Soy Sauce 醬油

The Indispensable Ingredient
Source of Umami

“With soy sauce, you can cook an untiring series of Chinese dishes with nothing but those foods you can get at any American market.” — Buwei Yang Chao [1]

How to use Soy Sauce

Soy Sauce

What Is Is: Soy sauce is a dark, salty, savory sauce of East Asian origin that is used in cooking and flavoring food, both in the kitchen and at the table.  Dr. Chao puts it very simply: “Soy sauce is the most important flavorer of Chinese food.”

Soy Sauceis also used in a wide swath of he Pacific Rim, including Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Burma, the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries, and as far as Brazil and Hawaii. [2]

Kecap Manis, Sweetened Soy Sauce

Indonesian Kecap Manis
Sweetened Soy Sauce

In recent years, Soy Sauce has become popular in many Western cuisines, and also made in countries outside the Pacific Rim, sometimes well made, sometimes with disastrous results, as we’ll see.

Soy Sauce is so popular because it provides umami, the taste sensation first identified by a chemist at Tokyo Imperial University in 1908.

Its Name: The English word “Soy Sauce” and similar words in a number of Western languages, pretty accurately describes what it is, namely, a sauce made by fermenting Soy Beans — for the most part and usually, though sometimes other grains like wheat are also used.

Chinese Name: Soy Sauce originated in China, and the most usual word for it, Jiang Yu   醬油 is a word for a fermented sauce. The original Chinese term was used for various types of fermented food, not just from fermented Soy Beans.  The common names for Soy Sauce in several Asian languages are loan-words from the original Chinese:

Japanese —  Shoyu Korean — Ganjang Tagalog — Toyo

History of Soy Sauce: Soy Sauce appeared in China about the second century BCE.  It was possibly first used as a seasoning to extend or stretch salt, which was extremely expensive in ancient times.

Chinese monks then brought the techniques for manufacturing Soy foods including Soy Sauce to Japan in the 8th century.  It has spread throughout most of the Pacific Rim countries.

In the 18th century, Japanese Soy Sauce was exported to the Dutch East Indies and then to Europe. Soy Sauce also made its way to India during the British colonial period and appears to have given rise to Worcestershire Sauce — That’s a separate story.

Soy Sauce was manufactured in the United States in the early 20th century, initially in Indiana, later in Hawaii, California, and now many places. [3]

Geography of Soy Sauce: Following its development in China and migration to Japan and Korea, Soy Sauce developed as a popular seasoning in the Pacific Rim countries, with many different varieties and manufacturing techniques  —  we’ll take a look at some of the major ones.

Some main countries where Soy Sauce is an important ingredient are:


How It’s Made — Traditional Way: Traditionally, Soy Sauce was made by a natural fermentation of Soy Beans, with sometimes other grains like wheat added, using yeast, aged up to a year and a half, then refined and packaged.  The old artisanal approach has largely fallen into disease, although in recent years there has been a revival of interest in the traditional methods in several of the Pacific Rim countries.

How It’s Made — Modern Way: Since the Second World War, for economic reasons, new methods of making Soy Sauce using hydrolized vegetable protein (HVP) and other large-scale production methods to speed up the fermentation process, have essentially replaced the time-honored slow fermentation method. The use of strict quality control measures and sophisticated technology have permitted production of a quality which is quite comparable to the old traditional completely natural sauce, and at lower price.

How It’s Made — Artificial Way: In the 20th century, some American makers developed techniques that enabled them to produce a kind of inexpensive, strongly flavored Soy Sauce by chemical means. This involved combining hydrolized vegetable protein (HVP) with hydrochloric acid, water, caramel and other flavorings to produce a cheap sauce.

This type of sauce is often sold in the United States under Chinese-sounding brand names. In fact, until recently it was the most widely consumed variety in America.  Chemical Soy Sauce is not fermented at all and lacks the subtle flavors and aromas of natural Soy Sauce. And there are issues arising from the presence of alcohol and other chemical residues.

“In 1980 the majority of soy sauce sold in America was straight chemical soy sauce, a produce considered in Japan to be of such low quality that it is not even sold.”  — William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi

Next we’ll take a closer look at Soy Sauce in the kitchen.

For Further Information:

[1] Buwei Yang Chao, How to Cook and Eat in Chinese  —
[2] “Soy Sauce,” article, Wikipedia  —
[3] William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, The Book of Miso  —




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