Soy Much To Talk About
It's everywhere and nowhere
On a recent Twitter thread (where all intellectual conversations begin, naturellement) where fellow food writer Clarissa Wei (who has a newsletter too!) lamented the fact that so little has been written in English about East Asian soybean-based sauces, I chimed in with a thought about the lack of talk about variation in soy sauce fermentation methods and their resulting flavours and usages.
From this thread spawned some interesting resources from other fellow food nerds, such as the Kikkoman Food Culture Journals, recommended by The Joy of Cooking (still a bit starstruck that they tweeted me), which is such a delightful trove of English-language writing on Japanese food culture. In the first few issues, there’s a detailed history of soy sauce in Japan. I love how the writer, food historian Ryoichi Iino, kicks off the series:
We need soy sauce just like we need air and water – and like air and water, we take its availability for granted.
It’s so true – despite being a Cantonese person who’s had soy sauce all her life, I’d never, until fairly recently, thought about how this essential condiment is made, and what’s required to make a good one. I’ve read very few meaningful articles in mainstream English-language media (actually, even Chinese) about soy sauce science. These questions began answering themselves when I visited a couple of Chinese sauce factories as part of some columns I wrote for the SCMP back in the day.
Generally speaking, most soy sauces are made by taking a soy bean and wheat flour (or barley) mixture, and inoculating it with a starter mould (a.k.a koji (why are Japanese terms so much more widely used in the West for these things? A topic worth researching…) which creates enzymes, thereby breaking down the soy and wheat). Then either brine (salt and water) or just salt is added. The amount of water determines whether the mixture ferments in a liquid or solid state. To my knowledge, Yuan’s is the only soy sauce maker in Hong Kong that uses solid state fermentation (SSF), and unlike some other solid state methods that include a small volume of water, Yuan’s uses no water at all. According to the owner, when I interviewed him back in 2017, this completely water-free solid state soy sauce is a Fujian thing, whereas liquid state fermentation (LSF) is common for Cantonese soy sauces. To my knowledge, Japanese and Korean soy sauces are also liquid state.
The differences, just from my own anecdotal experience, are evident in every way – colour, viscosity and flavour. SSF soy sauce from Yuan’s is extremely dark and inky, with a mushroomy flavour, is less salty, and is very thick. (I’ve yet to try an SSF soy sauce by anyone else – it seems rare, but I do wonder if places with high Fujianese populations, eg. Malaysia, do it). Artisanal LSF soy sauces made in Hong Kong, such as Kowloon Soy, Pat Chun, Koon Chun, and Dai Ma have a slightly sweeter, fruitier (sometimes alcohol) flavour, and tend to be less thick, although still quite inky compared to commercial soy sauces (like Lee Kum Kee – who claim to use natural fermentation methods even though the flavour, apart from the Double Deluxe, can’t hold a candle to the ones just mentioned – but I haven’t been able to find out much about their soy sauce processes, so, no comment!). I’ve read some scientific journals explaining the flavour differences between SSF and LSF soy sauces, and more than one has come to the conclusion that SSF produces fewer aromatic compounds. Wouldn’t more aromas be better? Why do some makers insist on SSF then, especially as it’s so expensive to make? I don’t exactly know why yet, but my guess is that having more aromas might not be the only point – maybe the specific aromas created by SSF, though fewer, are more distinctive and delicious?
The “traditional” way of brewing soy sauce allows nature to do its work – heat from the sun and time allow enzymes to break the mixture down. Soy beans are protein-rich, and protein is made up of blocks of amino acids. Breaking these blocks apart releases the individual amino acids, one of which is glutamic acid (together with sodium, it makes MSG), so that explains why soy sauce is such an important condiment – it provides what we now call umami (うま味 in Japanese; in Chinese we use the word 鮮 sin (Canto)/xian (Mandarin) which can also mean fresh), the “fifth” taste.
Apart from protein, there are also carbohydrates and fats in the soy and wheat mixture, and they get broken down by the enzymes too, which creates the rich, layered flavours – earthiness, sweetness, a waxy “oily” mouthfeel, etc. that characterise a good soy sauce.
Like any fermented product, industrial soy sauce has much less complexity. A common industrial method yields “chemical” soy sauce, where hydrochloric acid instead of fermentation is relied upon to break up the soy proteins. Whole soybeans in traditional soy sauce are foregone for soybean residue, leftover from soybean oil manufacturing (which is known as “defatted” soy meal and written on ingredient labels as “hydrolysed soy protein”); its relative lack of depth and colour made up for with additives like corn syrup, and colouring.
Sidebar 1: Soy sauce and gluten
Tamari is a Japanese-style soy sauce with no wheat added, and has become popular with the gluten-free crowd. It tends to be less full-bodied and have less natural sweetness, but has tons of umami.
Chinese soy sauces tend to use less wheat than Japanese ones. While I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone with celiac disease, if you’re desperate for soy sauce (and can’t find GF soy sauce/tamari) and have mild gluten intolerance, you might have a better chance with an artisanal Chinese soy sauce (especially SSF, but it’s hard to know that) over a Japanese one. If gluten intolerance is an issue, apart from tamari and liquid aminos, there are other products like black soybean sauce that are also good substitutes. (I swear this isn’t a Pat Chun advertorial, I just love their stuff because they’ve used so much time and effort to create additive-free, diet-inclusive foods and sauces using or inspired by traditional methods, with accountable new-school processes, and they’re 100% made in Hong Kong.)
Sidebar 2: Types of Chinese soy sauce
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but just some of the common and/or interesting types you might find at the shops in Hong Kong.
Chinese dark soy sauce (lo chau 老抽) is made by adding caramel to regular soy sauce, and in Chinese cooking, is usually used when you want a darker colour, eg. for soy sauce chicken. Thick “black soy sauce” or kecap manis, made in Southeast Asian countries, is similar, but usually sweetened with sugar, and sometimes contains herbs and spices.
The first/original batch of soy sauce taken from the fermentation tanks is called tau chau 頭抽 in Cantonese. Once the first batch is removed, brine can be added to the leftover fermented soybean-wheat combination to brew a second, less intense soy sauce, which is usually cheaper and used in cooking; whereas the rich tau chau is usually used as a dipping/dressing.
Sheung Wong Sang Chau 雙璜生抽 is often translated as “double deluxe” and deluxe it certainly is. It’s basically twice-fermented soy sauce – you take tau chau, and ferment it again with a new batch of inoculated soy and wheat. That’s double the amount of soy beans and wheat, and almost double the time. It has a much higher glutamate-to-salt ratio, which technically means it has better umami, hence it’s great as a dipping sauce and a very indulgent soy sauce to cook with. It’s like the méthode champenoise of soy sauces (you can totally quote me on that, LOL), but not in-bottle.
Not really a sidebar: Soy sauce history rant
Like anything that’s been around for millennia, it’s unclear where soy sauce comes from. Some prevailing theories say it was a byproduct of soy bean paste (eg. miso, again, the Japanese term is most widely accepted in English…) while others say soybeans were added to fish to aid in the fermentation of what we now know as fish sauce. The headline in this SCMP article on fish sauce is super annoying in that it assumes fish sauce came from the Roman Empire to Asia via the Silk Road, whereas the article itself actually says there’s no real evidence either way, and its sources say it could have been developed independently in Rome and Asia. The earliest writings in both China and the Roman Empire about fermented fish/soy sauces are from around the first century AD – why does English-language writing always assume Europe was first? Ugh!
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What I’m reading
I’m not quite done yet, but I’d say Now What?, Eater’s new package about the future of restaurants is essential reading for F&B folks.
What I ate
This has been a gut-busting week of eating. After last week’s newsletter was sent out, I hopped on the bus (so glamorous) to Four Seasons Hong Kong for one of the best staycation deals for lazy gluttons (ie. tailor-made for me), where we paid HK$2000 for a twin room, with in-room dinner and breakfast included. The deal is long gone, so don’t DM me asking about it, kthxbai. It was an awesome 20 or so hours of Cranium, baths (not for me, but my roommate very cleverly bought Lush bath bombs for the occasion), Netflix (Babysitter’s Club and Selling Sunset – so binge-able), and food. (We even got the kid’s activity pack with materials and instructions to make friendship bracelets, LOL). We were welcomed with a platter of cheeses and mignardises from Lung King Heen; dinner was a beautifully simple steak (served by the Caprice team – I suspect this isn’t always the case and was totally a journo perk, #realtalk). We wrapped up the gluttonous staycation with lunch at Caprice, where we were stuffed like good quails/chicken/whatever poultry you want and totally spoiled.
I finally made it to Basehall, the swanky hipster food court at the basement of Jardine House. I only had time for one thing, and there was never a doubt in my mind about the first stall I needed to hit – Return of Lemak, for laksa. It was super satisfying, with cockles, which most HK laksa peddlers in the past had been too chicken to use. The fried chicken in the nasi lemak looked darned good too. Something for next time.
Another “I finally made it to” place is Ando (a press invite), which is basically made up of the core team at Haku, plus a pastry team led by Joanna Yuen who used to be at Nobu. One main impression I had was that this new combo is super seamless – some places you eat at, and the pastry and hot kitchens live in parallel universes and seem to never talk. These guys have obviously been communicating. While there are definite Japanese inflections, I’d say the Mediterranean/Latin (can I say Hispanophone?) influences underpinned by classical French philosophies are coming through more than ever – there was a dish of kinki (channel rockfish) with romesco sauce that was a perfect encapsulation of that.
On a rare night at home this week, I cracked open a bottle of Nor’wester 2017, a Pinot Noir from NZ’s Waipara Valley, which I wrote briefly about in a previous newsletter as one of NZ’s most exciting wine-growing regions. It’s refreshing, with lighter red fruits and minimal wood, and totally ready to drink now. One of the best daily-drinking NZ PNs I’ve had; I believe it was only NZ$20 (that’s like, HK$100 – yes, Hongkongers I can hear your collective weeping, I’m weeping too).
Honestly, “What I ate” is getting way too long and might have to become its own newsletter – I guess eating a lot of good food is a not an awful position to be in, but I’ll keep these last two things short and sweet. The first was NZ grass-fed wagyu from online shop Eat The Kiwi that I had at my friend’s house and immediately ordered more for my own freezer. I love flank for its flavour, and this certainly delivered (geddit? Online shopping, delivery… It’s not funny when you have to explain it, sorry). The second was also bought online from a new Instagram shop called The House of Hummus. I’ve made a lot of hummus as my husband loves it (and technically, it’s not a difficult recipe) but I’ve never been able to get it as fluffy as theirs.
Love your work, and Clarissa's! Been working on an article about use of Japanese names in food in the West, and also the fetish for Japanese and Korean foods and ferments over Chinese. Metaphor for the West's relationships with these countries, and the success of Japan and Korea at cultural appeasement. Please share your soy sauce knowledge on a bigger platform!
I also pondered about why Japanese names are usually adopted instead of other Asian names. My bias brain thinks it's because Japan got the right PR and exposure with US, who happily consumed their culture while the rest of Asia is overlooked upon (too undeveloped, too communist, etc) or appreciated much later.