Over an arched bridge, past hand-tended gardens, in a building modeled after the Edo Castle, workmen dressed in traditional happi garb stand on runners above cedar casks and churn a mash of fermenting moromi with bamboo paddles. The paddles and casks are painted vermillion—the color of the imperial family of Japan—and only those of royal lineage enjoy the soy sauce made here.
Although the product made in Guyogura, on the compound of the Kikkoman company, is not available to the public, many soy sauce makers adhere to similar guidelines. Even in the United States, myriad craft-brewed varieties are available for soy sauce lovers. And learning why the condiment packs as much flavor as it does may encourage even more people to become connoisseurs.
The World According To Soy Sauce
The historical emergence of soy sauce is difficult to date. The method of making the condiment is a mosaic of tradition that goes back hundreds of years.
A millennia ago, throughout Japan, China and Southeast Asia, fish, vegetables and meat were preserved with sea salt, and the runoff extracts were popular sauces gathered for the rich flavor they imparted to food. According to Robert Carmack, an author from Sydney, Australia, and authority on soy sauce, those early precursors were probably porridgelike, closer to a cloudy-gray shrimp paste than the smooth, dark soy sauce we now know.
The development of the condiment continued with the rise and spread of Buddhism and vegetarianism. A Zen Buddhist monk named Gakushin brought the recipe for a salty mash based on soy beans, called miso, from China to Japan in 1250 A.D. The monk discovered that if he added extra water to the paste while it fermented, a thick, dark sauce surfaced. The flavoring was called tamari.
The production process was perfected during the Edo period (1603-1867), and the recipe was amended—most prominently by the inclusion of wheat—to enhance the flavor complexity. And now, except for using modern machines to wash and cook the raw materials, those who make traditionally brewed soy sauce, called shoyu, employ the same three steps.
Brewing Traditional Shoyu
The first step in the brewing process is called koji production. Whole winter wheat, which has been cracked and roasted, is mixed in roughly equal proportion with steamed whole soybeans and then inoculated with spores of a seed mold, Aspergillus. After three days in a warm, humid room, the koji is covered with a fragrant, fluffy mold mycelia.
Brine fermentation is next, and a solution of water, sea salt and nigari (a mineral found in seawater) is added to the koji. The thick mash of koji and brine, called moromi, ferments in cedar casks, traditionally for one calendar year. During this slow maturation process, the naturally occurring yeast and bacteria, as well as the enzymes in the koji, break down the carbohydrates, proteins and oils of the wheat and soybeans and create the range of flavor found in traditional shoyu—from sweet sugars all the way to aromatic alcohols.
The mature, fermented moromi is then strained to extract the dark liquid. The leftover soybean oil, which rises to the surface, is removed. Low-temperature pasteurization adds another level to the depth of flavor, then the product is bottled.
Carmack says that the variety of soy sauce made using a process that most closely resembles the traditional blend of ingredients, koikuchi , is the most popular in Japan, taking 85 percent of the local market. "It's brilliantly brown in hue with shades of clarity at the edges, strong in aroma, and its flavor is not too salty, not too sweet," Carmack says. "This is the sauce favored in Tokyo and environs, and it's at home both in the kitchen, and on the table—poured atop both cooked dishes as well as raw sashimi platters."
The Good, The Better And The Ugly
In Japan, soy sauce brewing is like microbrewing beer in America. The brewing process is similar, but recipe variations are abundant and provide unique flavors for regional tastes. In terms of the product made for export, there are fewer varieties, but the differences are greater and the ingredients label tells a story.
The first distinction is between brewed and blended sauces. Brewed soy sauces follow the three-step process developed over hundreds of years and have only four ingredients: water, wheat, soy beans and salt. The blended product is a chemical cocktail that takes days instead of months to make and became popular with companies that were trying to cut production costs.
Unofficial history holds that during the American occupation of Japan following World War II, shortages of raw materials were common. Soy sauce manufacturers were forced by authorities to amend their traditional ways. Soybeans were boiled in hydrochloric acid for 15 to 20 hours to extract their enzymes, and after being cooled and neutralized, they were filtered and mixed with active carbon, color and flavor.
The taste of the chemical version only slightly resembles the brewed condiment. With one whiff the distinction is evident, but the presence of multisyllabic chemicals on the ingredients label is the truest tell.
The other main distinction—the type of soybeans used—differentiates regular-brewed soy sauce from the small-batch organic varieties. During the same war years, a less bastardized means of extracting soy protein enzymes than using hydrochloric acid became popular. Brewers used soy meal, which had its oil extracted for other commercial purposes. It takes a true connoisseur to readily distinguish the flavor, and the process is less expensive because the meal fermented faster without its oil, three months instead of 12.
But this distinction has become more significant recently, as hydrolized soy meal can't be tested for the presence of GMOs. To guarantee an organic product, producers must buy and use whole soybeans, certified-organic, from the farm.
The Customer Connection
Ardent soy sauce fans must visit Japan to truly indulge themselves, but an informed consumer can understand the differences available and incorporate the options into home cooking. And even for customers who aren't soy sauce afficionados, a little help may be all they need.
Recipe development and recipe cards are a good tool for teaching customers how to use soy sauce, says Kathy Mattisz, marketing manager at San-J Int'l. The Richmond, Va.-based company prints index cards to be displayed on shelves, endcaps or with demos. "We also have a consumer recipe book for people who call in and want ideas on how to use it, or for people who think that it's only for making stir-fry recipes," Mattisz says. "We try to develop recipes that make people think outside the stereotype that Asian ingredients are strictly for stir-frying."
Savvy soy sauce consumers use it in vinaigrettes and to add depth to soups or bean dishes, says Sue Becker, marketing manager at Clinton, Mich.-based Eden Foods. "In natural foods stores, it's not really an Asian ingredient," Becker says. "A lot of people just buy it as a regular seasoning."
Becker says the pan-Asian fascination of the 1990s increased demand for her company's product, but people put it on everything now. If they don't, Eden tries to help by providing recipes via the Web, and giving away pamphlets. It also sponsors natural/gourmet chefs to give cooking classes in stores.
Rebecca Wood, a chef and cookbook author based in Crestone, Colo., works with Eden. During her classes, she prepares a five-course meal and teaches home cooks how to incorporate specific ingredients. Wood works with soy sauce and tamari because they both have broad effect and enhance the flavor of many foods. "It's a remarkable ingredient that adds depth to cooking," Wood says.
"Most typically, we stimulate sales, but it's hard to tell exactly," says Bryan Read, store manager at Sun Drop Grocery, one location where Wood has conducted cooking classes. The Grand Junction, Colo., retailer would like to have more food-flavor education opportunities available for customers. It serves the clientele, and with a guest spot on local public radio, the classes and demos drew hundreds of people.
The effect of the classes isn't automatically apparent. But informed customers know what they're buying, and if they know the difference, they'll usually buy quality brands. Read guesses that the information on flavor, quality and use informs his customers' future purchases. "When stock runs low at home, instead of buying low-grade," he says, "they'll step up and spend a bit more on better."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 10/p. 50, 52, 54