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.