If soy sauce was not a basic component of every single meal you ate growing up, you might feel a tad overwhelmed when trying to choose a bottle of it at the grocery store. The vast variety of choices make it tricky for novice shoppers to distinguish between them. They might look similar, but the flavours can vary significantly between light and dark varieties, naturally versus chemically brewed options, and Japanese, Chinese, or other geographic versions.
Below you can learn about different types of Japanese and Chinese sauces — the varieties most commonly found in Canada — and what to use them for. But first, a look at the basics of soy sauce.
Naturally brewed is better
Soy sauce was born more than 2,500 years ago in China, making it one of the oldest condiments in the world. Traditionally, it was made from soybeans, water and salt. Somewhere around the 7th century, soy sauce made the leap from China to Japan. It was the Japanese who added wheat as a standard fourth ingredient to produce a less harsh flavour.
Soy sauce is actually a by-product of a fermentation process. Similar to wine, sauces that have aged longer produce richer flavour. Most store-bought varieties have been aged for six months to one year, whereas top quality sauces are aged for at least two years.
Today, there are both naturally brewed or fermented sauces and chemically produced sauces on the market. Chemical or non-brewed soy sauce is made with a mixture of hydrolized soy protein (sometimes called HVP — hydrolized vegetable protein) and flavourings such as corn syrup and caramel. The chemical variety lacks the complex, rich umami flavour of traditionally brewed sauces.
For better flavour, stay away from chemically produced soy sauces. Look for bottles that advertise they are naturally brewed or fermented.
Choosing a one-bottle-fits-all option
The most common varieties of soy sauce in Canada are either Japanese or Chinese. This matters when choosing a one-bottle-fits-all option, as light Chinese varieties are comparable to dark Japanese varieties. In China, light soy sauce is the common option whereas in Japan, dark soy sauce is much more prevalent.
All Japanese soy sauces tend to be lighter — clearer with a thinner viscosity — than its Chinese counterparts. In both Chinese and Japanese varieties, dark sauces have been brewed longer and have a more mild and slightly sweeter flavour than light varieties, which usually have a saltier flavour. Dark Chinese soy sauce, which is aged the longest, also tends to be sweeter due to the addition of molasses or another sweetener. Light Japanese sauces have a stronger salty flavour and are much less prevalent. Therefore, when choosing only one soy sauce bottle for your home, go with a naturally brewed dark Japanese variety or light Chinese variety.
Up your soy sauce game
Here are our favourite soy sauces. The first two are excellent as one-bottle-fit-all options. But if you’re looking to become a bit more advanced in your Asian cooking skills, expand your soy sauce collection by adding a couple (or all) of the following:
- Dark Japanese soy sauce — The very popular Kikkoman’s regular Traditionally Brewed Soy Sauce is a dark Japanese soy sauce and a great generalist option if you don’t want to over-complicate things at home.
- Light Chinese soy sauce — Similarly, a light Chinese soy sauce like Pearl River Bridge Superior Light Soy Sauce is a good versatile option for your kitchen.
- Chinese dark soy sauce — Dark Chinese soy sauce is used in dishes to achieve that rich amber brown colour, in addition to the umami flavour. Just a little of the sauce to dishes like fried rice, stir fry, or braised beef for an explosion of flavour and colour. We especially like Pearl River Bridge Mushroom Flavoured Superior Dark Soy Sauce, as it adds an earthy mushroom flavour.
- Seasoned soy sauce for seafood — A seasoned seafood soy sauce, like Lee Kum Kee Seasoned Soy Sauce for Seafood, is an excellent addition to your kitchen. It is essentially a light soy sauce with a bit of added sweetener and MSG or other MSG-like flavour enhancers. The added sweetness creates a milder flavour so that it does not overpower the delicate taste of the seafood. It’s most often used in Cantonese seafood dishes, but we think it’s also great in stir frys, soups, or even just a bowl of white rice. It’s best to add this type of soy sauce near the end of the cooking process, so it doesn’t lose its unique flavour.
- Maggi seasoning — Created by a Swiss miller in Germany in the late 1800s, Maggi is like soy sauce’s second cousin. Like soy sauce, it’s also made using a fermentation process — but instead of soy, it’s made with wheat. The flavour is highly concentrated and meatier than a typical soy sauce. Maggi Seasoning is very versatile, but be sure you only add a few drops during cooking or as a finisher.
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