From sushi restaurants to your local Chinese take-out, soy sauce is a mandatory part of any Japanese, Chinese, and even Korean meal. If you don’t normally eat out, you probably have a bottle of Kikkoman in your pantry, or at least a few small packets that you don’t even remember how you got. Either way, living in today’s world, it’s hard to avoid trying soy sauce at least once. You’d never think about how much history such a small container of liquid could have. From a family business to a global phenomenon, this sauce is delicious and fascinating!
Soy Sauce History – China
As far back as 85 BC, there have been variances of soy sauce in China. One manuscript uses it as a description of wealth! Granted, they were making meat sauces for centuries before soy sauce was even invented, and this could (possibly) be one of those. The Chinese name for soy sauce was developed from the name of the meat sauce, jiang yu. You see, it got its start when the Chinese worked to pickle different items to ensure they could last. Quite often, they would take the brine from pickled meat or seaweed, and use it as a condiment of sorts. Chinese cuisine was greatly influenced by this, and you can still see those effects today!
How it’s made
The traditional Chinese method for soy sauce is a very time-consuming process. Let’s say you’re making traditional soy sauce; how would you start? Well, first you need to start a koji. A koji is a soy bean and flour mixture that’s been allowed to mold into the shape of a square. You’ll then place the square into a large clay pot with salt water and let it set for, oh, roughly three to six months. Be sure to stir it occasionally!
Congratulations! You’re finally ready to put your koji through a sieve, most likely made of bamboo, and strain the fermentation mixture and the koji. From there, you separate the mixture into multiple smaller pots and set your timer for about three weeks. Then you can sell your fermented soy liquid. Fun, right?! Don’t worry, it’s not over yet. You can repeat this process up to four times before finally retiring your koji. To add more flavour, to make up for the age, you can add meat, extra salt, and molasses, to make your soy sauce more flavourful. As a side effect, it darkens quite a bit.
Note: The more times you process the soy sauce, the lower the quality and the darker the sauce.
Soy sauce moves east – Japan
As Buddhism began spreading further east, so did Chinese food culture. When Buddhism entered Japan, so did the no-meat rule, which was made official in the seventh century. With this came the need for soy-based seasonings and foods. When the Japanese found out how salty soy sauce is, they used it as a replacement for their popular fish sauce.
In fact, as the tradition of miso came to Japan, so did the evolution of another soy sauce. You see, as monks were sharing the process of making miso, the people became enamoured with the flavour, and thus created tamari soy sauce! While they were making the miso paste, it seeped a sauce that the people felt had enough flavour on its own. By the sixteenth century, vendors were selling miso paste with soy sauce on a regular basis.
As Japan’s population boomed during the Edo period, so did their influence over this amazing condiment. The people of the Edo period, wanting a more flavourful condiment, created what you probably picture as soy sauce. For the Japanese production of soy sauce, the choice of location was easy. With Chosi and Noda being located between two rivers, these cities were (and still are!) the soy sauce hub of Japan. Traditionally, soy sauce has to be made in the coldest times of the year; this gives it the strongest flavours.
Fun Fact #2: As soy sauce grew in popularity, even poets got in on the soy sauce bandwagon. The poets called it “deep purple” as a testament to its flavour. The best part is, they still use this nickname today!
Shoyu is the Japanese term for soy sauce, and this term began circulating in the late fifteenth century. It had been used in a couple of diaries, and even popped up in several cookbooks that had been republished during this era. While this term wasn’t popular at first, it began to be used side by side with tamari.
To make this tamari-shoyu, the koji was made up of barley and cooked soybeans. Leaving the mixture to ferment for seventy-five days, the people come back regularly to stir the salt-water and koji mix. After extracting the koji, the people would use the curd as a fertilizer. Because of the barley, it was darker in colour, and it became known as “Dark Mouth” shoyu. While there is a lighter soy sauce in Japan, Dark Mouth shoyu is the most popular.
Fun Fact #3: The families in charge of Kikkoman have been working with soy sauce since the seventeenth century!
Shoyu became a common item, with people making home batches regularly. It was such a common home business for people, that there were people walking door to door offering shoyu. Not like a vacuum salesman who brings pre-made vacuums. No, instead, they would heat and pasteurize the soy sauce right there on your door-step.
Soy Sauce in Europe
By the seventeenth century, Europe was experiencing the phenomenon of soy sauce as well. Through ties with the East Indian Trading Company, Europe was able to experience the wonderful flavors of shoyu, possibly even trying soy sauce from Malaysia, Indonesia, India, and Korea (but we don’t have time to explore all of those). If you want to read more about other types of soy sauce, Shurtleff and Aoyagi compiled the entire known history of soy sauce, spanning all of the east. It’s a fascinating read, and the whole manuscript can be read here.
Fun Fact #4: Soybeans were named after Shoyu, not the other way around!
Soybeans arrived in Europe almost a hundred years after shoyu. During this in-between time, people came to nickname shoyu “soy”. So, when the beans came to Europe, the populace dubbed them “soybeans”. Crazy, right?!
The British loved soy sauce so much, they tried to make their own, which gave us modern day Worcestershire Sauce! This would also go on to influence what we call ketchup, but that’s a totally different story.
Modern soy sauce
As industrialism changed the market, shoyu changed too. The world wars made quite an impact on the shoyu market. Most family run businesses were shrinking or dying off, with the remaining merging through marriage or other methods. The adjustments didn’t stop here. Families began bottling the shoyu and selling it in mass, but the vast majority of people complained, saying it tasted different. Eventually, they decided to live with it, and soy sauce is still sold in bottles to this day.
When you go shopping, you have a variety of shoyu to choose from. We have low sodium soy sauce, dark soy sauce, light, Kecap Mansi (an Indonesian variety), and even mushroom soy sauce! There’s so many choices, but make sure you check your recipe before changing it. Some shoyu work interchangeably, while others don’t.
Where to Go – What to See
If you’re interested in seeing the history of shoyu for yourself, take a trip out to Japan! Specifically, Sapporo, Japan. In what is now a ramen restaurant, there’s a museum dedicated to the original art of fermenting soy sauce. This building was originally a shoyu brewery, but when they moved elsewhere for better access to water, this location became a “heritage site”. From traditional garments, to heirlooms, you can enjoy so many fascinating artefacts! For more information, visit this website here! The article is a little difficult to read, as it is a website originally written in Japanese, but there is a lot you can still learn from the blog.
The birthplace of Japanese soy sauce is Yuasa, Japan. This tour is completely free and they sell soy sauce at this historical brewery. If you can believe it, they even have something cooler than your typical shoyu: soy sauce ice cream! Their website, here, is a little bit harder to navigate, but there’s another way to read up on the brewery or reserve a spot. If you visit the Wakayama tourist website, it will give you a list of places to visit, with lovely pictures to accompany each location.
Reading about soy sauce is all well and good, but it’s nowhere near as satisfying as enjoying it the way you’re supposed to; with food! Whether you want to enjoy it with sushi, or cook it in your vegetables, shoyu is a delicious tool to boost flavour.
If you want to make your own sushi, you can visit Japan Centre. Not only does this website sell sushi kits, complete with the necessary ingredients, but it also comes with a recipe to show you how to make your own sushi. However, if you’d rather get the ingredients for yourself, visit Peas and Crayons. This website gives you a wide selection of ingredients to choose from when making your rolls, and walks you through how to roll them properly. Whichever one you choose, or if you want to buy the rolls pre-made, you can enjoy them by dipping the rolls in soy sauce. Personally, I love adding a dab of wasabi to the soy sauce for a bit of a kick.
Maybe sushi isn’t your thing, or you want to try something different. That’s okay! There are tons of other recipes. For example, this Gyudon recipe from Woks of Life. This is a beef meal, with thin slices of meat, egg yolk, and soy sauce. It takes under an hour to make, and it’s a wonderful, flavourful meal! It makes enough to feed an average-sized family, and there’s plenty of left overs if you’re on your own.
Maybe something more akin to a barbeque is something you’d prefer. If this is the case, you should try your hand at making yakitori! Marinating the chicken for up to four hours may sound time-consuming, but it’s not all that bad. It’s a simple skewered meat recipe, and it only takes ten minutes to cook! Visit this website here if you’d like to try your hand at making your own.
If you want something simpler, ajitama is the perfect thing for you! These eggs are hard boiled for just under ten minutes (the yolks absorb more flavour if they’re softer), and set over night in the soy sauce and mirin mixture. It’s a simple recipe, and a great snack for you to try. Visit Japanese Cooking 101 for this easy recipe!
Why soy sauce?
Cultures are the beautiful, unique side effects to being human. Everything from climate to biome, from history to personal experience can influence your culture and your identity. Food is no exception. As people evolve, food evolves with them. Out of necessity, as was the case with soy sauce’s origin. And out of cultural interaction, just like with China teaching Japan about miso and creating a whole new branch of soy sauce. This interaction created a booming business, and an entire cuisine influenced by shoyu.
Reading about soy sauce and its history goes beyond the story. It goes beyond understanding fermentation and how long they let the pots sit. Understanding soy sauce means you start to begin a culture and the people who give life to that culture. As you understand, their thought processes shifted and changed. So did soy sauce. Humanity progressed and soy sauce was turned into a mass-produced food product, bottled and shipped off to far away places. When you understand the people, even just a little bit, it softens your heart. It allows you to be a more caring person, and a more empathetic person. If you’re going to take a journey to be a better person, why not do it through food?
If you’d like to continue understanding other cultures, you should consider studying the history of Szechuan, Buddhism, Chinese food culture, Asia, and other food items! You’ll be surprised how much history lies in everyday foods.