But not all bottles are made equally from this fundamentally dark, salty spice, as there is a great variety of flavors and brands available – some are of better quality than others.
Although soy sauce is now produced in factories around the world, most soy sauces on supermarket shelves are of Chinese or Japanese origin and consist mainly of soybeans, salt, water and wheat flour (or in some cases whole wheat).
Daniel Chan is the fourth-generation co-owner of the Koon Chun Sauce Factory, located in Yuen Long, New Territories of Hong Kong. (The company is currently run by the Chan and Tam families.)
He says he didn’t even think about taking over the family business about seven years ago until his grandfather received an invitation.
“(Adult) I knew my family had a soy sauce factory, but they never told me to take it over. So I didn’t know much about soy sauce when I could,” Chan says.
Soy sauce is a key ingredient in countless pasta dishes.
bonchan / iStockphoto / Getty Images
A lot has changed since then. With an anthropological past and a love of academic research, he has immersed himself in the world of soy sauce and is today considered one of Hong Kong’s best-known experts.
In addition to preserving your family heritage, you want to “preserve and pass on” the unique heritage of soy sauce making.
Although there is much debate about the origin of soy sauce and who invented it, Chan, after collaborating with professors and scientists on research on the subject, says there was an obvious mention of this succulent liquid only about six centuries ago. chinese literature.
“And it wasn’t until the early 1900s that soy sauce became an essential commodity for East Asian families,” Chan says.
“This was because soybeans were an important military resource in ancient times, and most soybean production was limited in Manchuria (northeastern China),” Chan explains passionately.
Daniel Chan, left, is the fourth-generation co-owner of the Koon Chun Sauce Factory.
Maggie Hiufu Wong
Every soy sauce maker has a slightly different recipe and cooking process, but most traditional versions take three to six months to make.
The soybeans are sorted, boiled and then mixed with microbiological cultures and flour. It is then left to ferment in a room with controlled temperature and humidity.
Founded in 1926, Koon Chun continues to largely follow this traditional practice and produce soy sauce that is free of added chemicals and preservatives, but has introduced new technologies and techniques around the world.
“We learned from Japan how to use a culture to facilitate the fermentation process,” Chan says.
“In the past, soy sauce makers could only rely on natural weather and humidity to ferment beans and hoped to develop some natural mold culture. That’s why they could only cook one serving of soy sauce a year before.
The fermented soybeans are then placed in a container with a mixture of salt and water, which is exposed to sunlight for two to three months as a second step in the fermentation process.
The fragrant brown liquid is then extracted and transferred to another container where they can sunbathe for an additional three months before it is ready for bottling.
Shake the bottle
While some factories fill emptied soybean tanks with more water to extract more soy sauce, artisanal producers avoid this to give the soy sauce maximum umami flavor.
“You can imagine how little soy left over after the second extraction, right?” says Chan.
The soybeans left over from the tanks are then used to make products such as hoisin sauce and soy paste.
The soy sauce extracted from the first fermentation cycle is called the “first extraction soy sauce” (tauh chau in Cantonese) or premium soy sauce.
Koon Chun owner Daniel Chan says quality soy sauce should form a foam when shaken.
Maggie Hiufu Wong
But here things are complicated. Bottle labels often do not mention whether the soy sauce is the result of a second or third extraction process.
One way to do this is to view a list of ingredients. More specifically, the level of soy content. A lower soy level means it is the product of a later extraction.
These soy sauces often rely on additives, artificial colors, and chemicals to create soy flavors and dark colors.
“The other way to find out how much real soy is in a soy sauce is to shake the bottle,” Chan adds. “Of course you only do it if the supermarket staff looks away.”
If the soy sauce forms a dense layer of foam that lasts for a few minutes, it means it has a significant soybean content, he says.
Light versus dark
Different eating scenarios require different types of soy sauces.
If a Chinese recipe prescribes soy sauce but doesn’t specify which style, it’s usually best to use a light soy sauce (saang chau) – soy sauce made using the process described above.
Seung wong is another type of light soy sauce.
Instead of using salt water, growers add already produced soy sauce to fermented soybeans during the tanning process to double their taste – hence sometimes referred to as double fermentation soy sauce.
The process of making soy sauce is long and requires several steps.
Maggie Hiufu Wong
And I’m sorry light soy sauce isn’t interchangeable with dark soy sauce.
Despite its darker appearance and longer cooking time, Chinese dark soy sauce (louh chau) is no saltier. In fact, thanks to additives like molasses, dark soy sauce has a slightly sweet taste.
It is mostly used to “color” a food – for example, it makes browned dough browner.
Like dark soy sauce, thick soy sauce (dik jyu yauh) is more syrupy – light than soy sauce and heavy than molasses – and is used primarily to color roasted meat.
Also keep in mind that each brand describes different types of light and dark soy sauces in a specific way.
Koon Chun, for example, calls them “thin soy sauce” and “black soy sauce.”
What about Japanese soy sauce?
Kikkoman is one of the most popular soy sauce brands in the world.
Igor Golovniov / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images
Things are further complicated by the fact that the taste profile of light and dark soy sauce does not apply to Japanese soy sauce or shoyu. (The most famous brand in Japanese shoyu is Kikkoman, founded in 1917. It has manufacturing facilities and offices around the world.)
Light soy sauce (usukuchi) is softer and lighter. Perfect for lighter dishes like tamagoyaki (a kind of Japanese omelette).
“Japanese soy sauce is usually a good dipping soy sauce because whole wheat is used in the soy sauce, which gives it a low alcohol level (ABV of around 1-3%) and a sweeter taste. This makes it easier to touch the tongue when consumed,” says Chan.
When dipping sashimi and sushi, most prefer the use of tamari shoyu and saishikomi shoyu, which have a stronger flavor and a thicker texture.
Tamari is similar to the most traditional shoyu variety in Japan, but no wheat is used in the manufacturing process.
Sashikomi, on the other hand, is made after the first fermentation, after removing the salt water. Sweeter than other Japanese soy sauces.
Taste the variety
Are you ready to experiment? Try mixing soy sauce varieties to create your own distinctive flavor.
Eleonora Grigorjeva / iStockphoto / Getty Images
Once you’ve learned the basics, it’s time to venture into the world of flavored soy sauces. These are made with additional ingredients such as mushrooms and shrimp to enhance the taste of the product.
Meanwhile, soy sauces for special uses, such as steamed fish sauce or clay pot rice sauce, are usually only modified versions of dark or light soy sauces.
For those who are worried about the high salt content of soy sauce, the most popular brands produce low-sodium varieties.
Do you want to go deeper? Taste soy sauces made in other countries in the region, including Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and South Korea, each with a distinctive flavor profile.
Chan also suggests experimenting with mixing light soy sauce, dark soy sauce and other ingredients such as sugar to create your own distinctive flavor.
You may also want to buy a smaller bottle of soy sauce to keep the taste fresh. Or fill the large bottle of soy sauce into smaller jars for daily use while storing the large bottle in a cool, sheltered place or in the refrigerator.
The soy sauce maker’s “surreal” trip to Reunion
In 2018, Koon Chun owner Daniel Chan visited Reunion Island to find out why family sauces are so popular there.
About half of the soy sauce produced by Koon Chun is destined for North America and Europe.
However, owner Chan says he is still surprised by the overseas popularity of his family’s products. He calls his trip to Reunion Island, a French overseas island in Africa in 2018 with a population of about 800,000, particularly “surreal.”
“La Reunion has always been a major importer of our sauces – it imported 30 to 40 containers of sauce a year. That’s why I stopped during my business trip to find out why I bought so many sauces from a remote African volcanic island,” says Chan.
As he entered a local bakery, he noticed two rice cookers on the counter that had Chinese siu today.
Chan learned that these pork dumplings (locally known as bouchons), often paired with Asian sauces, are essential snacks in Reunion.
“And many (those who sell them) have been supporting Koon Chun sauces for decades,” he says.
“I met a shopkeeper who screamed excitedly when I introduced myself. He said he never thought he would meet the owner of the sauce.”