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Will the real soy sauce please stand up?

Traditional soy sauce is made through a fermentation process involving soybeans, wheat, water and salt; these are the only ingredients you will see on the label of the bottle

(Left) Egg fried rice; and all-purpose sauce. (Nandita Iyer)

By Nandita Iyer

LAST PUBLISHED 08.07.2023  |  09:00 AM IST

In South Korea, Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan approaches cooking as a spiritual practice. She appeared in episode 1 of volume 3 in the Netflix series Chef’s Table and a line she uttered had a profound impact on me. “Soy sauce is soybeans, salt and water in harmony, over time." Cookbook and recipe authors often include the “time taken" in their recipes. Few realise that time is a crucial ingredient in every recipe, capable of making or breaking a dish.

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The nearly black soy sauce used in Indo-Chinese cooking, which most Indians love, is just liquid salt. It lacks the nuanced flavour of brewed soy sauce. Traditional soy sauce is made through a fermentation process involving soybeans, wheat, water and salt; these are the only ingredients you will see on the label of the bottle. The mixture ferments for months to develop its distinct flavour. Fermentation, a natural process influenced by factors like ingredients, bacteria, yeast, local temperatures and time, results in each batch having a unique flavour, unlike the uniform taste of industrially produced soy sauce.

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The chemical soy sauce is a dark brown, thick concoction sold for less than 50 for 200ml and has some or all of the following ingredients: soya extract, sugar or caramel, added colours, artificial flavours, condiments like garlic powder and onion powder, an acidity regulator and preservatives.

Just like balsamic vinegar and olive oil, soy sauce has grades of quality, from factory-made to high-quality naturally-brewed. Premium soy sauce is typically made from high-quality ingredients and undergoes a slow fermentation process, sometimes over years, resulting in a richer flavour. Lower-grade soy sauces are often mass-produced and may contain additives to speed up the fermentation process, or not go through fermentation at all.

Due to the presence of wheat in the fermenting mix, soy sauce has gluten. The gluten-free version, called tamari, is made by fermenting only soybeans. Ironically, there also exists a soy-free substitute to soy sauce called coconut aminos. Made from coconut syrup, coconut vinegar, salt and water, it is free of both soy and gluten.

Different countries and regions have their own types of soy sauce. For example, Japanese soy sauce (shoyu) tends to have a sweeter and milder flavour than Chinese soy sauce. A soy sauce purist would not use a Chinese soy sauce in a Japanese dish or vice versa—but feel free to experiment in home cooking. Soy sauce is used not just by itself but also to make other condiments. One such condiment is the Indonesian Kecap Manis. It uses the saltiness of soy sauce to offset the sweetness of palm sugar and forms a canvas for aromatics like ginger, garlic, star anise and cloves.

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The use of soy sauce in Chinese, Japanese and Korean savoury dishes, and in marinades and salad dressings, is standard but soy sauce does find itself in some unusual places. Japanese soy sauce ice cream, or the shoyu flavour, is a delicious pairing of salty-umami with sweet-creamy. In Japan, soy sauce butter pasta has cooked pasta tossed in soy sauce butter, yielding a rich savoury sauce. Soy sauce, in combination with honey and sesame seeds, also makes for an interesting flavouring for snacks like popcorn, roasted nuts and potato wedges. Chocolate and soy sauce go together like chocolate and sea salt. Adding a splash of soy sauce to chocolate brownie batter can intensify the flavours. The sauce can also be used in martinis and other cocktails for a unique twist.

Egg fried rice
(Keep cooked rice in the fridge and you are always less than 10 minutes away from a wholesome meal.)

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Serves 2

Ingredients
2 cups cooked short-grain rice*
1 tbsp soy sauce (light or dark)
1 tbsp sunflower oil
4-5 cloves minced garlic
Half tsp grated ginger or ginger paste
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, coarsely grated
Quarter cup frozen peas
2 eggs
A pinch of salt
1-2 tsp toasted sesame oil (optional)
Black and white sesame seeds

Method

Toss the rice in soy sauce and keep aside. In a pan, heat the oil. Fry the garlic and ginger for 20-30 seconds. Add the vegetables and sauté for two-three minutes. Break the eggs in a small bowl with a pinch of salt and whisk well. Add the whisked eggs to the pan and cook over low-medium heat until scrambled. Transfer the rice to the pan and mix well with the veggies and scrambled egg. Taste and add more soy sauce if required.

Remove to a bowl and garnish with toasted sesame oil and sesame seeds.

*Cooked and refrigerated rice works best for fried rice.

All Purpose Sauce
Makes around 200ml

Ingredients
Half cup soy sauce (light or dark)
1 tsp finely chopped garlic
2 tsp finely diced ginger (peeled)
2 tbsp finely chopped spring onion greens
2 tbsp rice vinegar or synthetic vinegar
2 tsp finely chopped coriander stems
1 tbsp honey or 2 tsp coconut sugar
1 tsp white sesame seeds
1 tsp red chilli flakes
2 tsp toasted sesame oil (optional)

Method

Mix all the ingredients in a jar with an airtight lid. Store in the refrigerator and use within two days.
• This sauce can be used to dip any Asian starters or snacks like dumplings, spring rolls.
• Cook noodles or rice and combine with stir-fried veggies. Toss in this sauce.
• Use this sauce as a dressing for Asian salads.
Use it as a marinade for tofu.
• Top quartered hard-boiled eggs with this all purpose sauce.

Look for naturally brewed soy sauce brands on Amazon or in speciality food stores.

Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is The Great Indian Thali—Seasonal Vegetarian Wholesomeness (Roli Books). @saffrontrail on Twitter and Instagram.

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