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    • When you think of soy sauce, you probably think of the salty, savory, slightly bitter sauce you'll find on every table in just about every Japanese or Chinese restaurant. But have you been eating the real thing?

      I thought I was until I read this article.

      It turns out the secret ingredient in traditional soy sauce is time. Specifically, the time it takes for bacteria to impart a rich umami flavor during a fermenting process that takes years and requires the use of special wooden barrels called kioke.

      According to Yamamoto, a kioke isn’t just a vessel, it’s the essential ingredient needed to make soy sauce, as the grain of the wood is home to millions of microbes that deepen and enrich the umami flavour. Because this bacteria can’t survive in steel tanks, many commercial companies pump their soy sauces full of additives. So unless you’ve visited an ancient craft brewer or artisanal store in Japan, you’ve likely only tasted a thin, salty imitation of a complex, nuanced brew.

      Yasuo Yamamoto is one of the last people in the world who still knows how to make kioke barrels (which is no small task). He's doing his best to train others in the craft so that it won't be lost forever.

      Yamamoto has even personally advised Kikkoman, the world's largest soy sauce producer, on his fermentation process. Kikkoman uses traditional techniques to create the special "royal blend" that they provide to the Japanese imperial family, but they don't sell it to the general public.

      I wonder how many foods we've lost over the years simply because they can't be easily mass produced. Ingredients may be fungible, cooking and brewing and growing can be done at scale, and genetic modifications can produce higher crop yields, but time simply can't be rushed.

    • The disappearance of true soy sauce would be a real tragedy - it sounds magnificent. Interestingly, it seems that other authentic flavors, like Balsamic Vinegar, are produced in much the same way - with authentic wooden barrels, aging over many years - and that what's sold in the mass market is rushed to market as quickly as possible. For authentic Balsamic Vinegar, the same time-tested methods apply:

      In order to be labeled Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale D.O.P., it needs to be made in Reggio Emilia or Modena, Italy, and produced using the following method: First, grape must from local late-harvest grapes (usually lambrusco or trebbiano) is boiled down until it’s reduced by half, left to ferment naturally for a few weeks, then matured and concentrated for a minimum of 12 years. It can’t just be left in a cask like whiskey, however: During this time, the reduction is gradually transferred through a series of at least five progressively smaller casks, each usually made of a different type of wood so the resulting product picks up each complex flavor. The vinegar in the final cask is rich, dark, viscous, glossy, and concentrated, due to the evaporation that occurs over the years.

    • There was an episode in one of the seasons of Chef's Table about a Korean buddhist nun who is also a chef (maybe not in the very traditional western meaning of the word, but still), and among other very interesting stuff there's a glimpse of soy sauces ranged over time; hardly just a condiment, but an ingredient in its own right.

      P.S. It's Season 3 Episode 1

    • Wow, interesting! I never really looked into soy sauce because I'm not particularly fond of it but perhaps I'd like it more if I'd tried the real soy sauce! I don't find that the ones I've tasted so far where bitter at all. I just find soy sauce to be way too salty (thankfully many Sushi places offer low sodium alternatives which are much better in my opinion) and it's just nothing special to me as a sauce, but I do like it as an ingredient in other dishes.

      Now I wonder what the real deal tastes like 🤔

    • Now I want to see if I can find it at our local Asian supermarket. I must taste it!

      Update: they didn't have it. 😞

      But on the other hand I bought a ton of Pocky, so I still consider it a win. 😋

    • I rarely cook anything at home that is complimented with soy sauce, but I love a good treasure hunt. I am going to shop around some stores in Summerlin and see if they got any. If I found some, then it is time to get my gently used WOK back on the stove!

    • Soy sauce isn't very frequently used on its own. It's usually mixed in with other ingredients to make sauces or to flavor dashi, the traditional broth base. Mix soy sauce and vinegar with some chili oil to make a gyoza dipping sauce. Mix it with mirin and some sugar to make teriyaki sauce.

      Super Sushi Ramen Express, by Michael Booth, is an interesting read for anyone interested in Japanese cuisine - or just cuisine in general. He cited Kamebishi as the only company still using the mushiro method, which I think is the original way to produce soy sauce. Their whole process takes a minimum of five years. He says it's the world's best. It's on my list of things to try. They are also the only company to make an aged soy sauce, which was inspired by the balsamic vinegar producers in Italy. Apparently a 10-year aged bottle costs about $150.