Soy Sauce

醬油 mandarin: jyang-yo; Cantonese: jyoong-yao

No matter how skillful your deft fingers may be, you cannot make good chop-suey and other Oriental dishes with inferior sauce. It is absolutely necessary to use the best chop-suey sauce (soy) to get the tang of the Orient.

So reads a passage from a 1930’s volume called Oriental “Show-You” Recipes printed in Indiana and containing recipes like “La Tempura No. 1.” I support the feelings of its author (perhaps the ancestor of the Kikkoman factory in Wisconsin?) wholeheartedly. One cannot cook good Chinese food without a good soy sauce, “good” meaning one whose flavor and texture is appropriate to the dish being made.

Soy sauce and soy sauce-related products appear on American shelves wearing such different names on the outside and containing such different tastes within that to say something is soy sauce will mean just about as much to a discerning cook as saying that something is wine will mean to a discerning drinker. Japanese soy sauces (called shoyu in Japanese, hence the name of the book quoted above) and Chinese soy sauces are remarkably different in taste. The former are rather sweet to my tongue and the latter are decidedly salty. What is marketed as tamari usually tastes to me quite metallic, while the synthetic soy sauces that my mother (innocently) used to buy are chemical aberrations that hardly deserve the name.

The process behind most of these products is generally the same: cooked soybeans and usually some proportion of wheat are injected with an Aspergillus mold, left to grow for several days, then mixed with a briny solution and put in fermenting tanks for 6–24 months, after which the raw liquid is drained off. The differences arise from the amount of wheat used in the original mixture, the length of fermentation, and the temperature control or lack of it, and the purity of ingredients versus the presence of chemicals and additives.

My everyday soy sauce is Kikkoman soy sauce, produced in their factory in Wisconsin and available most everywhere in red and black tins or bottles with a red, blue, and yellow label. Kikkoman, to my tongue, is a wonderful middle ground between the sweeter Japanese-made soy sauces that are excellent in Japanese dishes but that I find do not mesh well with Chinese seasonings, and the saltier Chinese soy sauces that are simply too salty for my taste. If you are particularly sensitive to salt, Kikkoman also makes what they call Lite Soy Sauce, in which the salt is reduced from about 15 percent to about 9 percent. It is delicious. Unlike the regular Kikkoman that I use, it is a preservative-free soy sauce and must be kept in the refrigerator.

Kikkoman is what I call thin (regular) soy sauce (生抽 mandarin: sheng-cho; Cantonese: sen-chao) and what some people call light soy sauce, although both terms can be confusing. Thin soy sauce means a soy sauce that is thin in consistency, appropriate for liquid sauces and cooking where you want to inject liquid as well as color and taste. Thin also refers to the light flavor, which is fulsome but devoid of seasonings such as molasses or sugar that are featured in other styles of soy sauce, including black soy sauce below.

CAUTION: If you are substituting a Chinese brand soy sauce such as Superior or Pearl River Bridge Superior, use less than is called for in my recipes, as the Chinese brands are distinctly saltier than Kikkoman, a fact which becomes apparent, especially when used in large amounts. In recipes calling for ¼ cup or more, decrease the amount initially by 2 teaspoons for every ¼ cup, then taste to determine whether you need to add more. Be particularly careful with stews and casseroles, where the liquids will reduce during cooking.

On no account consider using the chemical supermarket brands of soy sauces that are labeled with pseudo-Chinese names like La Choy or Chun King. They are synthetically produced from hydrolized vegetable protein and contain additives like com syrup and caramel. In other words, they don’t taste good, and at any rate bear little resemblance to real soy sauce.

Black Soy Sauce (老頭抽 mandarin: lao-toe-cho; Cantonese: low-toe-chao) is the other sauce that features regularly in my cooking. The brand I use is Koon Chun, which comes in a 21-ounce bottle with a red, blue, and yellow label, and is widely available in Chinese markets. “Black soy sauce” is the name on the label; the Chinese name means literally “old-head soy,” referring to (I think) a longer period of fermentation and/or a reduction of the liquid drained from the fermentation vat. So-called black soy sauce is not any blacker or thicker than thin soy sauce, but it is far saltier and contains a hint of molasses to further deepen its flavor.

Black soy sauce is used in those dishes where one wants the color and flavor of soy sauce without the liquid content of thin soy sauce, for instance in cold noodle dishes, occasional cold sauces, and stews, where a reduced mixture will better coat and cling to the food, or where an already liquid sauce will profit from a strong jolt of color and taste. The molasses flavor is also prized. It is a soy sauce that I use in a finite number of dishes, but for those it is irreplaceable. There are no substitutes.

Black soy sauce and thin soy sauce may be kept at room temperature, ideally sealed airtight and stored away from direct light and heat. Occasionally black soy sauce as it nears the end of the bottle will seem to crystallize, but the flavor of the liquid portion is unaffected. To my knowledge, both soy sauces will keep indefinitely without any change in taste.

Mushroom Soy Sauce (蘑菇醬油 mandarin: maw-goo-jyang-yo; Cantonese: mogoo-jyoong-yao) is a flavored soy sauce, something between thin soy sauce and black soy sauce in saltiness. The brand I like best is Pearl River Bridge, which is made specifically with straw mushrooms, and is classified in Chinese as black soy sauce (草菇老豆 man darin: tsao-goo-lao-cho; Cantonese: tso-goo-low-chao), owing to a touch of sugar that is included in the mixture. It is delicious sprinkled into a stir-fry of meat or vegetables. Use sparingly, and store as above.