This is a subject few of us ever think about, as this condiment has become so ubiquitous. As a stir fry addict, I cannot imagine life without the stuff. This is from Samuel Muston, food reviewer in yesterday’s i newspaper:
The imperial government long held a monopoly over salt sales; supply was kept short and demand high, so prices were stratospheric and those short of a bob were short of salt. To eke out what there was, salt was often made into a fermented sauce using fish or meat and soy beans. This haphazard process eventually yielded a meat-based condiment called jiang which, in turn – once the meat or fish was dropped from the recipe at some point between the 3rd and 5th centuries, produced something approaching the soy sauce we recognise today.
The first signs of it making its way to Europe are in the records of the Dutch East India Company, which notes that 75 large barrels went from Japan to Jakarta in 1737 with 35 of them going on to the Netherlands. Samuel Wells Williams, the great Sinologist, wrote in 1848 that the best soy he had tasted in China was “made by boiling beans soft, adding an equal quantity of wheat or barley ad leaving the mass to ferment; a portion of salt and three times as much water are afterwards put in, and the whole compound left for 2 or 3 months.” These days, the soy beans are soaked and boiled, mixed with the fungus Aspergillius oryzae, and left in brine until the starches in the soy are released, yielding a black liquid.
The next stage is the pressing. As with olive oil, the first press is considered to give the best, ad least overbearing flavour. The light soy produced is thinner and used for dipping and finishing. It’s the stuff you get with sushi. Traditionally there was a thicker 2nd press, which is sometimes still seen, though hydraulic presses have largely obviated it these days, scraping everything that’s left after the first press into a common pot of darker saltiness.
To be both useful and delectable is a rare combination – but soy sauce manages it. It is seasoning, sure, but it is not just salt, to be dispensed willy nilly; it also has a rich umami hit, that platinum-coated characteristic of he best Asian foods.
The Chinese government taxing salt is also interesting. Salt is not just a popular condiment, it was virtually the only way to preserve food, so was important in providing food through long North European winters, and of course for long sea voyages. So a tax on salt should have been easy to collect and be paid by all. But like most taxes, it hurt the poor disproportionately, so few European nations ever introduced it. It had long been taxed in India but Britain increased it, triggering widespread protests in which Mahatma Gandhi was prominent.