An Honorable Savor: Soy Sauce 醤油
by Alan J. Wiren
Yuasa, a tiny town in Wakayama prefecture, claims to be the birthplace of soy sauce.
Unlike other elements of Japanese cuisine that evolved along with the culture during Japan's earliest history, soy sauce appeared at a rather late date.
When I visited Yuasa to find out more, I met Toshio Shinko, president of the Yuasa Soy Sauce Company, who told a story that begins in the neighboring temple, Kokokuji.
It is said that a monk named Kokushi Houtouenmei settled in Kokokuji in the middle of the thirteenth century.
He had lived several years in the Chinese temple, Kinzanji, and began to teach the people of Yuasa the things he had learned. One of them was the making of Kinzanji miso, a fermented paste of soy beans, vegetables, and salt.
Fermentation, in the days before refrigeration, played an important role in the kitchen as a method of food preservation.
Fermentation also makes food more digestable, and (some would argue) more nutritious, as the more complex ingredients are broken down, and enzymes and amino acids form. The people of Yuasa were about to discover a third benefit of fermenting soy beans.
While their miso was standing in its cedar tubs, a small amount of liquid would gather at the bottom. Common practice was to pour it back over the miso to conserve flavor. But legend has it that the people of Yuasa were the first to try the liquid as a condiment on its own. Yuasa soy sauce took the market by storm.
"In its heyday," Shinko said, "there were ninety-two soy sauce breweries in Yuasa. Now there are only nine."
So popular was Yuasa soy sauce, it even made a contribution to the Japanese language. In upscale restaurants you may hear Japanese customers call soy sauce by the name, Murasaki, which means "purple", but even they may not know the origin of the usage. The color purple, used in clothing, signified high social rank, and the name was given to Yuasa soy sauce in recognition of its high quality.
Shinko went on to tell of the relationship that grew up between Yuasa's brewers and the persons of highest rank. Japan's first Shoguns showed favor to Yuasa. Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the first to reunite Japan during the Warring States Period, and the people of Yuasa helped him by supplying his armies with dry goods. When the fighting was done, he returned the favor by granting Yuasa's brewers exclusive license to produce and sell soy sauce throughout Japan.
When Tokugawa Ieyasu ended Hideyoshi's dynasty and moved the seat of government to Edo (the site of modern-day Tokyo) he eradicated much of what Hideyoshi had done, but not the Shogunate's loyalty to, and procession of Yuasa soy sauce.
The ships that carried over 160,000 barrels of it to Edo during the early Tokugawa Period were allowed to bear a plaque declaring them under the protection of the feudal lords of the Wakayama area.
It was, however, during the same time that production of soy sauce went through a dramatic change. Both the method and the center of production, and the essential flavor of soy sauce would be altered.
The change in location of the ruling family to Edo drew people Eastward, away from the capital in Kyoto. As they arrived, many found the Noda area, northwest of Edo was ideal for making miso and soy sauce.
Fermentation is best begun in cold weather, and Noda's climate was well suited. Noda also had rivers that provided water, for mixing the ingredients, and transportation routes for distributing the finished product. The brewers had everything they needed in Noda -- except demand.
They began to experiment with the recipe until they hit upon combining an equal amount of soybeans and wheat. This was the formula that gave the market a new center, and gave soy sauce the taste it has today.
The brewers of Noda formed clans that joined together as an organization with the power to set their recipe as a national standard for soy sauce, but even that did not stop its evolution.
The second World War left Japan dependent on the United States for many things, including soy beans. At that time the U.S. was making a product similar to soy sauce, but much cheaper because it required no fermentation.
Although the taste of this chemical soy sauce lacks the depth and complexity of fermented Soy Sauce, the U.S. government threatened to withhold soy bean rations from the Japanese companies unless they adopted the process.
One of the largest of the Noda houses began to do research into alternatives and presented a partial fermentation process to the United States representative. It reduced the time needed to produce soy sauce, (thus making it cheaper) while preserving some of its character. The representative was impressed and granted soy bean rations to any company that would use partial fermentation.
After Japan regained its independence, of course, some brewers returned to the original ways, but inexpensive, partially fermented soy sauce had already become the norm in the Japanese kitchen. Soy sauce that has been fermented for two to three years in cedar vats is now an artisanal product.
If you are looking for soy sauce to use in your home in Japan, or to take home as souvenirs you will find a wide range of choices. The same principles apply to choosing a soy sauce as to buying wine. First of all, price is an indicator of quality.
Fully fermented soy sauces will generally cost three to four times the amount you would pay for those on the supermarket shelf, but after sampling the artisanal products you may find them worth the price.
The label will give you information about where the soy sauce was made. The characters of soy sauce made in different regions and by different brewers varies widely.
Both fully and partially fermented soy sauce should list only three or four ingredients: soybeans, wheat, salt, and sometimes a small amount of alcohol is added as a preservative. If there are any others listed, they hare been added to improve the flavor of a less than superior product.
The labels of naturally fermented soy sauces will also tell you how long they have spent in their cedar vats. Fortunately most artisanal soy sauces are sold in three hundred or five hundred milliliter bottles as well as the one liter size, so you can do some tasting to find out which ones suit your palate and your recipes without breaking your budget.
Other Japan articles by Alan Wiren
'To the Stronger Spirit': Nanzenji Temple Complex, Kyoto