Artisan soy sauces add earthy complexity to all kinds of dishes
Beyond the ubiquitous little packets of soy sauce you'll find in Asian restaurants, a wide variety of high-quality sauces are now readily available from around the world — not only Japan and China but Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and even Hawaii. These sauces can add a "fifth dimension" of taste the Japanese call "umami." It's a savory, meaty nuance that offers complexity and richness to many dishes including soups and even macaroni and cheese.
FOR YEARS, without quite knowing why, I'd reach for the nearest bottle of soy sauce whenever my seafood stews, vegetable soups or tomato sauces lacked a little "something" and needed a bit of a lift.
And every time, the dark-brown liquid worked its magic, adding not only a distinctive sort of saltiness, but an earthy or meaty taste that wasn't there before.
But I must admit that, in my younger days, I thought of soy sauce as the stuff in the clear-glass cruets or the red-and-white packets at the local Asian restaurant.
Once we moved to Seattle, a whole new world opened up. I discovered Japanese soy sauce, or "shoyu," which can be made from soy beans or soy plus wheat. When made from soy only, the sauces are called "tamari."
Next I dabbled in Chinese soy sauces. Light (fresh) is used mainly for dipping and seasoning, while dark (aged) mostly for cooking. I even experimented with kecap manis — a rich, molasses-like variety with origins in Indonesia — that works well for stir-fries, marinades and bastes.
In the brightly labeled soy-sauce section at Uwajimaya in the Chinatown International District, I recently found sauces from Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and even Hawaii. Imagine the possibilities for creative cooks, because each sauce from each region offers different fragrances, tastes, salt levels and consistencies!
Eight years ago, ever on the search for the best artisan-produced, sustainable products to add to their line, the employees of ChefShop.com gathered at the company's rustic old warehouse in the shadow of the Magnolia Bridge for a blind tasting.
"I still remember it clearly," recounts ChefShop.com President Tim Mar, a soft-spoken yet passionate baby boomer of Chinese descent. "Our longest table was laid out with eight different soys: three from China, two from Japan, two Japanese-style from California and one from Thailand."
Mar was shocked at the unpleasantly "sharp, bitter, sweet and crunch-your-eyes-shut salty" flavors he detected. Afterward, his mouth felt literally (ahem) a-salted. Perhaps even more humbling for someone with such a polished palate, Mar had picked the inexpensive soy sauce from China due to "mouth memories" from childhood.
So it wasn't until earlier this year, when Mar discovered Kishibori Shoyu, did ChefShop.com offer soy sauce to its customers. The artisan sauce is made by the Takesan Company, a family-run shoyu brewery on a small island in the Seto Inland Sea. Known for its high-quality salt, the area has attracted Japanese shoyu brewers since the 17th century.
Tasting this artisan shoyu straight off the spoon (a bracing experience, for sure) is a revelation: light and clear, with a clean aftertaste, Kishibori is as complex as a perfectly aged wine. Complexity amplifies when the sauce is sprinkled over a bowl of Tamaki Haiga rice, one of the good brands available at ChefShop.com.
Unlike mass-produced soy sauces, which can be made in just two days from water, hydrolyzed soy protein, salt, molasses, caramel color and preservatives, artisan sauces such as Kishibori are crafted with nothing more than water, whole soybeans, wheat and sea salt. The steamed soy beans, toasted wheat, salt and mineral water are then left to ferment in well-seasoned cider barrels for a year.
Full of healthy amino and fatty acids, plus antioxidants, a 12-ounce bottle of the good stuff sells for $18. And a little goes a long way. "Even just a little bit enhances and transforms," Mar says.
The transformative quality that soy sauce possesses, along with foods such as Asian fish sauce, dried shiitake mushrooms, oysters and aged beef and cheese, is called "umami." Designated as the fifth taste — along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter — the word's exact meaning (unfortunately) gets lost in translation from its native Japanese. But, in the West it's often described as deliciousness or savoriness.
"Umami synergy" describes the enhancing effect — an overall meaty, mouth-coating taste — that two or more umami-rich ingredients produce when used in tandem.
I like the recipe for Umami Mayo from the Kikkoman Corp. Simply stir one cup of mayonnaise with one tablespoon of Dijon mustard and two teaspoons of soy sauce.
More ambitious cooks can try their hand at Chinese celebrity chef Martin Yan's Mushrooms in Fragrant Broth, or pick up a copy of "The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami" (Universe Publishing, $27.50), which contains 60 umami-rich recipes.
Braiden Rex-Johnson is a Seattle-based cookbook author and food and wine columnist. Visit her online at www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com. Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Mushrooms in Fragrant Broth
Makes 4 servings
8 dried black (shiitake) mushrooms
1/4 cup dried cloud ears (optional)
1/2 pound boneless, skinless chicken-breast halves
4 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
4 white button mushrooms, sliced
2 baby bok choy, quartered lengthwise
1. Soak the black mushrooms and cloud ears in a pan of warm water, covered, until softened, about 15 minutes; drain. Trim and discard stems. Leave mushroom caps whole and thinly slice cloud ears. Cut chicken into thin slices, then cut the slices into thin strips, and set aside.
2. Combine the broth, soy sauce, sesame oil and white pepper in a 2-quart saucepan; bring to a boil. Add black mushrooms and cloud ears. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes.
3. Add button mushrooms and bok choy; simmer for 3 minutes. Add chicken and simmer until it is no longer pink, 2 to 3 minutes.
— From "Martin Yan's Culinary Journey Through China"
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