Whenever I meet a food I don’t like, I suspect it may be suffering from too little soy sauce.
Soy sauce has become such a common ingredient, it’s easy to forget that — like bacon, butter, Parmesan cheese, or lime juice — it makes everything taste better. I’ve watched my five-year-old drink the stuff from a dish intended for dipping, and she had the wild-eyed look of the addict.
I know how she feels. Made from fermented soybeans, soy sauce is a fundamental seasoning in at least a dozen national cuisines. Even in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, where fish sauce dominates, every cook keeps soy sauce on hand.
Of course, you don’t need me to tell you that soy sauce is ubiquitous and good, but I’d like to introduce you to its several varieties, recommend a couple of good brands, and take you on a second honeymoon with this essential ingredient.
Let’s start off with good news: The ubiquitous Kikkoman brand of soy sauce is very, very good. A few years ago, I went to one of my favorite Chinese restaurants, Szechuan Chef, to do a soy-sauce tasting. I wanted to make sure to include whatever the chef, Biao-Yang Cheng, used in his kitchen.
I expected him to produce a big jug of something with no English words on it. Instead, he came back with a standard supermarket bottle of Kikkoman. It’s the most neutral, he explained.
The results of the taste test were equally heartening. Kikkoman — which has been produced in the U.S. since 1972, when the company established a brewery in Walworth, Wisconsin — tied with a gluten-free organic brand for second place, close behind Pearl River Bridge, a popular Chinese brand that is even cheaper than Kikkoman.
Ordinary soy sauce — dark and thin and very salty — goes by many names. It’s called shoyu in Japan and Hawaii, jiang you in China, and sometimes “light soy sauce” in English. (This should not be confused with low-sodium soy sauce, which I’ll talk about in a minute.) In Thailand, the stuff is called si ew — a term familiar to anyone who’s ever ordered pad si ew, stir-fried wide rice noodles in a soy-based sauce.
Dark soy sauce is another soy sauce worth inviting over. It’s not as strongly flavored or as salty as standard shoyu, but it has fantastic color from added molasses. Any time I make a stir-fry with beef, I add a tablespoon of dark soy sauce, which makes the meat look, well, beefier.
Dark soy sauce is sold under various names (superior soy, mushroom soy), but it’s easy to identify in the store: just give the bottle a gentle shake. If the sauce stains the neck of the bottle for a few seconds after you stop shaking, it’s dark soy. This stuff is also great with cellophane noodles (either Chinese saifun or Korean dangmyun); it lends them an appealing burnished hue.
How many soy sauces do you need to keep on hand? I’d recommend three.
First, get a good light soy sauce, such as Kikkoman or Pearl River Bridge Superior Light Soy Sauce.
Second, try a dark soy sauce, such as Pearl River Bridge Mushroom Soy Sauce.
Third, pick up a bottle of wheat-free soy sauce, such as San-J Organic Tamari, because people who can’t eat wheat shouldn’t have to miss out on Asian food. If you cook Thai food, the Dragonfly brand is also a good bet.
For kicks, toss in a fourth bottle: kecap manis, a sweetened soy sauce common in Indonesian and Malaysian cooking. It’s easy to find in Asian groceries.
Although buying good soy sauce is simple, it’s not all umami-infused hearts and flowers out there. There are two kinds of soy sauce I’d definitely avoid.
The first is sauce made from hydrolyzed soy protein and caramel color. La Choy is the most popular brand of this junk; it’s also commonly found in packets accompanying Chinese takeout. This stuff is like a bad comedian: grating, yet boring. It is a crime that manufacturers are allowed to sell it as “soy sauce” rather than, say, “imitation soy-flavored sauce.”
The second is low-sodium soy sauce. As with light coconut milk, you’re being charged the same price per ounce for a watered-down product. This is worse, though: light coconut milk tastes OK, but low-sodium soy sauce tends to come with off-flavors. Cheng thought the low-sodium soy sauce we tasted was even worse than the imitation sauce.
If you want to make your own low-sodium soy sauce, that’s easy: Combine equal parts soy sauce and water.
Finally, a word on one of soy sauce’s traditional partners: sugar. I am usually cranky about adding sugar to savory food. I find sweet dinners unpleasant — even pork chops with applesauce — and a small amount of sugar can blunt and blur other flavors.
When cooking with soy sauce, however, I have to cast this prejudice aside. Soy sauce and sugar (in the form of cane sugar, mirin, brown sugar, or rock sugar) are a culinary tag team. Soy sauce isn’t just salty, it’s sour, and sugar helps moderate both of those traits, which lets you use more soy sauce without overwhelming a dish.
Plus, sweetened soy sauce is key to Seattle’s favorite lunch, chicken teriyaki: grilled boneless, skinless chicken thighs served with rice and thick, sweet teriyaki sauce. Maybe a little salad if you’re lucky.
I think I’m suffering from too little soy sauce, so I’m going to get some teriyaki right now.
Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.
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