Get ready for an umami explosion with these mouth-watering new recipes from contributing food editor Diana Henry
Diana Henry cooks with soy sauce
You can get any ingredient you want these days. Sometimes I surf the pages of souschef.co.uk (probably the best single source of the exotic) and wonder what you do with some of the foods they sell. I’m always willing to try the new but sweet potato starch, preserved radish, anardana powder? I’ve never used any of these. Soy sauce, though, has had a place in British kitchens for decades. In the 1970s, when I started to get interested in what was in my mum’s cupboards, I could find Fern’s curry paste (rich and dark and smelling of spice and fruit) and soy sauce. The soy sauce was hardly ever used – though I tried to make egg fried rice one night, ending up with something like scrambled eggs with rice flecked through it – but it became familiar. At 15 I cooked chicken thighs with soy sauce and honey, a sticky moreish dish that
I make to this day. Soy is addictively salty and beefy – umami in a bottle. When mixed with sweet ingredients, most of us find the resulting flavour irresistible.
Soy might be the exotic ingredient that broke through before all the others, but for ages I knew hardly anything about it. Made from fermented soy beans and wheat, its development started in China about 3,000 years ago. Early on it was a paste but it eventually became a sauce of which there are now several kinds. Here you most often find soy sauces from Japan and China (Japanese sauce is more prevalent – the ubiquitous Kikkoman brand is Japanese) but Asian shops also sell a thicker, sweeter kind from Indonesia called kecap manis (its sweetness comes from the addition of palm sugar).
In general, Japanese soy sauce is slightly sweeter than Chinese soy sauce and has a more rounded flavour; Chinese soy sauce has a saltier finish. There are also light and dark versions. When you see ‘soy sauce’ listed in the ingredients for a Chinese recipe the light version is assumed, the dark version (which is slightly sweeter because of the addition of molasses) will always be specified. You’ve probably heard of tamari too. That’s a Japanese soy sauce made without wheat (or with only a small amount of wheat). It’s ever so slightly thicker than regular soy sauce.
I used to buy soy sauce indiscriminately until I read about the many inferior products. There are plenty of chemically produced sauces made by processing soy protein and adding flavourings, corn syrup and salt. Read the label. The fewer ingredients in your soy sauce the better, and look for the term ‘naturally brewed’ too. I keep several types – light, dark, kecap manis, tamari – and am much more careful about what I buy. Anyone who wants to cook good Chinese or south-east Asian food takes soy sauce seriously. It doesn’t have to be kept just for Asian cooking, though. Its salty beefiness is incredibly useful for adding to meaty braises and the combination of soy and butter? Try it. Salty, fatty heaven.
Good Food contributing editor Diana Henry is an award-winning food writer. Her latest book is How to Eat a Peach (£25, Mitchell Beazley). @dianahenryfood General Tso’s chicken, p84