How much do you know about soy sauce?

Recently I gave a speech at the Chinglish Toastmasters club on the topic of soy sauce. My goal was to research a topic, so I chose this very popular condiment.

When I was growing up in Sydney –  going out to dinner usually meant the local Australian Chinese restaurant.   Australian Chinese  food was like a blend of Cantonese cuisine  and bland English cooking.  Nearly every suburb in Sydney had such a restaurant and the menu had the same dishes -– sweet and sour pork, chicken and almonds, beef and black bean sauce – accompanied by prawn chips and fried rice.

Every table had the same special seasoning – Soy Sauce!

Since I am speaking here at  Chinglish Bilingual Toastmasters club – I have chosen the speech topic of soy sauce.   I realised I didn’t know much about soy sauce  so I referred to the Wikipedia article on soy sauce, as well as my Chinese cookbooks by Kylie Kwong.

What is Soy Sauce? Who invented it ? Which countries use it?  And What are the  best brands? The Chinese name for soy sauce is  酱油 – Jiang you in Mandarin.

How is soy sauce is made?

Naturally brewed. Soy sauce is made by brewing soybeans, salt, water and  another grain – usually wheat. It is then aged for a few months and sometimes up to two years. This process takes time- like making  a fine wine.  Naturally brewed soy sauce will have a rich mellow flavour.   A high quality soy sauce will not have any artificial flavours, preservatives or MSG.

Non-brewed.   I learnt there  is another way to make soy sauce – which is cheaper and faster  than traditional brewing. The sauce has  a longer shelf life. Non-brewed soy sauce is made in a few  days using a processed (hydrolised) vegetable protein and is usually very dark. Some non-brewed soy sauces have been found to contain cancer-causing substances – a result of the manufacturing process.      When buying soy sauce you should  read the label carefully and make sure it is naturally fermented.

There are two  main types of soy sauce :

  • Light soy – is used in dressings, stir fries and steamed dishes
  • Dark  soy – is aged longer and mixed with molasses. it is good for marinades and stock.

Origin of Soy Sauce

Is soy sauce a Chinese invention?  According to Wikipedia,  Soy sauce originated in China sometime in the 2nd century BC – that’s over 2000 years ago.  It was probably invented as a way to extend  salt which used to be an expensive commodity. In ancient China, fermented fish with salt was used as a condiment  with soybeans added during fermentation.

Buddhist monks from China introduced soy sauce into Japan in the 7th century where it is known as shoyu (しょうゆ).   You may have heard the word “tamari” – this is a sauce which is darker in appearance and contains little or no wheat.)

Soy sauce in Asia

Soy sauce is not exclusive to China – I am sure you are well aware of its use in Japanese food.   I am sure you are familiar with the little fish shaped soy sauce containers you get when you buy sushi.

Soy sauce is used in Burma, Vietnam, Thailand.    In Korea, soy sauce is called ganjang (간장) and in the Filipines it is toyo.  

Which brand to buy?

The best  advice on which brand to buy is to ask the expert – my role model for Chinese cooking in Australia  is Kylie Kwong.  I have watched her TV Series and own her two most recent cookbooks. I recently heard her speak at her book launch at Stanton library. One of the questions from the audience was about brands of soy sauce.

Kylie recommends for light soy sauce: Kikkoman, Pearl River Bridge and Healthy Boy Yellow Label.   For Tamari she recommends the Spiral brand.

Health and allergies

Soy sauce contains salt typically around 15%.    Using soy sauce in moderation is no different to adding a small amount of salt to your diet. Although you can buy low sodium soy sauce it is difficult to manufacture soy sauce without us

ing salt.

Remember what I said earlier about cancer causing substances in non-brewed soy?  That is a good reason for only buying naturally brewed sauces.

More information

You can get more information about soy sauce on the Kikkoman web site where you can download a recipe booklet.

So next time you are buying soy sauce – read the labels carefully and choose a naturally fermented soy sauce like Kikkoman.

I hope you have gained some insights into the wonderful flavours of soy sauce. Now you can look at the humble soy sauce bottle with greater insight and appreciation!

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1 Comment

  1. Same in the US (at least most in the San Francisco Bay Area). And, we were once told at a very good Chinese restaurant in San Francisco that to use (or worse, as for) soy sauce was considered an affront to the chef (i.e. you’re implying the food tastes are so bad that they have to be covered up with the salty tast of soy sauce).

    I still like soy sauce simply poured over some steamed rice; nice caramel flavour (at least with Kikkoman).

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