Brewed In Japan: Soy Sauce

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The Independent Culture
IT'S THE Japanese equivalent of salt and pepper. You'll find it on every table, it's added to nearly every dish, and it's now becoming so popular in the West that the major producer, Kikkoman, has recently opened a brewery in The Netherlands just to cater for the European demand for soy sauce.

Although Chinese and Japanese soy sauce have the same name and the same main ingredient, the Japanese claim that they are really very different products. Japanese soy sauce uses more wheat, is sweeter and less salty in taste, and can take up to a year to ferment, as opposed to the 30 days commonly used for Chinese soy sauce - hence its greater cost.

One of the major areas of soy sauce production in Japan is the Chiba prefecture, to the east of Tokyo. In Choshi, the third biggest fishing port, Yamasa has been making the dark, aromatic liquid since 1645. The company says that the confluence of warm and cold Pacific Ocean currents on Japan's eastern seaboard makes this the ideal location for brewing top-quality soy sauce.

Inland, at Noda, Kikkoman offer the public guided tours of their brewery (to arrange a guided tour, telephone the head office in Tokyo on 813 3233 5610 and ask for the international operation division). However, most visitors to the prefecture probably know the area better as the home of Tokyo Disneyland, which opened in 1983 in Urayasu city, just across the river from Tokyo.

The practice of seasoning dishes with soy sauce originated in China, but about 1,500 years ago Buddhist monks took the tradition to Japan. Soy sauce, or shoyu, was first commercially manufactured in the 16th century and was exported to Europe about 100 years later. It is said to have been the secret seasoning served at the court banquets of Louis XIV.

There are two main types of soy sauce - light and dark. Dark is the most common but light, which is paler and stronger, can be used when you don't want to give a dish colour. There are also local variations. Tamari, which is made in central Honshu, is a wheat-free soy sauce with a stronger, sharper taste and Shottsuru, which is made in the Akita province in the north, has a pale yellow colour.

Like fine wine, naturally brewed soy sauce should be treated with care, say its manufacturers. High temperatures and direct exposure to the air encourage oxidisation, which may lead to the sauce losing flavour and aroma. Always screw the cap on the bottle tightly and store it somewhere cool. The Japanese food expert Lesley Downer recommends keeping a large bottle of soy sauce in the fridge and decanting it into a smaller dispenser for the table.

When cooking with soy sauce, to keep both the taste and the aroma it is best to add it to a dish at the last minute. And don't just think of soy sauce as an ingredient for oriental recipes. Yamasa recommend using their soy sauce with a wide range of dishes - including beef stew, barbecued chicken and Greek salad.