Managing director, Yuan’s Soy Sauce (Fu Kee Food Co.)
Not many people know about Yuan’s Soy Sauce, although, granted, they don’t make a song and dance about it. A 125ml bottle of its Royal Soy Sauce, made from beans that are matured for up to four years, sells at nearly $200 at retailers such as Yata and City’super.
The world’s most expensive soy sauce is produced by three fulltime staff at a factory deep in Yuen Long, on grounds spanning 120,000 sq ft. Founded by the late biochemist Tsang Heh-kwan, from Guangzhou, the company is now run by one of her long-time assistants, Yip Tin, who helped to build the factory and then joined Tsang’s team in the late 1970s.
After completing a degree in biochemistry at Xiamen University, Tsang moved to Hong Kong in the 1950s to work for Amoy as a researcher in its laboratory. She was curious about innovating food products, working on ubiquitous products such as Luk Bo orange drink and spring roll wrappers. Her passion, however, was for traditional, Fujian-style, preservative-free soy sauce. In 1974, she quit Amoy to go solo.
“She was very passionate about creating products that had no preservatives. But she was not a businesswoman. Much of her research and many of her discoveries were stolen from her. But she wanted to guard this recipe. It’s not difficult here because it’s just the three of us. Only I know the recipe,” Yip says. “She believes in people.”
Sifus from Fujian, Xiamen and Quanzhou, mainland China, knew the traditional way of making soy sauce, too, Yip says, but they were all sentenced to hard labour on farms during the Mao era. “And, sadly, they don’t exist anymore,” he says.
At Yuan’s, Yip and his partner, Andy Yeung – who joined the company more than two decades ago and helps with the business and exports – still make Fujian-style soy sauce to Mrs Tsang’s formula, which is thicker and darker than the Cantonese varieties that dominate the market.
“Cantonese soy sauce uses liquid-based fermentation and the Fujian one uses solid-based fermentation – we use less water, just enough, and nothing more,” Yip explains. “Cantonese soy sauce uses a more simple method to make the process more efficient. They also prefer a lighter, sweeter umami taste, whereas in Fujian we prefer a strong bean taste.”
More importantly, the Fujian-style sauce takes much longer to make. Organic Canadian yellow soybeans are blanched in a 3.5-tonne pot for four to six hours, then fermented on trays with wheat flour. Most batches ferment for 18 to 24 months, while beans for Royal Soy Sauce ferment for up to four years.
“The ratio is roughly 90 per cent beans with 10 per cent flour, whereas Cantonese [sauces] use at least 40 to 50 per cent flour. This is a characteristic of Chinese traditional soy sauces from the Tang dynasty in Fujian,” Yip says.
“There are only three of us here, so we can keep Mrs Tsang’s secrets safe. And I will always remember what she said: ‘If you won’t feed it to your family, then you wouldn’t sell it to anyone else.’”