[Image: Two small white saucers, one containing light soy sauce and the other containing dark soy sauce. The saucers have been tilted to show that the dark soy sauce is much more viscous.]
As I mentioned in last week's post on shiitake mushrooms, January is ingredient month! Each week this month I'll cover a different ingredient commonly used in Chinese cuisines, giving the different names you might find it under, suggesting some dishes that include the ingredient, and explaining any other background information that might be of interest.
Soy sauce is perhaps the most well-known of Chinese ingredients; here in the UK at least, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who'd never tasted this salty dark brown sauce. However, although it's a common table condiment in Chinese restaurants here, its primary use in Chinese cuisines is not for the diner to season food before eating, but rather for the chef to season food during cooking. It's also used alone and with other seasonings to create dipping sauces, but sprinkling it over your food at the dinner table is not generally likely to actually improve flavours which have already been carefully balanced by the chef.
Another nuance sometimes overlooked is that there are different types of soy sauce, and these differ between countries too. Within Chinese soy sauces, the primary division is between light and dark soy sauce; light soy sauce[see footnote] is thinner, saltier, and lighter in colour, while dark soy sauce is thicker, blacker, and characterised by flavours reminiscent of molasses or caramel. Both are used in Chinese cooking; sometimes both in the same dish.
Soy sauce has a few different names in Chinese. 醬油 (jiàng yóu) and 豉油 (chǐ yóu) are terms for soy sauce in general (eatlovenoodles points out in comments that the former of these is more commonly used in Mandarin and the latter in Cantonese). Light soy sauce is 生抽 (shēng chōu) and dark soy sauce is 老抽 (lǎo chōu).
Good soy sauce has a highly complex flavour. According to Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, it contains "several hundred aroma molecules" including "roasty compounds (furanones and pyrazines), sweet maltol, and a number of meaty sulfur compounds". Soy sauce production is a lengthy process involving various enzymes, yeasts, and bacteria. Even the final pasteurisation plays a role in creating flavour, with browning reactions occurring between the sugars and amino acids.
Here are some dishes in which soy sauce is indispensable:
|醬牛肉||jiàng niú ròu||soy sauce braised beef|
|Beef braised with dark soy sauce and various spices, then chilled, sliced, and served as an appetiser. Su-Lin has a comprehensive post on jiang niu rou, including a recipe.|
|酸辣豆花||suān là dòu huā||hot-and-sour "flower" beancurd|
|Soy sauce is combined with ingredients such as chilli oil, Sichuan pepper, sesame oil, and Chinese black vinegar to create a savoury, fragrant dressing for a bowl of ultra-soft tofu.|
|皮蛋豆腐||pí dàn dòu fu||beancurd with century egg|
|Similar ingredients to the above, but a different balance and a very different result.|
|口水鷄||kǒu shuǐ jī||mouthwatering chicken|
|This is one of my favourite Chinese cold dishes. The name suggests that it's so delicious it will make your mouth water.|
|地三鮮||dì sān xiān||three fresh things from the earth|
|Homely, comforting, and meat-free, this dish of deep-fried potato, aubergine, and green pepper is flavoured with light and dark soy sauce, garlic, spring onion, and a little sugar or sweet bean sauce.|
|鐵蛋||tiě dàn||iron eggs|
|A specialty of Taiwan, "iron eggs" are hard-boiled chicken, duck, or quail eggs that are then shelled and simmered repeatedly in a spiced, soy-sauce-based broth until they turn shiny black and chewy. Su-Lin was kind enough to share some of hers with me last year; here's a photo. They look a little like black olives!|
And here are some links to other people's posts about soy sauce:
- eGullet: Light soy sauce, Dark soy sauce
- Sunflower Food Galore: Sichuan sugar and spice infused soy sauce 複製醬油
- Wikipedia: Soy sauce
Footnote: In the USA and possibly elsewhere, "light soy sauce" may be taken to mean "low-sodium soy sauce". In her book Cooking From China's Fujian Province, Jacqueline M Newman suggests "thin soy sauce" as an alternative term; I've not seen this in wider use, though.