If you haven't heard of soy sauce, you haven't expanded your culinary horizons. Soy sauce is an Asian ingredient that is bursting with umami flavor. It is so popular that it has made its way into every dish that you can think of. From chili to jambalaya to condiments, soy sauce is a staple ingredient in many kitchens worldwide! But what exactly is this popular ingredient?
What Is Soy Sauce?
Soy sauce is a salty liquid that is brown in color. It is produced by fermenting soybeans in acid. The process of fermenting soybeans releases their natural sugars and Unami components. This process is also responsible for soy sauce's signature brown color. Though in recent times, some manufacturers have added brown food coloring to their batches of soy sauce.
History Of Soy Sauce
The terms soy, soya, soja, and soy sauce are derived from the Japanese word shōyu. Even though it is a Japanese word, the Dutch were the first to record the term in the European document many years ago.
Soy sauce is thought to have originated in ancient China more than 2500 years ago. During this era, soy sauce was known as "jan." Salt seemed to be a costly rarity. Luckily, a brilliant soul uncovered a way to stretch salt by pickling or fermenting raw ingredients such as soybeans, fish, or grains.
It is unclear when soy sauce landed on the shores of Japan, masquerading under the name "hishio". However, according to the Taiho Code, a Japanese document compiled during the end of the Asuka era, soy sauce was produced from soybeans at the culinary department of the hishio institute. Hisho was a hybrid of soy sauce and miso paste that was a common sight on the tables of banquets held by the palace.
Subsequently, Zen monk Kakushin learned how to make miso paste on his travels to China. He brought this knowledge back to Japan. Upon teaching the habitants how to produce miso paste, he took an interest in the by-product of hishio. The liquid extracted from the hishio was incredibly flavorful. Thus tamari sauce was born.
Soy Sauce Lands On European and American Shores
By the time 1737 rolled around, soybean fermentation evolved into an exportable good. Approximately 75 containers shōyu were imported to the Indonesian island of Java from Japan, with 36 barrels of shōyu continuing to the Netherlands.
However, in the 19th century, shōyu began to disappear from European markets. A different variant, inspired by the original Chinese variant, emerged. Asian soy sauce featured a special ingredient called koji. Koji is a fungus commonly used in brewing. However, European manufacturers did not recognize the vital role koji plays in the fermentation process and omitted it from their ingredient list. As a result, Europeans were not able to reproduce their variant of soy sauce. In lieu of this, many cookbooks released in the 18th century endorsed the use of portobello mushrooms as a suitable alternative to koji.
Eventually, the Swedish jumped on board and began making their version of soy sauce with mace and allspice. Additionally, somewhere in the timeline, Worcestershire sauce was born. Worcestershire sauce is believed to a by-product of several efforts to recreate soy sauce.
Wing Nien, a Chinese national, is responsible for creating the first American Chinese blend of soy sauce in California. As you can imagine, an influx of manufacturers began making soy sauce. Approximately 1 million gallons of soy sauce were produced on American soil prior to World War II. Chinese migrants imported twice this amount yearly from China.
Soy Sauce Spreads To The Rest Of The World
Soy Sauce expanded into regions such as the Philippines and Thailand. Toyo, the Philippines, the Filipino variant of soy sauce, is an essential element of Filipino cuisine. Not only does it have a thin consistency, but it is also saltier than shoyu. Thus, it is perfect for seasoning food or serving as a condiment. Soy sauce also plays an integral role in Thai cuisine. Sii-íu has three distinct soy sauces used in dishes. Sii-íu kǎao is a thin, water-like, densely colored substance used as a natural food coloring for dishes or served as a sauce or dip.
Though the individual inventor of soy sauce remains unknown, we can be thankful to China for discovering this flavorful ingredient used to enhance so many dishes.