HERITAGE HEROES: THE SWAN, THE PRAWN AND THE FLYING HORSE
Three local artisans brew soy sauce the time-honoured way.
Some of the best soy sauce in the region can be found right here in our backyard. We speak to three local artisans producing the ubiquitous
condiment and beyond.
Soybeans, flour, salt and water. The ingredients for soy sauce sound simple enough, but they all come together to form a sum much larger than its parts. Originally invented in China over 2,000 years ago as a way to stretch salt—then an expensive commodity—soy sauce has since spread all across the world, becoming the backbone of many Asian cuisines.
Well made, soy sauce offers much more than mere saltiness. There is umami, mild sweetness, and depth of flavour thanks to a painstaking process of fermentation and aging.
In many cases though, industrially-produced soy sauce is made by hydrolysing soybeans in food-grade hydrochloric acid, which breaks down the proteins in the legume into flavour compounds like amino acids. The resulting product, while bearing a passing semblance to what soy sauce should be, is usually one-dimensional, lacking the depth of flavour and fragrance of a traditionally fermented and brewed soy sauce.
To do that, soybeans are first steamed and allowed to cool, before being coated with wheat flour and aspergillus mold spores, which is also known in Japan as koji. The inoculated beans are then left on trays for a few days to let the mold grow. The mash is then mixed with a brine, and left to sit in a warm environment for anywhere upward of three months, sometimes even for years.
While sitting around, dozens of processes are happening to the pre-soy sauce mixture: starch from the
Soy sauce halfway through production, fermenting
under the sun.
flour breaks down, and becomes converted into sugars and alcohols; while the soy proteins break down into many different organic compounds—all of which add bits of complexity to the darkening brew.
In Singapore, the tradition of making soy sauce started with early Chinese immigrants, who brought recipes—many of them from a time when families would brew their own supply—from back home. Throughout the following decades, the number of traditional soy sauce makers dwindled. Only a small handful still remain of those who insist on doing things the old, slow, and perhaps most rewarding way.
Many of these are small businesses that have stuck to their guns, producing quality soy sauce that has earned them loyal customers who have stayed with them for years and decades; even though they produce such small quantities that they aren’t stocked in major supermarkets. Now, with the third generation leading the charge, these soy sauce makers are opening up to many possibilities.
“Many of these vats have been around since my grandfather started the business in 1959. They’ve got a ‘memory’, and become more seasoned with each batch, so the sauce they produce becomes better as time passes. It’s a bit like how Chinese chefs value their old woks so much because the woks become more seasoned with each use.” - Ken Koh.
Vats of soy saucefermenting underthe sun at NanyangSauce’s factory. Jack Leow at the Ang Mo Kio stall