Updated June 2011.
Light, dark, thick, sweet.
Tamari, shoyu, mushroom, shrimp.
Black, green. Chinese, Japanese.
Are you confused? Is the distinction in name only, or are different kinds of soy sauce really different?
And is there one perfect soy sauce for the perfect pantry?
I keep seven (no kidding -- I counted) kinds of soy sauce in my kitchen: Japanese reduced-sodium and tamari; Chinese light (not "lite"), dark and black; kecap manis, a thick, sweet soy from Indonesia; and a mushroom soy made from shiitakes. Kikkoman Less-Sodium is my everyday soy, the one I add to stir-fry dishes, soups and marinades, but each has individual qualities that bring authenticity, texture and flavor to my cooking. Each sauce merits its own bit of pantry shelf space, its own day in the spotlight.
Today, the basics:
Soy sauce originated in China (where it's called jiang) more than 2,500 years ago, and gained popularity when China's Buddhist rulers decreed that vegetarianism should become the dominant culinary culture. The need for a meatless seasoning prompted the evolution of a salty paste of fermented grains, including soybeans. In the 7th Century, Zen monks brought soy sauce to Japan (where it's called shoyu).
Though there are many different formulations of soy sauce, there are only two main types: naturally brewed, and non-brewed.
Non-brewed soy sauce is produced by boiling soybeans with hydrochloric acid for 15 to 20 hours. After most of the amino acid is removed, the mixture is cooled to stop the hydrolytic reaction. The amino acid liquid is then neutralized, pressed through a filter, mixed with active carbon and purified through filtration. Color, flavor and "mouth feel" are introduced to this hydrolyzed vegetable protein mixture by adding caramel coloring, corn syrup and salt. The mixture is then refined and packaged.
In contrast, the natural brewing of soy sauce happens in three stages that result in an aged, more complex and smooth-tasting condiment. Here's how Kikkoman explains the process on their web site:
1. Koji-making: To begin the process, carefully selected soybeans and wheat are blended under precisely controlled conditions. Next, a proprietary seed mold is introduced, and the mixture is allowed to mature for three days in large, perforated vats through which air is circulated.
2. Brine Fermentation: The resulting culture, or koji, is then transferred to fermentation tanks, where it is mixed with saltwater to produce a mash called moromi. The next, and perhaps most critical step, is allowing the moromi to ferment for several months using osmophilic lactic acid bacteria and yeasts. During this time, the soybeans and wheat are transformed into a semi-liquid, reddish-brown "mature mash." It is this fermentation process that creates the distinct flavor and fragrance.
3. Refining: Following the months of moromi fermentation, the raw soy sauce is separated from the solids by pressing it through layers of filtration cloth. The liquid that emerges is then refined, pasteurized and packaged as finished soy sauce.
Kikkoman's Less-Sodium Soy Sauce has become a family favorite. It doesn't have the chemical taste of other low-sodium brands, because it's produced the same way as regular soy. However, after the fermentation process is completed, approximately one-third of the salt is removed. Although there is less sodium, all the flavor remains, because the sauce is aged before the excess sodium is extracted.
Salmon fried rice
A dish created by accident, now a family favorite. One day when I was improvising a fried rice dish with leftovers, I reached into the fridge for a box of storebought chicken broth, but pulled out mango nectar instead, and before I realized it, I'd poured it into the wok! With a bit of soy sauce, it became a kind of Polynesian dish — not what I'd intended, but delicious. Note that this recipe calls for cooked rice; if you don't have any leftovers, prepare rice in a rice cooker according to package directions, and let it cool slightly. Serves 4 as a main dish.
2 Tbsp peanut oil
3 scallions or 1 small yellow onion, diced
1-1/4 lb salmon fillet, cut into 2-inch chunks
6 oz shiitake or button mushrooms, stems removed, sliced
1 Tbsp sesame oil
2 cups cooked Nishiki or other short-grain rice, or leftover rice from a takeout meal
3/4 cup mango nectar or orange juice
2 Tbsp oyster-flavor sauce
3 Tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
Heat a well-seasoned or nonstick wok, and add the peanut oil and scallions or onion. Stir fry for 30 seconds, and add salmon. Stir for 1 minute, or until salmon is lightly browned on the outside. Add mushrooms and sesame oil, and stir for one minute. Add rice, and stir for 2-3 minutes, until rice is heated through and grains are separated. Add remaining liquids, and stir until well mixed. Serve hot.
Other recipes that use these pantry ingredients:
Kimchi fried rice, from Herbivoracious
Crockpot fried rice recipe, from A Year of Slow Cooking
Ginger fried rice, from Smitten Kitchen
Chaulafan de pollo or Ecuadorian fried rice, from Laylita's Recipes
Mexican fried rice, from Created by Diane
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