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Soy Sauce: A Factory Visit and Tasting

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Spring Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(2) page(s): 15, 16, and 17

SOY SAUCE is not a magical nutritional component, rather it is a complex fermented product made from soy beans. The Chinese have used this flavoring component for thousands of years. Yet many use the brand their family used and never try another one.

Worse yet, many westerners do not know one made chemically, that is with hydrolyzed protein, from one that ages naturally. Do you and do they know that the breakdown of protein to its amino acid components requires the addition of an acid; and naturally brewed soy sauces get no acidic additions?

Some companies make more than one kind of soy sauce. They might make a 'thin soy sauce,' which used to be called 'light soy' discussing its color. They can no longer call it that because now a product called 'light' means at least twenty-five percent fewer calories. Some companies also make a 'dark soy sauce.' They may even make a 'thick soy sauce,' the latter can be called 'soy paste' or 'soy jam.'

Better manufacturers make their soy sauces from premium-grade beans and brew it according to age-old ‘natural’ methods. Most soy sauce also includes a reasonable amount of wheat, often close to fifty percent by dry weight. And, as already said, some soy sauces add hydrolyzed protein, a chemical process used almost exclusively to speed up the manufacturing process. Others add corn syrup or caramelized sugar or just caramel coloring or plain sucrose or table sugar or fructose, which is corn syrup. They all add salt. You need to read labels to learn what each bottle of soy cause contains. In addition, some soy sauces put in additives or preservatives, some bill themselves as organic, and some are made with reduced amounts of sodium. These are the main differences in soy sauces. And these differences impact the taste of the final product.

Thin soy sauce usually has more salt in it than dark soy sauce. Every dark soy has a sweetener added, the most common is caramelized sugar. Most soy sauces are aged for at least half a year. Many say that the better ones are aged for two to four years. Several friends tell us that a three year old soy sauce is what they prefer. However, rare is the bottle of soy sauce that old, or any soy sauce that comes with how long it was aged. We are not sure how to determine this, so we just call the manufacturer and ask. And, we do not always trust their answers because two calls to the same place on different days can get two different answers.

How do you select a very fine soy sauce? The answer is 'with difficulty.' The best approach is to taste several of them at the same time. We recommend that you prepare some carrot sticks and put each soy sauce into a small clear glass container. For taste testing, we like to use clear plastic glasses, saves on clean up. Do not label which one is which. Just dip a carrot stick into one, taste it, then try another. You do not need to eat the carrot, just lick off the soy sauce and see if you like it. The best product is wrong for you, no matter price or quality, if you do not like it. And, what you are learning is which soy sauce is the best dipping soy sauce. It may not be the best one for cooking. So now you know the one you like best for dipping, Soy sauce changes its taste when used in cooking. Learning which soy sauce to use for cooking is a separate taste testing. For this, we recommend making chicken dishes that are not spicy. We like to cut up all ingredients and separate each one into four parts. Then we cook each of the four dishes with a different soy sauce. This gets to the answer, but keep in mind that soy sauce deteriorates over time. It is best when kept for weeks, not months, and best when refrigerated after opening it. Why? Because then it stays longer in the fridge with less deterioration.

Like wine, soy sauce is a fermented product. It is made of soybeans, roasted wheat, and an inoculated mold called Aepergillus. After the inoculation, the soy sauce sits for three days until the culture, called by its Japanese name of koji, develops. After it has, the liquid mash, as this is now called, is put into fermentation tanks for months, even years. Then, before bottling, the liquid is filtered by pressing the solids out. The residue that is left is often sold to pig and cattle farmers to use as an addition to their regular feed.

Labels for soy sauce are poorly regulated, if at all. The Food and Drug Administration sets no standards for soy sauce, other than use of the words light or organic. That means that words like aged, traditionally brewed, etc. mean very little, if anything. Synthetically made, that is chemically hydrolyzed products do not even have to have one soy bean in them, though most do. Some hydrolyzed soy sauces in their manufacture have their hydrolyzed protein boiled with some hydrochloric acid. The ingredient list and the nutrition label are regulated by law. The ingredients must be listed in order, the heaviest one first, the next heaviest after that, etc. To know what is in the soy sauce you purchase, always read the label before you try it or any other new product.

When stir-frying, each soy sauces will taste different than when tasting it as a dipping sauce. Therefore, select the best three or four that you like in a simple tasting, and use them in the same stir-fry dish on the same day, made from identical ingredients made in identical amounts. This is a difficult task as there are many products out there and each one does taste differently.

The king's cook, in the Zhou dynasty which began 1045 BCE, used one hundred twenty different sauces. He was an expert. Allow yourself to try a few different ones every few weeks. And for taste testing, purchase the smallest size possible. Keep in mind that soy sauce has been used for more than three thousand years, and one day in your life is a small amount of time to find one you like. Make a neighborhood soy sauce tasting party. That way can share costs and the workload, and have fun, too.

Few condiments are as misunderstood as soy sauce. Most people have a few vinegars and even a few oils in their cupboards, but they would not consider having several soy sauces. We giggle at a serious soy sauce tasting of Chinese and Japanese varieties that mix thin and dark soy sauces. It is a good beginning to show that there are major differences, but not the way to select a favorite brand. Most Japanese soy sauce is even thinner than Chinese thin soy, so if tasting them, do not include any dark soy tasting at the same time.

SOY SAUCE MANUFACTURE is best understood when visiting a major Chinese manufacturer in the United States that makes these soy sauces. We visited Wan Ja Shan in Middletown New York, to our knowledge, the only major Chinese soy sauce manufacturer in this country. They do have two plants in Taiwan, and their newest in China. They were kind enough to give us a tour and did send us home with some of their products.

The factory, offices, even the ladies room was as clean as a whistle. Their entire operation, done carefully, is headed by a production manager whose training is in chemistry from China and from Germany. It is from him and them and other places visited in Taiwan and Hong Kong that we learned a lot about soy sauce. They faxed us a chart of the process, which appears in the hard copy of this issue. We will describe it in our own words.

Steamed soy beans, they said, start the taste, roasted wheat adds more-- though only a little, and aging mellows the flavor and darkens the color. Their soy sauce products are made only from soy beans, wheat, water, salt, and sugar. They grind the roasted wheat and mix it with soybeans. This mixture sits for two or three days then inoculated with carefully selected mold. Here is where color, flavor, and aroma really begin to develop. This mash gets mixed several times using pressurized jolts of air. It is allowed to ferment with added brine; that is where the salt comes in. The soy/wheat/salt/water mash sits in huge twenty thousand gallon fiberglass tanks with sugar, for six months, at least.

When the fermentation is complete and the color appropriate, then they press the solids and filter out the raw soy sauce. After this, they pasteurize the soy sauce to destroy any pathogenic bacteria, and package it after their own laboratory does all necessary tests; and it is a sophisticated lab.

Why do they add a mold? Europeans ferment wines and hops using sugars or malts. Only the Chinese are large users of molds in the aging, mellowing, and ripening processes. They have been doing so for thousands of years, they correctly said. Many cheeses use strains of specific molds, too. The Chinese do use mold in this manner, as well. Read the article about fermented tofu, called fuyu. Some call this Chinese cheese, but it is not. It is in Flavor and Fortune’s Volume 9(2) on pages 9 and 10.

But back to making soy sauce, all soy sauces have at least a mite of wheat, some lots of it. The product called tamari is made like soy sauce but with very little, almost no wheat in it. Mandarin Soy Sauce, another name for this company, which means 'aroma to ten thousand homes,' is what Wan Ja Shan means; more literally translated it is: 'ten thousand homes aroma.'

They do make an organic GMO soy sauce, that is with no Genetically Modified Organisms or items in this product. They also make a clear soy sauce, a teriyaki sauce, a tamari sauce, hoisin sauce, Bar-B-Q Sauce, and dozens of other products. Go to their website at: www.wanjashan.com to learn more about the company and all the items they sell to their industrial, food service, and their retail customers. At the retail level, they are sold in Asian and western supermarkets and other food stores, and they are a very respected brand. All of the products made domestically are kosher and pareve and all do carry the ‘k’ seal on their label.

DISTRIBUTION OF SOY AND OTHER SAUCES is excting visiting an upscale wholesale supplier who has a retail outlet. There, we taste (then buy) their Jansal Valley White Soy Sauce, other soy sauces, and other things, too. This is at: Sid Wainer and Son; 2301 Purchase Street; New Bedford MA; phone: (800) 423-8333. Their 'white soy sauce' was touted in The New York Times, for use with light colored vegetables. We had not yet tasted it nor Wan Ja Shan's clear to compare these particular products, and when we did, found the clear soy sauce in a vegetable chicken dish making it look non-Chinese, or slightly Yunnanese. The taste seems wrong, too. Incidentally, our tasting group thinks it not worth using when wanting Chinese tastes. It comes in half-size bottles and costs a pretty penny; but they did not originally know that. The regular Jansal Valley Soy Sauce which is aged fourteen months and everyone likes very much. All soy sauces at Sid Wainer are Japanese products. There are great items, but not our favorites for Chinese cooking.

However, their regular soy sauce is the best dipping soy we have ever tasted. We do recommend it to those who make their own sushi and/or dumplings. The Jansal Valley Pure Sesame Oil is fantastic, too. It has a superb flavor with no bitterness, no burnt taste, and no acrid taste. Everyone we ever serve it to loves it.

If you never have been to a speciality foods facility, do go to Sid Wainer’s. It is not a manufacturing plant but rather a wholesale foods facility that does have a retail market. If it is too far away, then just visit their website: www.sidwainer.com For directions, as it is hard to find, call them at: (800) 423-8333.

Wainer and Sons have very few Asian products, but what they do have are outstanding produce, unusual stuff. Every ingredient they sell has been tested and is at the top of its line! Going there and tasting their other ingredients is a phenomenal experience. There are always many things available to whet your appetite and fill your belly. Their fig cake, balsamic vinegar, fig sauce, pasta, and produce are always on our shopping list. Stopping there when we are nearby is a must. The many samples offered help you decide what to buy. One last thing, should you wonder where Jansal Valley is, that is a name they gave to their Japanese products. They do not carry any Chinese ones.

TASTING was best at the soy sauce plant. Half of the tasters were Chinese, none were Japanese. The non-Asian taste testers were of various ethnicities, all second generation and all born in the United States. The first item we tasted was an aged Wan Ja Shan soy sauce. At a visual glace it seems thin to many of our taste testers. The tasters write that it is the darkest all-purpose soy sauce, and to a person they like it very much. We do not ask, as we have done in other tasting for people to put the soy sauces in rank order, because order of presentation impacts this, as we were given the items by the manufacturer. Also, our sample size is in the low twenties, not hundreds of taste testers, so we do not feel that is important. There are many items to taste, and the critical question in this tasting is: Would you but this product? What we want to learn is did they really like a soy sauce enough to purchase it.

Keep in mind that all of the soy sauces tasted were poured into identical small glass bottles and filled half way. We taste thin soy sauces first, dark ones an hour afterwards. No one is allowed to speak when tasting, but they are allowed to compare notes when finished; and they could re-taste with the real bottle of the product put out beside the bottle they had poured the sauce from. No one is influenced by another’s comments nor does anyone change their comments when seeing the brand name.

Putting the soy sauces in unlabeled bottles originally did allow the tasters to check how well the sauce coated the bottle and how long the glass took to clear. We did this because at a previous tasting people said they use soy sauce from a bottle and not from a glass. We are always asked what we like, so here are our choices up front. But before revealing that, we have seven different soy sauces at our home all the time, at a minimum.

We use Wan Ja Shan aged soy and both Koon Chun’s as our basic every day soy sauces. We also adore the Wan Ja Shan Vegetarian Oyster Sauce, which was not part of this tasting, and is a mushroom soy sauce. We have always used the vegetarian product instead of thick soy. If you have never tried it, maybe you should; and if you are a vegetarian, you may want to know that the flavor comes from a mushroom/glutamate concentrate. The glutamates in them enhance all flavors.

Was there any overall agreement? You bet! All the low sodium soy sauces were rejected as missing something, but that was said in a variety of different ways. When shown that they were low sodium products, all but one panel member said they will never buy them again.

So what did people like? They did like the Kimlan Super Special Soy Sauce which is made in Taiwan, for cooking and for use as a dip. They also liked Koon Chun Thin Soy Sauce and said it was one of their favorites but Koon Chun’s Double Black Soy Sauce was not. It was, they said, syrupy but not too salty. Koon Chun is made in China. Except for two folk, the Wan Ja Shan aged soy was very well liked and those who did, said they would purchase it. Their product just called Soy Sauce got one hundred percent similar results.

Eden Selected Shoyu, made in Japan, was just OK, the Eden Organic Shoyu, on the other hand, was no one’s favorite. Pearl River Bridge Golden Label Superior Soy, made in the People’s Republic of China, everyone found texturally thin, too salty, and half said it tasted burnt. Most reported it too sweet.

Wei-Chuan's China Dark Soy Sauce, made in Singapore, was not popular. Some said it had a funny aroma. One said the smell was close to rotten cheese; another said it was too sweet. We did put La Choy in one of those clear glass bottles and found no surprise that many tasters sensed its chemical taste. Many said it was bitter, salty, and acidic. No one liked it for dipping or for cooking.

Lee Kum Kee, who makes six soy sauce varieties, had only three of them tasted, the Premium Soy Sauce, the Premium Dark Soy Sauce, and the one simply labeled Soy Sauce. These sauces are made in Hong Kong. The first two have no MSG nor any preservatives added. The last one just says 'no preservatives.' Our panel liked the two premium products and found them smooth, the dark soy they found a little sweet. The one just called Soy Sauce was reported as bitter and quite salty, and a few indicated they would not buy that particular one, but would purchase the others.

Overall, quite a few soy sauces fared well, while some did not. Do try a soy sauce tasting yourself. Chefs with whom we have done similar tastings agree that they now have better appreciation for differences. Every chef commented that they will no longer consider all soy sauce equivalent to all other soy sauces. We hope you will become better acquainted with more Chinese sauces; maybe not the hundred and twenty used in the kitchens of the Zhou Dynasty king, but certainly several of them. And do keep your soy sauce in the refrigerator. That is recommended for anyone keeping theirs more than a month or two after opening the bottle. Our refrigerator usually has six or seven different soy sauce products in it at any given moment. We even make an everyday mix with about a quarter dark soy, a quarter mushroom soy, and half of a good thin soy sauce. This we use for quick meals when we come in late. You might even want to try some mix and match varieties, too.

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