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Will we ever truly understand soya sauce in India?

What do you suppose is India’s favourite bottled sauce?

If you answered ‘tomato ketchup’ you would probably be right. But despite the current sauce boom and the growing popularity of mayonnaise, I would venture to suggest that our favourite sauce after ketchup is soya sauce.


Most of us have grown up with soya sauce. Not in our home cooking but at Chinese restaurants and through Chinese takeaways. In fact, the foundations of Indian-Chinese (or Sino Ludhianvi) food rely on two bottled sauces: tomato ketchup and soya sauce. And of the two, soya sauce is the defining characteristic of Sino Ludhianvi food. No matter how many Punjabi masalas you use, as long as you put some soya in the pan (or wok), you can claim it is Chinese food. For instance if you make Chicken Manchurian, without soya sauce, it doesn’t even taste vaguely Chinese.


   Two things are worth remembering about soya sauce. The first is that its predominant flavour is a taste we call umami. I have long argued (often at tedious length) that the story of Indian restaurant food over the last 50 years is the story of our discovery of umami through Butter Chicken, Cheesy Pasta, Sino Ludhianvi dishes, Pizza and now the sushi boom.


   Soya Sauce has played a key role in this but — and here is the second thing worth remembering — we haven’t really had genuine soya sauce in India till recently. Before food imports were encouraged in the post liberalisation era, we relied on soya sauce made by small units, often run by Indian-Chinese in such cities as Calcutta. They did not make soya sauce in a way that would be acceptable in China (some of the characteristic dark colour came from caramel) and the FSSAI has now stopped many of these little companies from describing their products as Soya Sauce. (‘Dark Sauce’ is one alternative name.)


   And yet, this is the soya we grew up on, dark and umami-rich. It is the original flavour of Indian Chinese food.


   What is real soya sauce? Is it Chinese? Or is it Japanese given that most of us use it as a dipping sauce for sushi and that one of the world’s best-known brands of soya is the Japanese giant Kikkoman whose sauces you find all over the world.


   It’s a little complicated because ‘soya sauce’, the name we use for the sauce comes from Shoyu, the Japanese name. But no, it is very much a Chinese sauce, invented by the Chinese and taken to Japan by them.


   The soya bean was domesticated by the Chinese around 1000 BC but the first written reference to Soya sauce dates to a 13th Century Chinese cookbook. That it took over two thousand years to work out how to make a sauce from soya beans is understandable when you realise how complex the process is.


   Yellow and black soya beans are steamed and then mixed with wheat-flour. This mixture is then left in a dark, warm, humid place to be colonised by mould. The moulded beans have salt and water added to them and are then allowed to ferment. The mould produces enzymes that break down the proteins into amino acids, the starches turn into sugars and the oils become fatty acids. As the mixture matures, more chemical reactions occur giving soya sauce its classic taste.


   Once it is ready, the first, thinner part of the soya sauce is drained off and called light soya sauce (what most us are familiar with) and the later dark liquid becomes dark soya sauce, which has a different taste profile. Dark soya is often used in cooking all over the Far East and though soya sauce turns up all over East Asia, each region has its own variations and there are over a hundred different kinds of soya.


  "At high quality Japanese restaurants in India they will go the extra mile and look for a different soya sauce that goes with the sushi."

   In the old days, the basic difference between Japanese soya sauce and the Chinese original was in the proportion of wheat and soya bean. Traditional Chinese soya sauce had a higher proportion of soya beans while the Japanese version used roughly equal proportions of wheat and soya bean. It used to be said that Chinese soya sauces were heavier because of the bean overload while the Japanese ones were lighter.


   None of this is true any longer. Technology has changed methods of production in all of East Asia. The Japanese are reckoned to have a quality edge at least partly because Kikkoman is so ubiquitous while Chinese brands are seen as more industrial and mass-market and make much less of their methods, hardly talking about fermentation times and the likes. Plus, in a world that looks for gluten-free alternatives, a Japanese soya sauce (well sort of) called Tamari has found global popularity.


   There is no evidence to suggest that Indians have a very discriminating palate when it comes to soya sauce. Though soya sauce is crucial to Chinese cooking because a bad sauce can destroy the flavour profile of a dish, this is much less noticeable with Indian Chinese where the masalas are so strong. Even with Thai food, many of us can’t tell what kind of soya sauce is being used. For instance, a basic dish like Chicken With Cashew nuts may be made with light soya sauce but some chefs will also add a little Dark soya sauce to give it colour and a little sweetness.


   What is clear however is that—perhaps it is because of the bogus caramelized soya sauces that were made in India —— Indians expect soya sauce to be dark. We have less time for the more delicate soya sauces of China and Japan. 


   Kikkoman, which launched a wholly owned subsidiary in India in 2021, has launched a dark soya sauce for the Indian market “after realising that many Indians expect Chinese and Pan-Asian dishes to have rich, dark colour which they find visually appealing”. (This is a quote from the Kikkoman press release.)


  We also don’t like the sweetness that sometimes comes with real Dark Soya Sauce so the Kikkoman Indian Dark Soya mimics the taste profile of the flagship Kikkoman soya but has a different colour. In the press release Kikkoman quoted various little-known chefs as saying how wonderful the product is and perhaps it is: you have to give Indians the colour they love.


   It’s not so easy when it comes to the dipping sauce we use for sushi and sashimi.  Most (well, many, at any rate) sushi restaurants use the normal light soya sauce they use in Chinese cooking as a dipping sauce which is wrong. But nearly everyone has become content with this. Even Kikkoman does not offer a special soya sauce for sushi in India as it does in many other markets.


   At high quality Japanese restaurants in India they will go the extra mile and look for a different soya sauce that goes with the sushi. For instance, when Arun Sundararajan, the Executive Chef at the Delhi Taj ran Wasabi, (closed in Delhi but flourishing in Mumbai) he took a light soya sauce and added a little bonito (for non-vegetarians) to give it a distinctive flavour.


   On the other hand, some restaurants use a dark soya sauce which Arun says “overpowers the seafood and totally destroys the sushi.” But as he concedes, when your fish is not very good, a strong soya sauce makes up for a multitude of sins “because it gives the guest a feeling of great sushi”.


   Will we ever truly understand soya sauce in India? I wonder. We have had a desi classic Chinese food boom and now a sushi boom. And yet we have never bothered to find out much about the ingredient that gives it the umami heft that keeps us coming back for more.


   Give us a umami hit and we are satisfied.




  • Gautam Natrajan 04 May 2024

    Never mind soy sauce. Do we understand the sauces and condiments used in cuisines of Northeast India? Recently I found out about fermented soya products from various Northeastern states. We know more about Japanese tofu and Indonesian tempeh than these.

Posted On: 03 May 2024 01:36 PM
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