Soy sauce is popular in Asian cuisine and is used as both a condiment and an ingredient. It’s been a favorite in Japan since the 7th century, and has a history going back even further.
But what, exactly, is soy sauce? Let’s find out more about this tasty brew.
Where Did Soy Sauce Come From?
Soy sauce has roots in China. The earliest mention of it is all the way back in the year 160.
It wasn’t called “soy sauce” then. The Chinese called it qingjiang (which is also the name of a Chinese province.) Back then, it was more like a paste.
Hint: It's all about preserving food
Salt was used as a preservative (a way to keep food longer way before refrigeration was even thought of.) But salt was also really expensive.
Lots of foods were preserved using a brine made of salt and water, especially fish.
People discovered that they could add soy beans to this mixture. That helped stretch the use of their salt.
They didn’t have to use as much salt when they mixed soy beans in. Plus, soy were plentiful in China because they grew really well there.
Of course, when you leave soy beans and salt hanging around in fishy water for a while, the stuff begins to ferment.
This means chemical changes take place in the liquid causing bacteria to grow. (The good kind of bacteria, not the illness-causing kind.)
The fermented mixture that came from this fish/salt/soy bean concoction was found to be a tasty way to flavor food.
From China To Japan
This preservation method was introduced to the Japanese around the 7th century.
In 1254 AD, a Japanese Buddhist priest, who’d been studying in China, brought back a miso paste recipe. Miso is used to flavor food and pickle vegetables.
Miso is kind of like a salty peanut butter, but made from soy beans, rice or barley, salt, and koji.
When he introduced it to his fellow Buddhists, they decided that the liquid produced by the fermenting of the soy beans added loads of flavor to their food.
Soy sauce was discovered as a by-product!
Part of the Buddhist belief is eating only veggies and grains. It can get kind of boring.
The by-product became the main production and soy sauce was invented!
How is Soy Sauce Made?
So, how did they come up with this process?
The Buddhist monks discovered that by cooking the soy beans and toasting the wheat it added a new flavor to the liquid that came from making miso.
Soy sauce has very few ingredients. Soy beans, wheat, salt, water, and koji… which is a type of mold added for flavor and to help the fermenting process.
Everything is prepared- the soy beans are steamed to soften them. The wheat is toasted. Those two ingredients are ground up and mixed with salt, water, and koji in huge vats.
Then… it’s left alone for a while as the fermenting process gets going.
Every so often the mixture is stirred up.
The whole process can take weeks to years! Yes, years. And the longer it ages, the richer the sauce.
There is one company in Japan which still makes soy sauce the old-fashioned way… All by hand. They don’t use any mechanical assistance. The soy sauce they make takes up to four years from start to finish!
Once the fermenting is done, the mixture is transferred to a different container and the liquid is drained to be processed. They filter it through cloth and then it gets pasteurized and bottled.
How did Soy Sauce go from Japan to the Rest of the World?
During Japan’s period of Sakoku, or isolation, in the mid-1600’s to the 1800’s, trade was allowed with the Dutch East India Company.
The Dutch traders took barrels of miso, sake (rice wine), and soy sauce back to Holland where it was slowly introduced to the rest of the “old world.”
By the 1700’s, soy sauce was a pretty hot commodity. It was one of Japan’s biggest exports! The cities of Japan where it was being produced, Noda and Choshi, are still the biggest producers of soy sauce today.
Europeans tried to imitate the flavor of soy sauce using things like mushrooms. It didn’t work out. They just couldn’t match the taste.
Fun fact on where the name came from:
Early Dutch traders did their best to spell soy sauce. The Japanese called it shoyu. The traders spelled it as it sounded-phonetically. Sometimes it was sooje, or soija, even zoije showed up.
The name soy bean came from the sauce which it was made from.
What Kinds of Soy Sauce are There?
Today there are five types of traditional soy sauce made in Japan. Each one has its own use.
Koikuchi is a dark soy sauce. Made of equal parts of soy beans and wheat, it’s used mainly as a dipping sauce (like for sushi,) but it’s also used in cooking.
Usukichi is lighter and saltier. It’s made using a type of rice, instead of wheat. This kind is used in cooking when you want the salty-umami flavor of soy sauce, but don’t want to color the food with the dark sauce.
Tamari is a gluten-free version of soy sauce. It’s made the same, but uses just the soy beans. No barley, wheat, or rice.
Shiro, by contrast, is made using only wheat.
Saishikomi is a variation of koikuchi. The soy sauce is brewed twice to make it really dark and more flavorful.
How Can You Use Soy Sauce?
Soy sauce is used in cooking all over the world.
You can use soy sauce to flavor brines, and glaze meats and veggies in cooking. It’s used in the sauce for stir fries. It’s added to fried rice.
Soy sauce can be used to flavor all kinds of sauces, like pasta sauces. And it makes a tasty addition to homemade salad dressings!
It’s been used as a condiment since about 300 AD.
So, grab some sushi, spring rolls, or egg rolls and dip away!
You can use soy sauce in any savory dish, so get creative in the kitchen and sauce up your favorite foods like ramen!
How about some shoyu tamago, or soy sauce eggs?
Find authentic Japanese recipes, spices and sauces in our Japan box and explore for yourself!