West Eats East
Soy Sauce, Black or White
Without soy sauce, no Japanese cuisine exists. Soy sauce is indispensable for sukiyaki, teriyaki, sushi, sashimi, cooked vegetables and many more. Though, all soy sauces are not born equal. Its varieties or variations derive from ingredients, formula, processes, manufactures or localities. Today there are basically two kinds: dark/black and pale/white depending upon ratios of soybean and wheat as major ingredients. More soybeans results in darker color, while more wheat, a paler color; that is a general rule. It is due to a natural reaction of browning with soybeans. In addition, savory taste comes from soybeans for black soy sauce, while it does from wheat for white soy sauce. Currently dark/black soy sauce is dominant in the market, while pale/white soy sauce not milky white but like white wine has been around in the shadow of black soy sauce as a fancy, exotic, secret flavoring used by creative chefs. Besides, you may add a category of flavored soy sauces with herbs, spices and other stuff like Tabasco soy sauce. Let’s see the origin and use of this liquid condiment.
All liquid condiments originated from the preservation of food, more specifically salting of edible stuffs. In salting food, liquid leaches out by osmotic pressure. The liquid leached tastes not only salty but also somewhat pleasant and tasty. Today’s science explains that peptides or amino acids or flavor compounds are formed through autolysis, fermentation and aging from protein and other constituents. In China, such a liquid was called as “Hishio” or “Ancient Sauce” more than 3,000 years ago, from grain-legumes, vegetables, fish, or game meat. Ancient Romans also used a fish Hishio as Garim or Quamemu. Brillant-Savarin, in his famous gastronomy publication of PHYSIOLOGIE DU GOUT in 1826, mentioned Garim and also Muria from tuna and Soye from India. Soy sauce was brought to Europe from Japan by a Jesuit missionary in 1603. The Dutch, the only trade partner in the isolated Japan then, exported soy sauce, “Schzoya,” in a ceramic container to Europe. A record shows Louis XIV loved soy sauce for cooking his meals. An early Worcestershire sauce contained soy sauce brought via India. Soy sauce was not completely foreign but something very exotic in the old continent.
Into our land soy sauce was brought by Japanese migrant workers or immigrants about 150 years ago. The general public noticed the newcomers eating everything with this dark liquid and ridiculed it as bug juice. It came in a wooden keg tightened by bamboo hoops. I have seen an ad copy of Kikkoman in an old ethnic publication. Nothing happened outside the ethnic population until sukiyaki appeared in our eating in the early 1950s. You may know the rest of the story of soy sauce. A common scene at J-restaurants was pouring of soy sauce over rice if you are old enough to recall. I wonder if soy sauce itself or alone was really liked or a blend of soy sauce and sugar that is teriyaki flavor, was favored, or both. Black soy sauce gave an overall pungent, pleasantly roasted and salty note well blended with sweet taste, which must be a major reason for soy sauce being liked here, I suppose. Though, black soy sauce alone might be too overwhelming or too much pressing in some dishes. Think about soy sauce in a tiny plate for dipping sushi. It may be too salty or too overpowering soy sauce flavor, which covers the delicate sushi taste. Despite this, black soy sauce is great to change the taste to exotic, palatable!
Never heard of white soy sauce? It is not milky white but pale in color like white wine. Wheat is used predominantly to brew it. Its flavor is pleasant, less pressing than black soy sauce due to broken down components of wheat rather than soybeans. It tastes subtle, mild and savory. Its salt content is almost the same as the black one. It has been minor but used for particular objectives, that is, mellow soy sauce flavor and no darkening color in seasoning or cooking, only being recognized by truly trained, professional culinary persons in Japan. Almost all other J-food people might be brainwashed with black soy sauce knowing not much about it, I diagnose. It is not a Usukuchi soy sauce which is made by diluting black soy sauce with water and salt, or Sirodashi white stock source by blending black soy sauce, water, salt and Japanese flavor stocks. White soy sauce appeared in our market not so long ago and was being sold only through deli-specialty food channels. I recall executive chefs at one of the Hard Rock Cafés and also Disney restaurants having loved it. An interest in it has been growing steadily but not drastically due to the unfamiliar nature and higher price than the black one. It is currently used by chefs in Hawaii, Arizona, Seattle, NY and Chicago on a regular or occasional basis. It must be a next generation liquid condiment to diversify our taste and presentation, not only of the Oriental but also fusing natural and harmonized cuisines.
Tasting is believing.
Email K. Mike Masuyama Ph.D. at firstname.lastname@example.org for authentic white soy sauce info and a sample of “White Tamari.”
More next month.