Kum Kee, Mee Tu, Pearl River Bridge, San-J, Silver Sea, Sun Luck, Trader Vic, Wan Ja Shan, Wei Chuan, and Yamasa. More than half, actually sixty percent of the reasons given for selecting the one they did had to do with family use, use of the product for many years, and a friend recommended it. Ten percent could offer no reason, ten percent purchased the item for price, and the other responses were very varied.

We then purchased the ten most mentioned items and had twenty Chinese and an equal number of non-Chinese taste them, half in unmarked dishes, and half with the bottles nearby the saucers the soy sauce was poured into. And we had twenty people also taste them in a chicken dish and in an all-vegetarian dish. We asked them to rate the soy sauces on a nine-point hedonic scale telling us how much they liked each one. Responses were similar no matter the ethnicity of the respondent. The five best, also in alphabetical order, were: Amoy Gold Label Light Soy, Koon Chun Thin Soy Sauce, Pearl River Bridge Mushroom Flavoured Superior Dark Soy Sauce, Sun Luck Naturally Brewed Chinese Style Soy Sauce, and Wan Ja Shan Soy Sauce.

These five items were as varied as one can imagine. The soy sauce content per tablespoon was lowest (750mg) in the Wan Ja Shan item, highest in the Pearl River Bridge one (1590mg). Three had expiration dates on their bottles (Amoy, Pearl River Bridge, and Wan Ja Shan) and three listed preservatives other than salt (Amoy, Sun Luck, and Wan Ja Shan). All were made with soybeans and flour, four listing this as wheat flour. At that time, one was made in China (Pearl River Bridge), two in Hong Kong (Amoy and Koon Chun), one in Taiwan (Wan Ja Shan), and one in the United States (Sun Luck). A few recommended refrigerating the soy sauce after opening it, all had nutrient labels, and all were as different as anyone might imagine.

My own taste differed considerably from those of the tasters. I preferred the Amoy dark to their light finding the light with a bitter aftertaste. The Koon Chun was much too salty for my taste but clearly was not for many as it was a very popular choice. Very few people selected hydrolyzed non-brewed varieties such as Chun King, Mee Tu, or La Choy. So what was my favorite? And what should you do? Purchase a few and find the one you prefer. Do not use a family favorite by default. Do select the one you really like best. Do what Barbara Tropp recommends: “let taste be your guide.”

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