Not all Soy Sauces are Created Equal

I love Asian foods; Chinese, Japanese, Burmese, Thai, you name it. And with many cuisines (but not all… not all…) soy sauce is either an ingredient or provided table-side as a condiment.


Long before I did any research at all, I knew that there was a stark difference between the two major brands that are commonly known in America: Kikkoman and LaChoy.

The first, my preferred sauce in the kitchen, is a Japanese-type sauce, brewed in the traditional manner over a period of six months (although traditional Japanese soy sauce can take 18 months to make, or much longer):


Fermenting soy beans and wheat at the Kikkoman factory in Wisconsin – from the July 1987 National Geographic article, “The Prodigious Soybean.”

The second is what’s known as a “chemical soy sauce.” From an article at Serious Eats by Jenny Lee-Adrian:

Chemical soy sauces: These are made over the course of about two days by hydrolyzing soy protein and combining it with other flavorings. Their flavor is far removed from traditional soy sauces made with fermented soybeans.

Harold McGee explains the process in On Food and Cooking by saying:

Nowadays, defatted soy meal, the residue of soybean oil production, is broken down—hydrolyzed—into amino acids and sugars with concentrated hydrochloric acid. This caustic mixture is then neutralized with alkaline sodium carbonate, and flavored and colored with corn syrup, caramel, water, and salt.

LaChoy is popular, but it’s pretty much in harmony with their old jingle ¹- “LaChoy makes Chinese food… swing American.” It’s what you’d expect to pour on a can of their store-bought Chow Mein. I’ve never seen it in a Japanese restaurant anywhere, they either use Kikkoman or one of the many national brands available now – even in traditional grocery stores. Somehow it just tastes… wrong. But as in all things, that’s just my opinion – and your mileage may vary.

National Geographic also has a lovely 5 minute video on how soy sauce is made in the town of Yuasa, Japan.

Another article at Yum of China by Tiana Matson lists some of her favorite sauces, most of which could probably be found at your local oriental grocery store if you’re fortunate enough to live close to one.

A lot of local Chinese places here in Maine provide little packages of “soy sauce” (those scare quotes are there for a reason) made by Kari-Out Co. If you want brown salt water with hardly a hint of anything else – think LaChoy cut to homeopathic levels – by all means feel free to use it.


As for me and my house, Old_Wolf_Sick.

The Old Wolf has spoken.


¹ And, if you’re old like me, you might recognize the ubiquitous voice-over tones of Mason Adams (“With a name like Smucker’s, it’s got to be good!”) who was a friend of my mother back in the day.

James Gurney: The Soy Bean

Soy Painting

This lovely painting by James Gurney appeared in the July, 1987 edition of the National Geographic, long one of my favorite magazines since early childhood. I’ve had multiple collections of hard copy editions, gathered over the years and then given away when moving (they’re heavy!) and then gathered again. I recently scored a complete set on DVD that included everything up through the 90’s – it still runs on my XP virtual machine – so I was able to get rid of all but the few special editions I wanted to keep.


Gurney managed to get dozens of things based on soy into his painting; about the only thing I haven’t spotted is nattōThe photo of the painting came with the following caption:

Invisible ingredient in countless products, the soybean plays an amazingly pervasive role in everyday life. Artist James Gurney included more than 60 soybean-related products in this painting, done in the style of Norman Rockwell. He not only called on neighbors and friends for models, but also portrayed himself and his wife emerging from the store, startled by a skateboarding boy carrying a cone of tofu “ice cream”; the boy’s shorts-like the tablecloth-bear a bean-pod motif.

The bags the couple carry, the store-window and sidewalk displays are replete with items that have a soybean connection

Cardboard, glues, and animal and human foods are commonplace soybean products. The sidewalk customer’s caulking, paint, wallpaper, gasoline, and the muffin he buys all owe a debt to soy-as does the bicycle tire.

The beer sign reflects the use of soy meal in the brewing process. The fire extinguisher uses soy protein in its foam. And pre-1981 National Geographics were printed on soy-lecithin-lubricated presses. The car symbolizes an experimental one built with soybean plastic by Henry Ford. The artist’s final tribute: He used soy-based paint.

There’s a lot of conflicting information out there regarding the health benefits or detriments of soy; it’s hard to know who’s right at this point in time, but I’ll keep enjoying my tofu and other fermented soy products.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share this delightful and intriguing work of art.

The Old Wolf has spoken.