Ask Peter: Soy sauce
Does it matter which type of soy sauce you use when making dishes from different cuisines? I tend to use tamari for everything but my daughter, just back from living in Hong Kong, insists we should use Chinese soy sauce when cooking Chinese dishes. Also, could you please explain the differences between light and dark soy sauces, and should kecap manis be reserved only for Indonesian dishes? Suzanne
I feel that soy sauce is an ingredient that any cuisine will benefit from and it needn’t just be Asian dishes that get a slosh of this delicious umami-adding wonderfood.
There are some mass-produced soy sauces out there that have little character and taste only of salt and cornstarch and they’re black, but the really well made ones are such beautiful things. Making real soy sauce, or soya sauce, as it’s also known, is a fairly lengthy and complicated process whereby soybeans are made into a paste and fermented. They are then combined with grains, sometimes roasted or toasted, salt and moulds — which cause the fermentation to take place. Once the process is completed, the resulting mixture is pressed and the liquid that drains from it is soy sauce.
If you’re coeliac, you’re best to avoid soy sauce unless it is a wheat-free tamari, from Japan. For years I cooked with a Japanese brand of shoyu (soy sauce that contains wheat) which I really do like but realised as wheat intolerance seemed to be on the increase that many of my dishes and sauces were not suitable for coeliacs, purely because of the wheat it contains. I switched to tamari and that has made my life, and those of my chefs, much easier. It’s also meant many customers who couldn’t previously have my laksa or beef pesto (in which tamari is used in large quantities) can now enjoy them. Be aware though that not all tamari is wheat-free.
As to whether you prefer the thick, black Chinese soy or the more delicate Japanese — or Vietnamese or Korean — is all down to personal taste. I like to drizzle raw fish with tamari, mirin and lime juice and eat it raw. If I were to replace the tamari with a dark Chinese soy sauce the resulting fish would be far less delicate and also it’d be overpowered by the soy, which isn’t what I’d want. If I were to make a beef stew full of caramelised onions, mushrooms and chunks of carrot, then a dark burly and butch dark soy would work really well, adding a real gruntiness to the dish.
Dark soy and light soy are used extensively in Chinese cooking, and if you do intend to do a lot of it, then for very little money, get a bottle of both. Dark soy is aged much longer (and therefore is likely to cost a little more). It usually has some form of cornstarch in it, which is used in dishes that need cooking, such as a pork stew. The slow cooking releases some of the characteristics of the soy’s ingredients. It’s also used in marinades for things that will be cooked. It can be used in a dipping sauce or dressing, but add it slowly so it doesn’t overpower the rest of the dish.
Light soy sauce is lighter in colour and thinner, as it won’t have cornstarch added. It doesn’t need cooking but it is much saltier, so again, go easy with it until you’re used to using them both.
Kecap manis was a real discovery for me when I first tried it in Australia in 1981 — I’d never seen it before and immediately was drawn to it. Five years later I backpacked through Indonesia, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries and saw it used in so many ways — as a seasoning, a marinade, a glaze for barbecued food and even in dressings. It’s a lovely sweet spiced soy sauce that is very versatile. Add it to soups or stews, where the brown colour won’t ruin the dish (i.e. don’t add it to an apple cabbage slaw, as it’ll go a murky brown). If you can’t find it, then here’s a quick way to make a version of it.
Kecap manis recipe
Bring to the boil, then simmer until reduced by quarter; 500ml salt-reduced (or dark) soy, 1 finger-sized piece of ginger (sliced), 4 star anise, 2 cloves, 3 strips orange or tangerine peel (no pith), 80g caster or palm sugar. Yum!
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.