Soy sauce is not merely a condiment but a unique part of Asia’s culinary tradition.
It enhances the flavour and aroma of dishes such as fried noodles with beef and braised dongpo pork, as well as Japanese braised vegetables and meat and sushi. It works wonders in the kitchen.The practice of making sauce from fermented meat for emperors was first recorded in ancient China. Around the second century BC, the Chinese began to use fermented broad beans and other ingredients to make Doubanjiang, or chilli bean sauce.
By about 1000 AD, the Chinese began to get serious about making soy sauce. It is an art, with families passing down secret recipes from generation to generation. Despite the nuances, soy sauce is basically made from fermenting mashed soybeans, salt and enzymes, with help from the region’s climate, water and, of course, the craftsmanship of the maker.
The soy sauce typically produced in Guangdong is known as light soy sauce. Further brewing of light soy sauce with caramel turns it into dark, or old soy sauce, which is thicker and richer in taste. The best way to enjoy soy sauce is to mix it with butter in hot, plain rice. To enrich the soy sauce flavour, add a few drops of Hua Diao wine, Japanese sake or spirits.
Thankfully there are still a handful of soy sauce makers who adhere to traditional brewing techniques.
Among them is I Ho Yuan, a small traditional sauce and pickle shop in Yuen Long, Hong Kong, that has built up a solid reputation. The tiny factory relies on two very skillful masters, both of whom have
more than 30 years of experience. The company’s flagship Superlative Soy Sauce is one of the best-selling products, but I Ho Yuan insists on producing just 4,800 bottles a year in order to ensure the best quality.
Superlative Soy Sauce, known traditionally as Shih Tsai Ching, is a premium light soy sauce that is darker and thicker and carries the fragrance of soybeans. Presented as a gift to emperors as long as 2,000 years ago, the uniqueness of Superlative Soy Sauce lies in its high concentration of soybeans. About 100 catties of soybeans produce just 10
catties of sauce, and about 95 per cent of that is the essence of soybeans. It is a patient process involving a delicate balance of time – about a year – and natural fermentation.
The company was founded in 1974 by Tsang Hehkwan, a biochemist who moved to the city from Guangzhou in the 1950s. She
became an apprentice to a traditional soy sauce master before setting up her own business with just two workers. The company’s reputation for top-notch products has since spread far and wide.
Another dedicated brewer can be found in Japan, which adopted soy-bean brewing, along with Buddhism, in the eighth century. The Japanese only began mass production in the 15th century, however. Koji Kajita is the 13th generation of the Kajita family and works his magic at his family’s small business. His company chooses organic soybeans and wheat grown in Ehime Prefecture in northwestern Shikoku as ingredients for his flagship Tatsumi brand. Some noodle companies only use Tatsumi soy sauce in their soups as it offers the unique taste of Shikoku.
The brewing methods of Tatsumi and Superlative Soy Sauce are similar. Soaked beans are mixed with ground wheat. Then the mixture is exposed to the air to allow bacteria to break down the proteins before salt water is added. The mixture is left in a century-old Chinese fir barrel for brewing. For centuries, soy sauce has humbly enhanced the delicate flavour of other food, reflecting Asian cultures that stress the importance of devotion and contentment with one’s lot.