A lesson in dark arts

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Soybean, Soy milk

Ever wondered what that dark salty sauce used in stir-fries is all about? Stefan Chomka went to find out more about food's 'black gold'

There is a certain mystery that surrounds soy sauce: that dark, brackish liquid with a pungent smell unlike any other food that the UK consumer is used to. Even its name offers little clue as to what exactly it is -- after all, soy beans are neither black nor salty.

The UK's relationship with soy sauce, while on good terms, is somewhat uncomfortable. When cooking a stir-fry it would be inconceivable not to use a generous sprinkling of the stuff for that authentic Japanese taste. But that's about where it stops. What else are you supposed to do with it?

This is a conundrum that the world's largest soy sauce producer Kikkoman is hoping to solve. The company, which has been brewing soy sauce for over 300 years and which supplies the Imperial Household of Japan, wants to educate UK consumers in the wide uses of soy sauce. It says that not only can soy sauce be used with practically all types of food -- Japanese or otherwise -- it believes its iconic soy sauce dispenser bottles should replace the salt and pepper shakers that daily grace our dinner tables.

To understand more about the sauce I went to Kikkoman's 146,000m2soy sauce plant at Hoogezand-Sappemeer in the north of Holland, the company's sole European production facility. It is an apt location as Dutch traders for the first to bring the sauce to Europe in the 17th century. Holland was also chosen to be the European home of soy sauce by Kikkoman because of its handy position within Europe. It now supplies 20 European countries.

Soy sauce has a rich history. It was first made in the Orient around 2,500 years ago, and was brought to Japan in the sixth century by a Buddhist sect wanting to liven up its strict vegetarian diet. However, the sauce we know today was not developed until the 16th century when wheat was added to the recipe to improve taste, aroma and colour. This new found soy sauce was even called 'black gold' by chefs at the court of Louis XIV because of the versatility it brought to their recipes.

For Kikkoman little has changed in the way its soy sauce is made. Naturally brewed, the product does not contain additives such as hydrochloric acid used by some soy sauce producers to split the soy protein and speed up the production process. And while the plant is fully automated and no longer uses the traditional method of stirring the mixture by hand, the principles behind the brewing process remain the same. As a result, it still takes around half a year to produce each batch of soy sauce.

Brewed soy sauce is said to have around 300 discernible flavours, ranging from vanilla, pineapple and apple to coffee and rose. Yet it is only made from four main ingredients -- wheat, soy beans, salt and water.

The Kikkoman soy sauce process involves heat treating soybeans and wheat which are then blended with a special micro-organism added to aid the culturing process, resulting in a mixture called koji. The koji is slowly cultivated at warm temperatures before being mixed with a brine solution -- from which the sauce derives its salty characteristic -- to create a dark, pungent mixture called moromi.

Kikkoman then ages the moromi in fermentation tanks over a number of months, during which time the wheat starch is turned into sugars. Flavour compounds develop, derived from amino acids, peptides, sugars, organic acids, alcohol and other fermented products. The moromi is then pressed to separate the mash from the raw soy sauce liquid, which is heat-treated, refined and finally pasteurised before bottling.

Spreading the message of its simple, yet traditional production methods is how Kikkoman hopes to boost the popularity of its soy sauce in the UK. And it has had its work cut out. When Kikkoman first imported soy sauce into the UK customs demanded it pay duty on the black stuff, as naturally brewed soy sauce can contain up to 2% alcohol.

Although customs is no longer breathing down its neck, the company still has some way to go. According to its figures, while the average Japanese consumes a whopping eight litres of the stuff a year, the US consumer only gets through half a litre in the same time. We Europeans on the other hand consume only around 15ml a year.

Kikkoman, however, hopes to increase consumption of soy sauce by targeting foodservice and ready meals manufacturers. It says soy sauce can be used instead of salt in many manufactured foods to deliver a different taste profile and even has plans to produce a lower salt variant as demand for low-salt food is growing.

Maybe it isn't so mysterious after all. FM

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