India — The term “soy sauce” most likely comes from the condiment’s Japanese name, “shoyu”. This is a bit strange, given that the Chinese invented the process of fermenting soy to create this nuanced sauce packed with flavour.
The Chinese call it “jiangyou” (Mandarin for “liquid extracted from soy beans”). There are records of soy sauce being made in China as far back as 95 BCE. But the European traders who traded in it globally acquired it in Japan, along with sake and miso.
Shoyu became saio by the mid-1600s, and soy by the end of that century. Eventually, “soy” became the common English name for the bean too (the Chinese and Japanese call it dadou and daizu respectively).
Since the 1980s, there have been efforts to reclaim the term “shoyu” for the sauce made using the traditional method of fermenting ingredients slowly for months in large barrels. But the term “soy sauce” is so widely used that these battles have been largely unsuccessful. Even versions made using quick industrial methods, with added colour, sugar and preservatives and a flat sharp flavour, are sold as “soy sauce”.
If you’re looking for something like the nuance of the original recipes, check the ingredients. If the front says “naturally brewed”, that’s a good sign. The ingredients list should be simple too, ideally just soybean, wheat, salt and water.
If instead it lists “hydrolysed soy protein”, and elements such as corn syrup, caramel colouring or potassium sorbate, expect to get none of the complexity and superior flavour of the traditional product.
True shoyu is difficult and time-consuming to make. It starts with a two-step fermentation process where, first, a cooked-soybean-and-wheat mixture is inoculated with a filamentous fungus called koji (Aspergillus oryzae).
Growing pure koji is hard. Temperature around it must be maintained at a precise 32 to 36 degrees Celsius; humidity at 40 to 70%. Make it happy and it grows really fast, but this can be a problem too. It can generate so much heat from this metabolic activity that it can literally burn out.
But this strain has the ability to inject large amounts of hydrolytic enzymes (protease and amylase) into proteins and complex carbohydrates, to break them down into simpler components such as glucose and amino acids, in just two or three days.
Once this process has begun, the second stage of fermentation involves adding this mix of soy, wheat and koji to a 16% brine solution, to create a mash called moromi. The high levels of salt eliminate the koji that was so carefully cultivated for the first stage; it is no longer needed. The enzymes, however, continue their work, breaking down the complex foods into simpler components that the salt-tolerant yeast and lactic acid bacteria can now digest.
The yeast and lactic acid bacteria are the ones that create tasty, flavourful byproducts ranging from alcohols and aldehydes to acids, phenols and ethers. The mix of all these enriches the flavour of true soy sauce. But this process can take from 30 days to nine months to several years, depending on the manufacturer; after which the moromi is very slowly pressed to obtain the raw soy sauce.
The sauce then undergoes pasteurisation, to stop any ongoing microbial activity and to increase the shelf life of the product. It is then bottled and sold.
By contrast, most industrial soy sauces (even the fermented kind) are made from de-fatted soymeal, the pulp left over after extracting soybean oil. As long as the industrial soy sauce is fermented or “naturally brewed” over time, and not a chemical mixed of hydrolysed soy protein and additives, it is still the better of the two options.
The best bet remains multi-generation artisanal soy-sauce makers who use whole soybean and extended fermentation cycles.
One thing to remember: no matter how it is made, soy sauce contains extremely high levels of salt. One tablespoon can contain 0.9gm of sodium (the WHO recommends 2gm of sodium per person per day). There are low-sodium alternatives available. The Japanese brand Kikkoman, the world’s largest soy-sauce manufacturer, says its low-sodium product follows all the traditional steps, but at the end they remove 40% of the salt.
Whatever brand you pick, use sparingly. Soy sauce is a lot like our achaars: enriching, in small doses.
TAKE YOUR PICK: Types of soy sauce and soy sauce alternatives
* Tamari: This term was coined for the sauce that pools on top when miso is made. Nowadays, the term has come to be used for gluten-free soy sauces. If you are following a gluten-free diet, check the label to confirm that zero wheat was added.
* Light soy sauce: This is the common type available in most international markets. It is a lighter and saltier soy sauce and makes for a good dip. Just like extra virgin olive oil comes from the first press of olives and is packed full of flavour, light soy sauce is more flavourful because it comes from the first press of the moromi mash.
* Dark soy sauce: This comes from the later press, further fermented or concentrated with additions of sugar or colourants. It is mainly used to add colour to a dish. It is sweeter and thicker than light soy sauce.
* Nama shoyu: Almost all soy sauces available today are pasteurised. To taste soy sauce with live cultures still in it, look for small manufacturers selling the product unpasteurised. Nama, incidentally, means raw.
* Coconut aminos: Those looking to avoid soy products but still get the complex, fermented sauce flavour can try coconut aminos. This is a fermented coconut-tree sap. It is sweeter and lighter than soy sauce, and has less than a third of the sodium content.
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