One of the oldest condiments in the world, soy sauce is the most widely used seasoning in East Asia. Although it has been occupying kitchen shelves for centuries, considerable confusion remains as to its different types and uses. The first soy sauce can be dated back to the 3rd century when, in China, it was used as a salty seasoning. Traditionally, the Chinese used wheat and soybeans to make their soy sauce before experimenting with spices. Soy sauce differs from region to region so knowing the different types of soy sauces will benefit you and your cooking. Here’s a quick look at the types of soy sauces and their uses.
The two main variants of Chinese soy is light and dark. The Chinese dark soy is brewed and fermented for a longer period of time which gives dark soy a darker colour, thicker texture and lighter saltiness. Alternatively light soy is extracted by pressing fermented soy beans (like extra virgin olive oil); giving it a natural soy colour, mellow taste and aroma. These traditional Chinese soy sauces spread to East and Southeast Asia where they diversified their palette, flavours and texture.
Japanese soy sauce differs from Chinese Soy sauce as where Chinese Soy is made only from soy beans, Japanese soy contains both soy and wheat. Japanese soy sauce is also divided into light (Usukuchi) & dark (Koikuchi). The darker Koikuchi soy retains a darker texture and is actually lighter than the light soy sauce due to the process whereby two fifths of the salt is taken out post-brewing. The light soy (Usukuchi) interestingly has a richer flavour that is more assertive and intensive with a saltier flavour and slight sweetness from the use of Mirin (sweet rice wine) during the brewing process.
To add to the collection of Japanese soy, Tamari is more closely related to Chinese soy with the higher concentration of soy and little to no wheat. Tamari soy is from the Chubu region of Japan and it retains a strong aroma and umami taste. Traditionally tamari was produced from the by-product of miso (fermented soybean paste) with no presence of wheat at all. Due to the aromatic scent and flavour, Tamari soy is commonly used for sushi, sashimi and as the base for teriyaki sauce. Furthermore as Tamari soy does not contain traces of wheat, it is a great alternative for a gluten free diet.
Another mention worthy soy in Japan is the Shiro (white soy sauce). It is brewed with much more wheat which creates a flavour of soy that is lighter in both the colour and the overall flavour. Due to this reason Shiro is generally enjoyed with Sashimi.
Like most types of soy sauce, Korean soy sauce is also divided based on its colour. Dark Korean soy sauce is used mostly for stir-fries braising, marinating and dipping. But its lighter counterpart, Guk-gan-jang, a by-product of the Dwenjang process (Korean soy bean fermentation), is predominately used as a flavouring condiment for soups (Guk).
In Indonesia, one can find Kecap Manis, a type of sweet soy sauce which uses palm sugar, star anise, galangal, various other aromatics mixed with the fermented soy beans as the core ingredient. It has the consistency of thick syrup and the taste of treacle due to the use of palm sugar. To make a slightly sour Kecap Manis, molasses usually replace the palm sugar. When selecting Kecap Manis, do try to look out for brands that use palm sugar as many brands use plain sugar instead which results in a less complex flavour.
Tip: Soy sauce’s two main enemies are light and heat, so be sure to store it in a dark place away from a heat source.
Although different in terms of ingredients used to prepare the sauce, Thai cuisine, Vietnamese, Indonesian and many South East Asian countries use fish sauce as a cooking ingredient covering the salty aspects of Asian cuisine. Due to the geographic location of many of these countries, fish has been a common source of food. Unlike the use of soybeans and wheat in China and Japan, the fish sauce is brewed by a process of extracting anchovy juices which have been left under the sun in barrels over several months. This juice is then flavoured with sugar to create fish sauce. Despite the pungent smell of fish sauce, it adds a unique savoury and salty depth of flavour.
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