In front of me, as I write, are 10 bottles of soy sauce.
One is Pearl River Light from China. It has a strong salty taste at first but the soy and wheat flavours increase pleasantly as saliva washes the salt away and the sauce flows to the back of the tongue. Then there is Kikkomans standard brand, made in the USA, slightly sweeter and not quite as strong as the Pearl River. Beside that is a bottle of Kikkoman whole bean soy sauce, brewed in Japan and available in a few Asian specialty shops. This is at least twice the price of regular soy sauce. It is supposed to be milder because it has been brewed longer and has less salt. I find it has a wonderful flavour that its American-brewed cousins dont quite match.
There are other brands as well but what I find remarkable is that each bottle lists the same ingredients: water, soybeans, wheat and salt. Yet each tastes different. Why havent I noticed this before? Why do we pay so little attention to soy sauce, one of the worlds oldest condiments, yet are prepared to spend small fortunes on balsamic vinegar, virgin olive oils, and premium coffees?
Once it was common to find aged soy sauce but people dont want to spend a lot of money for it these days, said Ben Top, my Chinatown purveyor, as he ladled out a pint of his own stock. This comes from a barrel downstairs. Its 30 years old. Use it for dipping not cooking.
This soy sauce is remarkable. It throws off sediment like old wine but, like a vintage port, the flavour is not for everyone. It has a metallic tinge which disappears, along with its strong salty edge, after the first taste, and leaves a rich almost meaty flavour in the mouth. This is a sauce that cries to be mated with rice or a platter of steamed Chinese dumplings.
This aged sauce shows what we have lost to mass production. It indicates how far we have drifted, even from the late 1960s, when one book on Chinese cooking described how it was commonly made ... (soy sauce) starts as a dough made of soy beans and wheat flour that is first allowed to ferment. Then salt and water are added, and the fermented liquid is placed in open earthenware urns, which are placed outdoors for several weeks while the suns heat works on the mixture. It is said that the best grades of soy sauce can take as much as six to seven years of aging to reach perfection.
Compare this with how the worlds largest soy sauce manufacturer describes the process today. Kikkoman's proprietary microorganism is added as an enzyme to change starch from the wheat into sugars and protein from the soybeans into amino acids. All Kikkoman soy sauce is naturally brewed in the four-to-six months process that is often compared to the making of fine wine.
Then there is unbrewed soy sauce, very cheap stuff (two dollars for a litre isnt uncommon) with sugar added. The fermentation is speeded up artificially and the word hydrolysed is somewhere on the label.
Within each process, there are generally three kinds of soy sauce sold: light or lite (with less salt and, I find, a fruitier flavour), regular, and dark (with sugar or molasses). I like lighter soy sauces for dipping and marinating and the others for cooking.
I asked a Kikkoman publicist if there were any special blends hidden away and was told that the company does not have a private stock of specially brewed soy sauce aging in oak barrels in a cavern below Mount Fuji. But having tasted Ben Tops private blend, my search for full flavoured aged soy sauces has only begun.
Somewhere, out there, is a bottle of barrel aged Pearl River Bridge. It has fermented naturally for many years. Its colour will be black, tinged rust at the meniscus. I will pour a few drops into a small white porcelain cup. I will taste the sauce and close my eyes. That night I will dream of honourable men and lies and blood.