The Chinese word for soy sauce is jiangyou, literally ‘jiang oil’, or oil of fermented paste. It is not chemically an oil, but it probably struck the early users as oily.
If we were to conduct a survey in any European city and ask people what they see as the most typical ingredient of Chinese food, the top substance on the list of answer will definitely be soy sauce. Soy sauce indeed originates from China, where it is an important element if the Five Flavour model of traditional Chinese cooking. It is first mentioned in texts from the Northern Wei Dynasty (AD 220 – 265). Early recipe books indicate that it was at first mainly used to season salads, cold cuts and other cold dishes Chinese typically start a dinner with. The use in various ways of cooking pops up in the 12th Century.
Current Chinese commercial texts distinguish 4 types of soy sauce:
- Cantonese soy sauce: represented by Haitian and Zhimeiyuan; based on solid fermentation (see below).
- Shanghai soy sauce: represented by Amoy and Laocai; mainly using liquid fermentation.
- Foreign soy sauce: represented by Maggi, Kikkoman, Lee Kum Kee, Wadakan; foreign invested, mainly using liquid fermentation.
- Local soy sauces: e.g. Jinshi (Beijing), Zhenji (Shijiazhuang), Tianli (Tianjin), etc.; small plants or even workshops using proprietary processes.
Most Chinese households have a regular stock of two types of soy sauce in their kitchen: light and dark. Light soy sauce is the original product, while the dark version is produced by adding additional caramel, which also makes the sauce a little thicker. Dark soy sauce is mostly used to flavour and colour meat.
There are various ways to produced soy sauce. The main raw materials are always (soy) beans and cereals. The main distinction is between natural fermentation and the chemical process. The latter is obviously not a traditional process, but a cheap and quick way to cut the long chains of the proteins and starches in the raw materials. Chemical soy sauce is nowadays regarded as inferior. All major brands employ some kind of fermentation.
The earliest fermentation process used so called ‘solid fermentation’, in which a relatively thick broth was inoculated with the moulds to start the fermentation. After the fermentation, salty water was added and after a second period of fermentation the sauce was ready to be packed. The first part of this process resembles that introduced in my earlier post on jiang, fermented pastes, and explains why soy sauce is called jiang sauce in Chinese. A number of local plants still use a variety of the traditional process, often adding their own proprietary mix of ingredients to produce an original local product.
Many top brands use the ‘wet fermentation’ process in which the main ingredients: beans, cereals and salt are processed into a liquid that is then fermented. This process leads to a very fragrant sauce that preserves the nutrients of the ingredients. It also has a much higher yield than the traditional process. However, it is considerably longer and can take up to 6 months.
The total production of soy sauce was 6,810,000 mt in 2019. The country imported 14,000 mt and exported 148,000 mt in that same year.
As many traditional Chinese food products, the soy sauce industry consists of a large number of very small manufacturers. China’s top producer is Haitian (Foshan, Guangdong), which is approximately good for 2% of the national output. Haitian is known for the fact that it has scaled the traditional solid fermentation process up to modern industrial proportions. This results in top quality soy sauce, but the output cannot be easily increased. Perhaps this is a good in thing in the long run. While China has not (yet) produced a Kikkoman, Chinese soy sauce has a much richer flavour than the generic Japanese product. Haitian has generated a turnover of RMB 17.086 billion in the first 3 months of 2020; up 15.26%.
Top 10 soy sauce brands 2016
The following list has been compiled on the basis of the opinion of Chinese consumers. However, the most popular brand is also the top producer in volume.
||Lee Kum Kee
Haitian generated a turnover of RMB 11.6 billion in the first half of 2020, up 14.12%.
Guangdong also here stands out as the top region with 3 companies; 4 if we also regard Hong Kong as de facto part of Guangdong. Shanghai and Shandong are the runners up with 2 each. Haitian is doing well. The following table show the increase of its market share in the period 2015 – 2018.
A number of variations on soy sauce have appeared in recent years. An earlier variety is oyster sauce, which is soy sauce flavoured with ground oysters to give it a fishy flavour. Other flavours include mushroom and chilli. Some companies produce soy sauces for special applications like soy sauce for meat, soy sauce for mixing salads, or table top soy sauce for dipping cold cuts or dumplings.
In line with the trend towards low fat, low salt, low sugar foods, a number of Chinese soy sauce manufacturers have developed low salt varieties. In the course of 2017, Cuiwei Food (Sichuan) launched a salt-free soy sauce, produced by natural fermentation. While salt reduction is a positive development, soy sauce has always been a fypical savoury seasoning product, so completely salt-free soy sauce can only succeed when marketed as a new type of ingredient, a flavouring agent rather than a savoury ingredient.
The clean label movement is also affecting the Chinese food industry. Haitian has launched a kind of clean label soy sauce late 2020. It was announced as a product with a simple formulation:
water, soybeans, wheat, salt and sugar.
The brand name reflects this: Jijian ‘It’s Simple’.
Eurasia Consult has detailed information about many top soy sauce producers
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Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.