Soy sauce – it’s not all the same

October 23, 2015 10:11 am

There was a time when British supermarket shelves were home to a single type of soy sauce – dark, mysterious, exotic and not terribly authentic. In the years that followed, British shoppers were spoilt for choice between the glamorous delights of ‘Light Soy Sauce’ and ‘Dark Soy Sauce’.

Luckily, the growth of Pan-Asian cuisine in the UK has led to the increasing availability of authentic Asian ingredients, including a wide variety of soy sauces, representing the subtle but important differences between varieties of this staple ingredient across Asia.

The origin of soy sauce dates back to fifth century China where the fermented sauce was used to season food as an alternative to salt. Chinese influence in the region led to similar sauces appearing in other Asian cultures, including Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar and the Philippines.

These sauces are largely (but not universally) made from a liquor of boiled soybeans and roasted wheat, which is fermented with salt, yeast, and other cultures, before being pressed to extract the brown savoury sauce.

Big in Japan

When soy sauce arrived in Japan in the seventh century, it quickly spread across the islands, with each region developing its own unique variant. The generic term for soy sauce in Japan is ‘Shoyu’, which is used as something of a catch-all when referring to Japanese soy sauces. But this does a disservice to the range of flavours, fragrances and consistencies that can be discovered if you are prepared to delve a little deeper.

One Japanese soy sauce of particular note is ‘Tamari’. Most soy sauces are fermented with wheat – ‘Koikuchi’, the most common Japanese ‘Shoyu’ has roughly equal amounts of soybean and wheat. However, Tamari is a non-wheat product; it is essentially a byproduct of miso maturation. You’ll probably recognise the name miso from miso soup, already a firm favourite in the UK. Miso paste is the traditional Japanese fermented soy seasoning, from which the soup is made.

As a non-wheat product, Tamari is also ideal for Asian food lovers who have a gluten intolerance or prefer to avoid wheat. Check the label of your Tamari to be certain.

Take a dip

The term ‘Tamari’ is derived from the Japanese for ‘accumulate’ or ‘pool’, due to the way it would gather on the top of the maturing miso. The resulting flavour is richer than the more common wheat-brewed sauces, with a less salty taste, a darker colour, and a thicker texture. Given this difference, whilst Shoyu, or the more common Chinese soy sauces, are used to season food such as stir-fry whilst it is cooking, the stronger and more robust flavour of Tamari works well with longer-cooked dishes such as stews and slow-cooked meats.

The layered umami of Tamari, coupled with its thicker consistency and smoother finish, also make it ideally suited to dipping. It compliments sashimi (Japanese raw fish) perfectly and will hold its own against the accompanying wasabi and pickled ginger. Tamari will also add depth to teriyaki sauces.

In the spirit of Pan-Asian cuisine, Tamari also works well as a dip for other Asian finger-foods, such as spring rolls or samosas.

Cafe Asia produces a wide range of Asian snack foods and street foods that would be the perfect accompaniment to your experiments with soy sauces. You’ll be able to find the Cafe Asia range in branches of Iceland across the UK from November 2015.


Photo credit:

Featured image: The Soy Sauce Aisle by Jason Kaechler, from Flikr under CC BY 2.0.