Rediscovering soy sauce

From adding character to sushi to being the secret ingredient to a fantastic barbeque, dim sum, noodles and cakes, seasoned chefs give their take on one of the culinary world’s oldest tastemakers — the soy sauce.
Soy sauce is an extremely versatile ingredient. Image: shutterstock.
Soy sauce is an extremely versatile ingredient. Image: Shutterstock.

Last fall when Harry Hakuei Kosato, director and India representative, Kikkoman India, began his soy promotional tour in India, the idea was simple: for a nation that ranked Chinese as their second favourite cuisine, to fall in love with soy, this time, however, with the Japanese variety made in the traditional Honjozo method. As one of the widely recognised brands worldwide for great quality Japanese soy — every chef worth their wok globally, including Sushi Master Chefs, has worked with their sauce and preferred this over the others — this initiative to reintroduce the ultimate tastemaker was to allow chefs to rediscover the finer nuances of naturally brewed soy sauce, and to explore how far the proverbial envelope could be pushed in the culinary prism.

Harry, who since then has had the opportunity to collaborate with some of the finest food minds in the business including dessert experts in discovering a completely fresh matrix for the sauce that not so long ago was infamously dubbed as “salty and unidimensional”, says, “Soy to us is the backbone of Japanese cuisine. No dish at our tables is complete without soy — be it the beloved sushi, sukiyaki, gyoza or udon noodles. It is the ultimate tastemaker, and a part of the Shojin Ryori system of eating.” Developed by Zen Buddhist monks, the Shojin Ryori principle of eating encourages food that is 100 percent vegetarian, seasonal, beautiful to the eye, balanced, and bursts with light and fresh flavours. In fact, soybean, which in ancient times grew with flourish, has remained a key ingredient in Zen Buddhist culinary philosophy, and the sauce is the secret tastemaker, thus giving it that rank importance.

Harry kosato heads kikkoman in india.
Harry Kosato heads Kikkoman in India.

For a long time, says Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Sanchez, “the soy we knew and loved — because of its tendency to give food that distinct mochaccino hue, was from China. Thanks to its salty, sweet, umami (savoury), and at times bitter aftertaste, soy sauce became an excellent condiment for all things Chinese, and even created the habit of us generously drizzling our soups and noodles with it.”

Continues the Oriental expert, “it wasn’t the diners who fell in love with the charm of the ‘salty, funky’ seasoning, chefs too preferred to work with soy for its distinct ability to turn anything Asian, exotically even. The fact that it came in three varieties — the light one being salty and the thick one, sweet thanks to the addition of sugar — made soy a good playground, albeit limited to Asian and Oriental cuisine.”

Soy sauce is known for adding umami to dishes.
Soy sauce is known for adding umami to dishes. Image: Shutterstock.

Fortunately for Harry though, by the time his soy tour started, the Indian dining space had graduated from Chinese to Japanese. Kikkoman India’s soy was not only a known product but one that was preferred by most quality-conscious eating establishments across hospitality, including Sanchez.

The beauty, says Chef Seth, “of working with Japanese soy or shoyu as they call it, is that each of their six varietals — koikuchi-style shōyu (dark), nama shōyu (raw), Saishikomi (rich and darkest), Shiro (white soy sauce), tamari (miso and gluten-free) and usukuchi (the sweet one) — has these intriguing wine-like characteristics. Depending upon the fermentation time and recipe ratio, each of the shoyus is handcrafted for a specific purpose but with potential to flourish in experiments, thus making it an amazing product to work with.”

Chef Seth, who was among the first few to host a Chefs’ Table for Kikkoman India for his peers in the industry waxes eloquent on the interesting way the sauce works with ingredients: “Even when it doesn’t colour the food like the Chinese soy, it has these high notes that work with any ingredient brilliantly.” Like for instance, he continues, “while it works great with chocolates for our flourless mocha fudge, for the tuile, we needed to tame down the harsh salty notes. But at the same time, it works like magic when it comes to giving grilled meat its stunning glaze and taste.”

Chef vikas seth’s soy shrimp spoon packs an umami punch.
Chef Vikas Seth’s Soy Shrimp Spoon packs an umami punch.

Another fine example is his Soy Shrimp Spoon, where dark soy and light soy are alternately used in the millet-based edible spoon that gives the dish its distinct sweet-salty flavour where the sweetness is from fresh shrimp while the soy spoon is for saltiness and obvious umami punch.

The palate foreplay is also found in Chef Seth’s Beetroot Avo Toast with Soy Spritz where soy plays the double role of creating the contrast and of salt. Soy, adds Chef Paul Kinny, Director of Culinary, The St. Regis, Mumbai, “releases sugars as well as umami elements and develops the brown colour that makes it a preferred alternative to salt in many dishes, including our Chicken Krapao Rice served at By The Mekong where the dark soy is used both for its saltiness, its contrast flavour play with fish and oyster sauce and the pairing with rice and chicken. In fact, the dark soy not only tenderises the meat but also gives it that sweet, umami puckering that makes the rice dish so addictive.”

Chef paul kinny of the st. Regis mumbai (left); and his chicken krapao rice at by the mekong which makes good use of soy sauce.
Chef Paul Kinny of The St. Regis Mumbai (left); and his Chicken Krapao Rice at By the Mekong which makes good use of soy sauce.

Soy’s ability to transform a dish is something that seasoned player Chef Mandar Madhav, Executive Chef, Conrad Centennial Singapore also confirms. The thing about soy, he says, “is that it has this indisputable ability not just to turn anything Asian, but when used in restraint to compliment the food much like how hing does in Indian cuisine. It just uplifts the flavour of the dish many folds. Of course, the outcome often depends on two things: the ingredient used and its treatment before introducing it in a dish.”

Like the Worcestershire sauce, says Chef Kinny, “that has a richer flavour and is fermented for a longer period or the sweeter teriyaki, which is this amazing glazing sauce and goes well with a lot of ingredients including meat, vegetables and noodles.”

In fact, continues Chef Kinny, “soy’s salty nature makes it a great ingredient to work with desserts. Take, for instance, ice cream mixes, where it brings in this rich caramel-like flavour. Or Crème Caramel, where the addition of soy lends it that enjoyable slightly bitter after notes. In fact, soy in cake premix often has the same palate play as miso marshmallow.”

Soy sauce can even be used to add depth to desserts.
Soy sauce can even be used to add depth to desserts.

Seconds Chef Rajesh Wadhwa, Executive Chef, Taj Palace, New Delhi, who finds soy a “subtle tastemaker with a shining collaboration streak.” “The subtle complexities of soy’s flavour profile make it a treat to play around with,” he elaborates, “It has this wonderful balance of multiple flavours and a strong umami quotient making it an absolute winner of an ingredient and extremely versatile. When used in combination with table salt, it brings out the flavours of a dish effectively like our Steamed  Bean Curd and Prawns Deng Long Chilli. In both signature dishes at our celebrated Chinese restaurant, Spicy Duck, the use of salt in this case is to help elevate the funkiness of soy rather than add to the saltiness.”

Chef rajesh wadhwa of taj palace, new delhi, loves using soy sauce in salad dressings.
Chef Rajesh Wadhwa of Taj Palace, New Delhi, loves using soy sauce in salad dressings.

Another place where soy’s knack of creating newer flavour profiles is best showcased, adds Chef Wadhwa, “is when it is used as a dressing in a salad like tomato, basil and feta where the play is on that sweet-salty taste and likewise as a glaze for meat, especially chicken and lamb.”

A beautiful example of this is the Soy Balsamic Chicken where the sweetness of the balsamic vinegar in the glaze plays a duel with soy’s saltiness, thus lending the chicken its signature juiciness, and flavours.

Steamed bean curd at spicy duck, taj palace, new delhi, makes good use of soy sauce.
Steamed bean curd at Spicy Duck, Taj Palace, New Delhi, makes good use of soy sauce.

The deal with working with soy, says Chef Mandar, “is knowing what varietal works best with which ingredients. Like any other naturally processed sauce, soy too has its set of safe ingredients like soy, chicken, seafood, tofu and a good collection of foods. The trick is to find ingredients that have characteristics that are on par with soy, so they can be paired well.”

Prawns deng long chilli at spicy duck, taj mahal palace, new delhi.
Prawns Deng Long Chilli at Spicy Duck, Taj Mahal Palace, New Delhi.

For Chef Avijit Ghosh, R&D Head, Smoor Chocolates, that often translates to using soy that has a balanced flavour like tamari shoyu while experimenting with chocolates. Although tamari because of its high soybean content has a strong flavour, he adds, “but its base caramel notes make it a great seasoning in chocolates and cakes. But the best use of soy’s nature of being acutely salty and notoriously umami is in the frosting that captures the salty and faint sweet notes well.”

One of the reasons for Chef Ghosh’s preference of soy over any other alternative of salt is the sodium quantity, which is low in soy compared to any salt. The other, of course, admits Chef Ghosh, “is the way it pairs with the ingredients to create a seductive flavour play, especially in souffles.”

The fascinating results and the search for novel ways to up the palate play, says Chef Kinny, “has been a key factor in many chefs turning to soy to look for that oomph factor to crank up their dish quotient. Soy, you see, may have this unpleasant but dominant salty taste, but as a sauce it is a complex being that can collaborate to create something delightfully addictive, the only condition is that it is used with the right ingredients — soy infamously doesn’t work with too subtle an ingredient — and in the right proportion, and the appropriate way.”  

Chicken at by the mekong, st regis, mumbai, in which soy sauce is a major ingredient.
Chicken at By the Mekong, St Regis, Mumbai, in which soy sauce is a major ingredient.

Like, adds Chef Mandar, “when you are working with soy and steamed fish, one has to factor in the sodium in both the ingredients. This is the reason we add sesame oil for that fragrant, nutty and bitter flavour. This is then cranked up with sugar for sweetness and ginger for a subtle spice note that elevates the dish to a gourmet level. In case of steamed vegetables, the use of a light soy is better as it works the sodium level in each while giving it that umami deliciousness. Then come starchy things like potatoes, rice and bean curd, where a combination of two soys too works great provided the ratio is in keeping with the character of the sauce.”

The two-plus-two-equals-wow!, adds Chef Seth, “is another way in which one can bring in the umami funkiness of soy to a dish. A good case in point is meat. While the light soy works great for marination, for the glazing one needs a dark, sweeter version. The Japanese tamari, for instance, makes for a good glaze. The trick is in understanding the fermentation process that helps one create a sauce blend that works to give soy a starring role when it comes to the taste.”

And the best way to achieve that, adds Chef Ghosh, “is by using really good quality soy sauce because with this Han Dynasty innovation, the idea is to go as far from the saltiness and explore the umami aspect of it, which is the true tastemaker.”

Remarkably, enabling that umami playfield is the arena where brands like Kikkoman India and Lee Kum Kee have scored well with their offerings that give soy sauce the multi-faceted characteristics of being a seasoning, a tastemaker and a condiment.

Know your soy sauce

For most of us, soy sauce can mean that one small bottle of dark sauce that is acutely salty to taste. Not for Chef Paul Kinny, Culinary Director, The St. Regis, Mumbai, though. A master of Asian cuisines, Chef Kinny has worked widely with not just the original Chinese fermented sauce but its different variations that are today available in the market, including the popular Japanese variant.

Here’s a selection of his chosen few that chefs globally love working with, and one can find easily in the Asian segment of any food aisle:

Light Soy Sauce (Thin Soy Sauce): Used in stir-fry sauces, marinades, soups, and even dipping sauces, light soy sauce is the most common type used in Chinese cooking. It’s what most North Americans would think of as “regular” soy sauce. You can use it whenever a Chinese recipe calls for “soy sauce”.

Dark Soy Sauce: As the name implies, dark soy sauce is darker than light soy sauce. It has a richer, sweeter flavour, thanks to a longer aging period and the addition of caramel and sometimes molasses. Dark soy sauce is used to lend flavour and enhance the colour of a dish, for example, in red-cooked dishes. It is frequently paired with light soy sauce in recipes as well.

Mushroom-Flavoured Soy Sauce: This is a dark soy sauce that is often infused with dried straw mushrooms. Less frequently you can also find this style made with dried Chinese black mushrooms. Mushroom soy sauce is used in place of dark soy sauce to add an earthy flavour to dishes. Feel free to use it as a substitute in your favourite recipes that call for dark soy sauce. It’s particularly useful in those famous red cooking dishes like soy sauce chicken with shiitakes. It also makes a decent table condiment.

Thick Soy Sauce: Thick soy sauces (also called soy paste or soy jam) are sweeter and have a thicker consistency than dark soy sauce. That is due to the addition of sugar, more wheat in the fermentation process, and, sometimes, a starch thickener that is used to make it. It takes only a small amount to add flavour to fried rice dishes.

Shrimp-Flavoured Soy Sauce: Popular in Eastern China, this style of soy sauce is infused with the brine from dried shrimp (dried prawns). It’s not very common, though you may be able to spot a bottle at your local Asian foods market. It seems obvious, but it works particularly well in a seafood Chinese stir-fry. Like the mushroom soy sauce, it’s a good condiment as well.

Indonesian Kecap Manis: Ubiquitous in Indonesian cooking, Kecap Manis is a thick, very sweet soy sauce. It is made with fermented soybeans and a variety of sugar and spices, including palm sugar, star anise, and garlic. Kecap Manis is used both as a condiment and in cooking dishes like Nasi Goreng. Thanks to its sweet-spiced tones and colonisation, the sauce often features in some Dutch cooking as well. The famous pork dish Babi Ketjap is a great example of the sauce’s versatility.

Japanese Tamari: A by-product of making miso, tamari is thicker than other Japanese soy sauces, all of which are called shoyu. It has a rich colour and flavour. Authentic tamari contains very little or no wheat, making it suitable for gluten-free diets. During the 1960s, George Oshawa popularised the macrobiotic diet. At the same time, he introduced a Japanese soy sauce to the US that does contain wheat and that was labelled tamari as well. Today, both wheat-containing and wheat-free varieties of tamari are sold.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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