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

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