From dark to light, regular to sweet, soy sauce is much more than a condiment. So how do you figure out what’s what?
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Let’s say your recipe calls for soy sauce. That sounds simple, doesn’t it?
But it’s not — not by a long shot. This mahogany liquid is much more than a condiment, because the type and quality of soy sauce you use in a Chinese dish is as important as the kind of wine or butter you add to a French recipe. So, how do you figure out what’s what and which one is going to taste especially good?
The first big thing you need to know is that there is a world of difference between Chinese and Japanese soy sauces. Because Kikkoman has long been America’s default brand, I used to think that all soy sauces were the same — that is, until I moved to Taiwan in the 1970s and was unceremoniously brought up to speed. What I learned there is that Japan’s products are generally called shoyu (thin soy sauce) and tamari (the stronger-flavored, liquid byproduct of miso production), and as good as these may be in Japanese cuisine, they taste very different from China’s soy sauces, which are called jiangyou or chiyou.
Interestingly, the earliest soy sauces were created during the Zhou dynasty — about 2,500 years ago — out of fermented meat, sort of like ancient Rome’s fish sauce, garum. Experimentation led to happier and cheaper results when beans and grains were used instead of flesh, and from then on generations of Chinese families handed down their own carefully guarded secret recipes for their clan’s signature brews.
Historically speaking, China’s best soy sauces have traditionally been concocted in the areas that surround Shanghai — Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, to be specific — because when it comes to fermentation, the people there long ago broke the code for the country’s headiest rice wines (think Shaoxing), stickiest black vinegars (the famed product of Zhenjiang), and some of its finest hams (from the town of Jinhua). The cuisines of those two provinces are therefore bursting with deep, rich flavors, what the Chinese call xianwei and the Japanese, umami.
Here in the States, though, these flavors are still pretty much unknown. Yes, you can occasionally find products labeled “Shaoxing” and “Zhenjiang” and “Jinhua” in these parts, but they’re sort of analogous to a bottle of balsamic vinegar sold at a big box store: The label may say “Modena,” but that five-buck price tag is a big giveaway.
This holds equally true for soy sauce, because unless you know what you need and what’s out there, getting your hands on the good stuff poses all sorts of problems. Some can be found in Chinese grocery stores, and the rest are only available online. Some brands will be artisanal and natural, while others will not be worth your hard-earned dollar. And not only that, but as with just about any other ingredient made with the help of yeast and bacteria — from wine and vinegar to cheese and charcuterie to breads and yogurt — the local flora and fauna will leave their own distinctive imprints on the finished product.
On the surface, Chinese soy sauce is a relatively simple thing to make. I’ve even brewed it myself with success. You simply steam beans of some sort (usually soybeans or black beans) — maybe with some wheat berries or bran — and then lay them out on a tray, cover them lightly with a damp cloth, and wait for a fuzzy white mold to take over the beans. This slimy mixture is then tossed into salt water and allowed to ferment. That seems easy enough, right? But what no one ever tells you is that brewing a crock of soy sauce on your back porch is like caring for a high-maintenance pet, because you have to deal with the smell, stir it every day, somehow manage to keep the bugs from wriggling into all of that glorious rot, and maintain the proper level of liquid. Fortunately for us, there are now some stellar alternatives that we can just tuck into our shopping carts.
Nowadays, the best ones are made in Taiwan. Look for labels that proudly proclaim they are naturally brewed with no preservatives — the word “organic” is always a good sign — while the ingredient list should ideally read something like water, non-GMO soybeans or black beans, perhaps some wheat, maybe some sugar, and salt. Caramel appears in some soy sauces to add sweetness and a deeper color, and others might include licorice extract, but neither are dealbreakers as far as I’m concerned. Just keep in mind that when soy sauce has no preservatives, you will need to either store it in a very cool place or use it up within two months or so.
China’s soy sauces are generally divided into the following categories: regular, dark, light, and finishing. What follows is a highly opinionated guide to each category.
Regular soy sauce is the workhorse of any Chinese kitchen worth its, er, salt. The two brands my family and friends seem to rely on more than any other are Wan Ja Shan and Kimlan, and the best varieties these two brands offer will have the words “aged” and “organic” on them. (For what it’s worth, Eddie Huang wrote about how good Wan Ja Shan is in his unforgettable first autobiography, Fresh Off the Boat.) These two brands are beloved for their depth of flavor, consistent quality, and restrained saltiness. If you cook as much Chinese food as I do, be sure to buy the gallon jugs and decant the soy sauce into smaller bottles, preferably with a bartender’s pour spout jammed into the top for ease of use. (Avoid Kimlan’s “Ponlai” variety, as it is the least tasty of the bunch.)
Regular soy sauces can be used for just about any kind of cooking, from braises to stir-fries. And so, if you can only buy one bottle, let it be a good-quality regular soy sauce. This will have a raw beany flavor and aroma because it’s designed to be added during the cooking stage. Try drizzling it around the inside of a wok, just above whatever is being cooked, because that is where the iron is hottest. The soy sauce will then immediately start to caramelize and its flavors will deepen before gravity lures it down to the bottom. If you are planning to use it in a dip for, say, dumplings or vegetables, mix it with the other sauce ingredients first and then bring these to a quick boil. Your nose and taste buds will thank you.
All regular soy sauces have the consistency and color of espresso: very dark, easily pourable, and thick enough to leave a slick on your fingers. The salt level ought to remind you of a good dill pickle, while the sauce itself should have a nice bean aroma (which will cook off), faint sweetness, and good depth of flavor.
Dark and light soy sauces are mainly used in Cantonese cooking. Dark soy sauce comes from the literal bottom of the fermentation barrel. It’s rich in sediment and is used sparingly in braises — usually in addition to regular soy sauce — to add oomph and a dark brown coloration. Light soy sauces are pale in color and flavor, so Cantonese chefs rely on these when dishes need to retain a light hue and require only a soupcon of additional xianwei.
Dark soy sauce should look and pour like warmed molasses. It is very strong and very salty, so use this only in dishes like braises to add a touch of color and flavor. Light soy sauce, on the other hand, looks and pours like weak coffee. This tan color means you should use this soy sauce as you would white pepper, in dishes where you don’t want to disturb a pale appearance.
While there are a few light soy sauces on the market, they can be loaded with additives, and their uses are limited. Skip buying a bottle, and instead substitute with Kimlan Aged, or a finishing soy sauce mixed with a little water.
Sweet soy sauce is often used in the mountainous regions of South Central China, like Sichuan and Yunnan. This condiment should ideally be much more complex than its name implies, for the perfect option is a blend of good soy sauce infused with caramelized sugar, aromatics, herbs, and spices. Since the good stuff isn’t available here yet, I make my own from a recipe in my cookbook All Under Heaven. I reach for it whenever my braises need a bit more kick, to level out the salty-sweet notes in dan dan noodles, and to act as a simple sauce for tofu or cold meats. More importantly, sweet soy sauce plays so well with chile peppers and hot sauce that it can be considered their perfect foil. If you don’t want to make your own, you can buy Lee Kum Kee Sweet Soy Sauce. At present, this is pretty much the only commercial brand available in the States. It’s serviceable, but does not have much flavor. Plus, it’s made with high-fructose corn syrup and lots of additives. Still, experimenting with even a just-okay bottle can be a good incentive to start a DIY production habit — or to further explore the wide and endlessly fascinating world of Chinese soy sauce.
Finishing soy sauce is nowadays the most interesting category, thanks to all sorts of inventive small-batch soy sauces that are making their way into the homes of serious Chinese cooks. Finishing soy sauces can be found in the larger Chinese supermarkets or online. As with anything that’s made by hand and with lots of care, these brands are at times not cheap. And that’s why you shouldn’t consign them to braises, but rather reserve them for dishes and occasions where their flavors can be fully appreciated. Most of these are produced in Taiwan, where a healthy appreciation for organic, crafted ingredients at times feels so robust that even Portland, Oregon, would be impressed.
All of these sauces should have interesting flavors right out of the bottle because they don’t need to be heated first, although a quick tour of the steamer or the residual heat of a dish will not harm their aromas. What you’re trying to do with these soy sauces is offer a final layer of flavor that hovers over the dish itself. A finishing soy sauce will therefore be the first thing your mouth and nose encounter, and that means its flavor and aroma must shine. Many of these will have a gently sweet component that might seem disconcerting at first, but decidedly delicious when used right.
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to hunt down my beloved Ruei Chun soy sauce at 99 Ranch Market, and my dwindling stash had me worried. But then a whole new crop of delicious brands started making their way into my kitchen, not only via Chinese markets, but the internet. All of these are made of high-quality ingredients without preservatives. (Note: Thanks to Yun Hai Taiwanese Pantry for sending me samples of all of the Yu-Ding Shing sauces mentioned below.)
This list is by no means comprehensive or final, so keep an eye out for new brands and varieties as they continue to appear online and in your local Chinese grocery stores. For example, a Taiwanese friend just gave me a bottle she had discovered in 99 Ranch Market: DYB Aged Artisan Naturally Brewed Soy Sauce. “Try this,” Chia-ying said. “It’s my new favorite!” And she’s right, it truly is fabulous; in fact, this brand has won international awards for another of its varieties, DYB Artisan Golden Naturally Brewed Soy Sauce. However, neither is available online quite yet, so take my advice and nab them whenever you can.
It just goes to show you, our access to the best Chinese soy sauces is only going to get better the more we learn to love them and the more we demand the very best.
Carolyn Phillips is an artist and food scholar, and the author of At the Chinese Table: A Memoir with Recipes, All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China, and The Dim Sum Field Guide. She’s presently finishing up her next cookbook.
Michelle Min is a food and travel photographer based in San Francisco.
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