Soy Sauce (Patrick)

Illustration of Man Carrying Koji.jpg


            Soy sauce is a condiment made from salt, battered soybeans, and water.  Although these three basic ingredients are essential, a variety of other ingredients are sometimes incorporated.  In addition, the ratios of the basic ingredients can be altered in order to produce different tastes and textures. Usually dark in appearance, soy sauce's basic taste is umami,  or rich savory flavor. [1] Soy sauce is one of the defining staples of Asian cuisine.  Its pervasiveness across national borders, use in various dishes, and rich history demonstrates that it is a cultural unifier, a cultural aspect (religious, linguistic, artistic, etc.) that is shared by two or more cultures and thus, to some extent links them. Soy sauce's function as a cultural unifier demands attention for both its use as a ingredient and a manufactured product.

             Soy sauce developed sometime between the 3rd and 5th centuries in Jin China.  It has its origins in a older meat-based condiment called jiang. [2] Boiled soybeans replaced meat in the fermentation process sometime during this time and gave rise to soy sauce (jiangyou), and other soy products such as miso. Valued as a seasoning and a preservative, soy sauce was quickly spread throughout Eastern Asia by merchants and, most famously, by Buddhist monks. [3] Each region modified the manufacturing process in order to satisfy their intrinsic desires.  For example, Japanese soy sauce includes wheat in the manufacturing process in contrast to the traditional Chinese recipe which only uses the three base ingredients.  The first European contact with soy sauce occurred during the Age of Exploration when Portuguese and Dutch sailors rounded the Cape of Good Hope and established the oceanic trade routes to Asia.  [4] Japanese soy sauce was the first kind encountered by the Europeans. In 1543, Portuguese merchants began to trade with Japan but were more interested in silk and precious metals rather than soy sauce.  They were subsequently banned from trading in Japan because of a increasingly conservative shogunate and fears of Catholicism becoming a destabilizing force.  The Dutch took their place and, when Japan adopted Sakoku (a foreign policy that imposed isolationism), became the only European people allowed to trade in Japan. In 1737, the first record of soy sauce as a commodity appears in a Dutch East India Company log; some the barrels from this shipment reached Europe.  Unlike the majority of the food products that exchanged during the Age of Exploration, soy sauce was not reproduced and integrated into European cuisine on a large scale because of a lack of understanding into the nuances of the manufacturing process.  Thus, the manufacturing process allowed soy sauce to retain its Asian identity--which it maintains to this day-- in the face of the international assimilation.  General European disinterest in soy products was also another factor that contributed to soy sauce's maintenance of its identity.  Even though, the soy plant is durable and adaptive (soy plants have a growth period of only fifteen weeks, can grow in European climates,  are excellent for long periods of transport,   and provide many essential nutrients),  Europeans always referred to them with indifference in their travel logs. [5]

            The traditional manufacture of soy sauce is complicated and time consuming. Soy beans are extracted from the soy plant and boiled until cooked. The best soy sauce requires the beans to be boiled to a soft texture. The boiled soybeans are either mixed with a roasted grain or allowed to ferment on their own.  The fermentation process is facilitated by microorganisms, typically the fungi Aspergillus. The Europeans were never able to master this early form of biological engineering, demonstrating the sophistication of the process and Eastern knowledge and saving soy sauce from assimilation.   This culture of fermenting soybeans and fungus is called "Koji" in Japanese. [6] Brewing, the next step,  involves combining Koji with a specific amount and concentration of brine, which varies across cultures and types of soy sauce.  This step causes the sauce to assume its dark color, gives it its characteristic flavor, and, upon further battering, causes the concoction to become a paste.  The paste is pressed, separating it into distinct solid and liquid phases. [7] The liquid will become soy sauce while the solid component will typically be used as animal feed or fertilizer.  The liquid phase is pasteurized in order to kill the fungus and other bacteria that may have contaminated the substance during production. Before the invention of pasteurization in the second-half of the 19th century,  soy sauce was boiled in an iron pot, stoppered, and sealed in pitch in order to prevent deterioration. Thus, soy sauce manufacturers had a method for preservation before European innovation. [8]   After this, the finished product is either aged further for flavor or bottled and sold. 

            The image above is from the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Life During the Edo Period (1690), a Japanese tome that presents the different perspectives and responsibilities of Japanese working people, farmers, merchants, and even entertainers. The compiler and the artists that contributed their work to the encyclopedia are unfortunately unknown.   Each page of the encyclopedia contains one or two illustrations with accompanying text that provides insight into what the image is displaying.  This particular set of images is taken from page 144.  The image on the left is titled "Miso-ya" or "Miso-Shop."  In the foreground,  two men use long wooden pestles to batter soy beans or Koji with large wooden pestles.  This action would've been performed twice, once before fermentation and once after.  However, it is unclear from this image whether the concoction has been fermented or not, however the accompanying image suggests that this is occurring before fermentation.  Behind them, to the left, stands a barrel of presumably fermenting Koji.  Stones lie on top of the barrel in order to increase pressure and facilitate fermentation.[9] Increased pressures allow for effective fermentation at higher temperatures and accelerate the fermentation process. Accelerating the process was particularly valuable because the process could take months. [10]  Behind the barrel lie a few utensils used for scooping and measuring.  The image on the right is titled "Koji-Maker."  It depicts a man holding four trays of some intermediate in the manufacturing process.  The identity of the intermediary is revealed when the identity of the hut-like structure is illuminated.  Behind the man, is a muro, or incubation chamber, a another type of space where fermentation occurs. [11] The koji would have been placed in these muros for months in order to ferment properly.  The koji trays, or koji-bune, that the worker is holding were used as standardized measurements of koji volume. All of the different types of tools and structures demonstrate that soy sauce manufacturing required a great deal of thought and effort, and thus demonstrates the value of soy sauce in its cultural context.  But value of soy sauce goes beyond this. The two images seem to work cohesively by depicting two steps in a process, with the image on the left  depicting the mashing of the koji before its placement in the muro on the right.  This cohesion demonstrates that the images are part of a narrative, namely the manufacturing process. The aerial perspective used enhances this cohesion.  By placing the objects above the plane, the artist creates a distancing effect which creates a emphasis on the objects that are closer. Thus, the artist creates a scale of importance of all the objects in the image.   For example, the in the "Miso-ya" image, the fermenting vat is placed in front of the table used for dishing koji and the tools that lie on it, indicating its importance relative to other objects in the image. When the images are considered in the context of the work as a whole, the manufacture of koji, and thus soy sauce, is presented as an integral  part of Japanese culture that is worth preserving in art and literature  rather than an isolated industrial and agricultural process.   

[1] Tamotsu Yokotsuka "Aroma and Flavor of Japanese Soy Sauce"  Advances in Food Research, Volume 10, 1961, Pages 75-134

[2] Lisa Rausch. "Soybeans." Green Food: An A-to-z Guide. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2010. Credo Reference. Web. 21 November 2014.

[3] Laudan, Rachel. California Studies in Food and Culture, Volume 43 : Cuisine and Empire : Cooking in World History. Berkeley, CA, USA: University of California Press, 2013. pg. 128

[4] Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne.  A History of Food. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2009. pg. 46-50

[5] Toussaint-Samat

[6] "Soy Sauce (Shoyu)." Dictionary of Microbiology & Molecular Biology. Hoboken: Wiley, 2006. Credo Reference. Web. 1 December 2014. 

[7] Golbitz, Peter. "Traditional soyfoods: processing and products." Journal of nutrition 125.3 (1995): 570S

[8] Fukushima, Danji. "Industrialization of fermented soy sauce production centering around Japanese shoyu." FOOD SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY-NEW YORK-MARCEL DEKKER- (2004): 1-88.

[9] William Shurtleff &Akiko Aoyagi.  History of Soy Sauce (160 CE- 2012). Soy Info Center, 2012. pg. 65-66

[10] Van Der Sluis, Catrinus, Johannes Tramper, and Rene H. Wijffels. "Enhancing and accelerating flavour formation by salt-tolerant yeasts in Japanese soy-sauce processes." Trends in Food Science & Technology 12.9 (2001): 322-327.

[11] Shurtleff & Aoyagi. pg. 65


Soy Sauce (Patrick)