From its ancestors in Southeast Asia to what we see on shelves today, soy sauce is a pervading part of the modern culinary world. Recently even in such places as three-star French restaurants, soy sauce appears – not irregularly – as a secret ingredient. Even Russia, Africa, and other far-flung corners of the world have seen soy sauce become a commonplace part of their table settings. While remaining a flavor of Japan, it has become widely accepted by the broader world. However one cannot call it simply the taste of the pride of Japan, for in truth, our current view of soy sauce is actually quite recent and novel, dating only from the Kamakura Period.
The concept of soy sauce itself, though, remains quite ancient, with something called hishio, found to be an ancestor of modern soy sauce, recorded in both the Nihon Shoki and Manyoshu. If this lineage is traced back even further, one eventually ends up in Southeast Asia. There is a sauce used commonly with fish in Southeast Asia, even to this day, which is known as gyoshou. This is currently believed to be the originator of Japan's soy sauce. Over time, this sauce made its way to China, where it exploded in variety, leading to variants used for meat, shrimp, grains, and others. Some of these variants were what then made their way to Japan.
Although hishio originally made its way to Japan carrying with it this great variety, afterwards the most basic hishio, commonly used with meat, began to slowly fade from common use, due in large part to Buddhism's restrictions on eating meat. If one cannot eat the meat itself, it naturally follows that sauce to be used with it will be of little importance, thus the making of this type was phased out. On the other hand, the varieties intended for use with fish and shrimp, despite those main dishes not being forbidden, were less appealing to the Japanese palate of the time versus the ones revolving around soybeans, therefore the former varieties as well eventually faded into obscurity. This is not to say that these other varieties disappeared completely As a matter of fact many of them were adopted with slight changes to the recipe and became accepted in certain areas as local tastes. Akita Prefecture's Shottsuru, Ishikawa Prefecture's Ishio, and the Ikanago Shoyu of Kagawa and Chiba Prefectures are some notable examples of this.
In the Kamakura Period, a Zen monk known as Kakushin brought back from China with him the conclusion of his study of the production method of an excellent type of miso called Kinzanji Temple Miso. Furthermore, in the lands of Kishu Yuasa there was found a source of spring water of the correct variety for making this miso. One day, while once again going over the best method to produce the best quality miso, Kakushin's eye was caught by a quantity of black liquid in the bottom of one of the barrels his miso was in. He tentatively touched his finger to it and tasted it and was shocked to find a strong, appealing flavor. He tried it with the form of pickles that existed at that time and found it paired well with them, as well as with rice – suddenly he had on his hands something even better than the miso would have been. This is the moment that soy sauce was born. That said, this sauce was actually a variation of what would become modern soy sauce; it is known today as tamari. Despite this, though, it was still a crucial first step in the development of soy sauce.
It should also be noted at this point that the current Japanese term for soy sauce – shoyu – is from the later Muromachi Period. Compared to what had come before it, this period is known as a great flourishing of Japanese culture, and it's quite amazing to realize that something created in that time endures even to this day.
Speaking of earlier eras, from the late 1500s through the early 1600s, Japan was dragged through the chaos of the Warring States Period into the relative stability of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Regarding this time, only warlords and generals such as Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu are often deemed worthy of a "closeup." However various important changes also occurred in the lives of normal people during this period, including merchants who plied their trade in the shadows of the warlords' sparring for dominance. All of the great warlords, including the three history-makers mentioned above, encouraged commerce where they could, and it was in this realm that a leap forward in soy sauce was just around the corner. This was to be soy sauce production on an industrial scale.
Up until that time, soy sauce production had been a small-scale, family affair. Even if it was not made within the home, it would come from somewhere in a nearby town or village. In many cases, due to their vegetarian diets, nearby temples became hubs of soy and other condiment production. The idea of purchasing from a shop as we do today simply did not exist. This brings us to the year 1561, when, under the orders of the lord of Kai, Takeda Shingen, a samurai called Iida Ichiro began producing soy sauce in Chiba. Thus industrial soy sauce production was begun in Japan. In addition, in 1588, the production of Yuasa-based soy sauce born from the original recipe of Kakushin was handed over to a merchant from Osaka, Komatsuya Ihei.
During the Warring States Period, there were significant changes in the availability and distribution of soy sauce, which led to a dramatic shift in people's tastes during the ensuing Edo Period. During the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the new capital of Edo became the scene of a population explosion. This gathering of people also led to a new flourishing of culture. Naturally, to speak of food, given the institution of the sankinkotai requirement of alternate attendance by Daimyo, this also led to a great gathering of foods and recipes accumulated from all across Japan. Within this atmosphere, soy sauce as well took on some changes to better suit the tastes of the people of Edo. Furthermore, because of the scale of consumption from the size of Edo's population, this also led to the creation of better methods of production and distribution. The end result of all of this was that despite it being quite different from the soy sauce recipes passed down through the ages, the soy sauce that was the standard of Edo ended up on the table of every household in the land.
It should also be noted, though, that in the recent years of the 21st Century, the types of soy sauce used for eggs-over-rice, for yakiniku, and for other unique and specific tastes have led to another expansion in variety, which continues to reflect the volatility of the nature of the soy sauce market.
There are three from Kanto – Kikkoman, Yamasa, Higeta – and there are two from Kansai – Higashimaru, and Marukin. These are the "Big Five" of modern Japanese soy sauce. Within these five, three – Kikkoman, Yamasa, and Higeta – are in Chiba, the origin of industrial soy production. Meanwhile to the west, Higashimaru is located in Hyogo Prefecture, an area that has been producing soy sauce for nearly as long as Chiba. The final maker, Marukin, arrived much later, having only started production in 1800. In addition, it was headquartered on Shodo Island within the Seto Inland Sea – a late start and a backwoods location. How a maker with this sort of starting conditions managed to join the ranks of the top five producers nationally is an interesting story. Of course, the company's corporate efforts had something to do with it, however the biggest reason comes down to one thing – their particular product. Marukin was in fact the first company to make commercially available the koikuchi "strong soy" sauce. Until that time, soy sauce had been largely of the awaguchi "light soy" variety, or else the old-fashioned tamari. Given the strong affinity of the Japanese people to koikuchi soy sauce, this product immediately found its place in almost every kitchen. This stand-out from the previous variety was Marukin's greatest weapon in the battle to establish itself as a leading producer and, even nowadays, is an episode that speaks to the power of personality in marketing.
In Japan, eating habits played a key role in the development of soy sauce. Japan, being surrounded by the sea, is a treasure trove of fish and seafood. In addition, with the pervasiveness of Buddhist tradition and the restrictions on eating meat that come with it, fish has long been an important source of necessary protein. That said, fish is, obviously, associated with its particular fishy smell, which can be especially noticeable in the case of many uncooked Japanese dishes such as sashimi. Of course, there can be found plenty of people to whom this smell is of little concern, but even among Japanese people, there are an equally large number of people who are quite put off by the smell of raw fish. Enter soy sauce, which is actually capable of helping eliminate these unpleasant odors, and in the case of sashimi, the effect can be further enhanced with the addition of wasabi. To those who say they don't mind the smell of raw fish, try sashimi without soy sauce or wasabi sometime and see if you notice a difference; you may learn the hard way just how big a role soy sauce can play.
Of course, the strength of soy sauce is not reserved solely for fish. Another important role of soy sauce is to provide another of the basic tastes – umami. There are, undoubtedly, those among you who will ask, "Umami? What's that?" The five main tastes are of course salty, spicy, sweet, sour, and bitter; umami is not technically among them. However there is certainly this sense of "umami," despite it being said, interestingly, that only Japanese people will actually take notice of it. To put it another way, soy sauce came out of this Japanese search for a condiment to provide umami. However given the prevalence of soy sauce all over the world, it appears that there can be found anywhere people who taste umami. That said, when one thinks of the ideal form of soy sauce as a seasoning, the potentially heightened sensitivity of the Japanese to umami may give them a leg up on others.
Not just with regard to taste, but with also smell and even appearance, soy sauce has an appeal all its own. That's right, even such properties as smell and appearance can be improved with soy sauce. Soy sauce, as a liquid with a rich brown color, can easily lend this appearance to foods as well, giving them a richer color. Ah, but there's more; when soy sauce is heated, it gives off a very full, appetizing aroma. This is likely where many of you, readers, will probably begin to understand. Take for example, mochi, which is fairly impressionless on its own, but with the simple addition of soy sauce-based tsukeyaki or teriyaki, instantly becomes something that can set stomachs growling by smell alone.As for appearance…imagine the following situation: there is a piece of mochi with a fresh, shiny surface, let's say with some teriyaki tuna. The shine is perhaps a bit unnatural looking and certainly not the most appetizing, so to help it out, one of soy sauce's unique properties should be taken advantage of, in order to lend just the right appearance to the food. Soy sauce is definitely a seasoning to be reckoned with. For what it's worth, good quality soy sauce actually has a beautiful appearance even all by itself. When seen alone it is at the same time a deep, rich brown, and yet also transparent. If you ever place some in a glass container and hold it up to a light, this effect can be easily seen.
Because of the methods involved in producing soy sauce, it is technically a fermented food item and thus trace amounts of alcohol as well as various organic acids are present in it. There is, after all, an antiseptic found originally in salt, and since the alcohol and organic acids aid the process as well, when soy sauce is used as a seasoning it has the added benefit of helping to sterilize the food. This may also be reflected in how many dishes popular with soy sauce are boiled, seemingly to take advantage of this fact. This antibacterial function is yet another key role of soy sauce. So, have your opinions about soy sauce begun to change any?
But back to food, soy sauce is also very useful as a balancing act – it can easily, for example, help equalize flavors and prevent a dish from becoming too sweet, too spicy, or too salty. Let us take the example of cooked salmon – say we have some that is a little too spicy. Add some soy sauce to it and suddenly the taste has become much more mild. You know what I mean, right? The truth is that this is the result of soy sauce showing off its unique qualities. The important roles of soy sauce, lined up against its unassuming appearance…and to think Japan created such a thing; it's only natural that they enjoy taking a little pride in it.
Starting from the type intended to go with eggs over easy, recently there has been a vast expansion in the available variations on soy sauce. In fact, if we go solely by the different brand and product names, that number is currently over one thousand. This of course does not include any made by families at home, which are impossible to accurately account for. However, it is perfectly acceptable and practical to only know the brands which are actually available on store shelves. With that, let us introduce a few of them.
This is the most orthodox soy sauce – the world standard. It is the most common shared abroad and accounts for 80% of Japanese soy sauce production. Its use, though, is not limited to tabletop settings and on fish, pickles, or side dishes, but can also be paired with grilled food, boiled dishes, and even stir fry – there is almost nothing it cannot mix with well. Given that the volume produced is always large, if one is to venture overseas and eat something with soy sauce, it will almost certainly be koikuchi – it is the distinct taste of Japan to the world.
The name Awaguchi is easily misunderstood. However it should not be taken to mean that this type of soy sauce is bland, rather, it contains a higher salinity than standard soy sauce. This is because soy sauce, if left to ferment longer during the brewing process, will first take on a darker color. To avoid this, awaguchi adds salt to the mix to speed up the necessary chemical processes, thus earning the name awaguchi, derived from the kanji compound 淡色 awa iro, meaning "light colored." Since its color is quite pale, if it is used with cooked food, it allows the natural colors of the food itself to come through more strongly than, for example, koikuchi would. Originating in Kyoto, this sauce is very useful in imparting or preserving a pale color in food.
According to the JAS classification, this is "twice-prepared" soy sauce. However there are many things that can be sold under the namaage name. In general, soy sauce is heated at some point during the manufacturing process, however namaage variants forego this step. Furthermore, to ferment properly without the step of being heated, the soy sauce is mixed. This lack of heat is where it gets the name namaage, literally "prepared raw." This allows it to have a very high concentration of both flavor and smell, however it is also priced slightly higher by stores. In addition, the soy sauce usually paired with sashimi falls under this category.
Despite comprising only around 1% of the total soy sauce production volume, white soy sauce still enjoys immense popularity in some areas. While other variants of soy sauce, as the name implies, use soybeans as their primary ingredient, in white soy sauce this is actually replaced by wheat, with soybeans becoming merely a minor ingredient, despite it retaining the "soy sauce" name. As compared to other types, white soy sauce features the highest sugar content and most often appears as a hidden ingredient in many dishes.
Tamari is often confused with sashimi soy sauce, however as was introduced in the section on namaage, tamari is simply tamari. One of its defining characteristics is that while other types of soy sauce use some mix of soybeans and wheat, tamari is made purely with soybeans and is also still made using the laborious but time-honored old methods. Passed through a flame to deepen its red hue, it is used less often by households day-to-day and more for flavoring snacks, such as senbei crackers.
This type is the "new kid on the block," which arose in response to the recent upswing in the numbers of health-conscious people. It is often placed together with the standard koikuchi, however as it does not fall under any other JAS categories, it is technically its own class. That said, in to keep up with the trend toward more health-conscious society, the number of varieties available as low-sodium has been increasing.
This is a type of soy sauce which came about due to the rise of the world gourmet. Normal soy sauce is made by squeezing the oil from the soybean, however this type is brewed from the material of soybeans which have not been squeezed first. This allows it to have a distinct, mellow flavor, which has led to it having increased popularity for its uniqueness.