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Soy Sauce Secrets

"He who asks is a fool for 5 minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever."
(Chinese proverb)

When it comes to Chinese food, few ingredients are more essential - yet at the same time more misunderstood - than soy sauce. We pour it on rice, use it for stir-frying and as a dipping sauce; still, the difference between light and dark, slowly aged or chemically manufactured soy sauce is not well-known.

History
Like tofu, soy sauce is made from soybeans. While the Europeans only discovered the soybean plant in the early eighteenth century, the Chinese were relying on it as a food source at least 5,000 years ago. The reigning emperor called it "Ta Teou," which means big bean, and declared it to be one of the five sacred grains, along with rice, wheat, barley, and millet.  Nutritionally, soybeans provide the Chinese people with a healthy and inexpensive source of protein - two pounds of soy flour contains approximately the same amount of protein as five pounds of meat. 

Soy sauce dates back about 2,000 years, during the Zhou dynasty. Originally a salty paste, eventually this developed into two separate products: the liquid shoyu (the Japanese word for soy sauce) and miso.  While both are used in Japanese cooking, in China soy sauce is more important. Today, properly prepared soy sauce is made from soybeans that are mixed with roasted grain (usually wheat, rice, or barley) and fermented for several months. Once the aging process is completed the mixture is strained and bottled. By contrast, synthetically manufactured soys are produced in a matter of days through a hydrolytic reaction and seasoned with corn syrup, caramel coloring, salt and water. They lack the savory flavor of naturally brewed soy and often have a metallic taste.

Concerned about the amount of salt in soy sauce? You can join our forum discussion on this topic here.

Soy Sauce Types
The two basic types of soy sauce used in Chinese cooking are light and dark. Dark soy is aged much longer than light soy, giving it a brownish-black color and much thicker texture. As its name suggests, light soy has a lighter color, plus a saltier flavor. It is used more in cooking, as the rather pungent odor and darker color of dark soy sauce can ruin the taste or appearance of a dish. (Dark soy is used in red-cooked dishes, and is good for marinating meat). Ideally, you should keep both on hand. There are also mushroom and shrimp soy sauces, infused with the flavors of mushrooms and brine shrimp respectively. (Thick soy sauce, used by restaurants to give fried rice its dark color, is made from molasses and soy bean extract). Finally, kecap manis is a sweetish, thick soy sauce made with palm sugar and seasoned with star anise and garlic.  A popular tool of Indonesian cooks, it can be used as a dip, and some people like to substitute it for dark soy sauce in recipes.

The best soy sauces are the ones imported from China (Pearl River Bridge is especially good) or Hong Kong. Japanese brands such as Kikkoman can be substituted for light soy sauce in cooking, although some experts claim tamari - a type of soy sauce made without wheat and using a different fermentation process - is too sweet, working better as dip than as a substitute for Chinese soy sauce in stir-frying.  Be sure to avoid any soy sauces that are chemically manufactured, for the reasons noted above.

This Week's Recipes

Stir-fried Beef With Three Vegetables - uses light and dark soy sauce
Soy Mushroom Chili Sauce
Soy and Ginger Dressing
Soy Sauce Dressing - A copycat recipe from About's Guide to Southern US Cuisine
Kung Pao Chicken Stir-fry
Spicy Soy Sauce Chicken (chicken simmered in soy)
Soy Sauce Chicken with Shiitake Mushrooms - a warming dish for cold winter nights
Egg Foo Yung (soy sauce is used in the brown sauce - instructions follow the main recipe) 


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