Soy un perdedor
So, I’ve been learning how to ride a bike.
I mean, I basically know how to ride a bike, from being a child and whatnot, but lately I’ve been trying to learn how to ride my 21 speed road bike in a way that will provide me with some exercise and to a lesser extent, transportation. One of the steps I’ve taken very recently is to start wearing bike shoes with cleats and clip-less pedals. I don’t want to get into a whole thing here, but the basic idea with clip-less pedals is that instead of where the pedals on your bike would be, you have a little grooved knob and you slide a similarly but oppositely grooved pad on the bottom of your special shoe into it. So your shoe, with your foot in it, is attached to your pedal. Until death (or a certain not un-conga like foot maneuver) do you part.
This concept was pretty scary to me. I guess it’s scary to most people, because the guy at the bike shop had some words of wisdom for me. He said, and I quote, “It will take you about two rides to get used to them, but after that you will wonder how you ever lived without them.”
“Christ in a crosswalk,” you are probably saying to yourself, “what does this have to do with food? Isn’t this a blog about food?”
It is, in fact, a blog about food, and with pretty much no segue at all, I’m about to speak truth to power about soy sauce.
If you are like me, you use way more soy sauce than you think you do. Marinades, stir fries, salad dressings, sauces, the uses for the umami-y ingredient are myriad and sundry. And also, like me, for years and years you’ve probably been using soy sauce that a) isn’t really soy sauce b) tastes like sugary floor cleaner and c) might be giving you cancer.
Soy sauce was invented by the Chinese around 2500 years ago and co-opted and refined by the Japanese shortly thereafter. It’s made from wheat, soy and salt via a natural fermentation and pasteurization process that takes about six months and creates over 200 flavor compounds.
There are lots of regional variations of soy sauce. The Chinese have two major types and other east and southeast Asian countries have versions as well. The soy sauce most of us are familiar with, however, is Japanese shoyu. More specifically, one of the five major categories of shoyu called koikuchi.
Unfortunately, the modern food industry has decided that six months is too long to wait for food to be produced. An alternate method of production is chemical hydrolysis, which gets you a product in three days, but between the shortcut and the chemical by-products the end result tastes so unlike koikuchi it has to be doctored with caramel coloring, HFCS and salt, along with various flavors and stabilizers.
Lastly, and pretty significantly, chemical hydrolysis of soybeans produce substances that are carcinogenic in certain amounts. The FDA has this to say about the science:
Acid-hydrolyzed protein (acid-HP) is prepared by the hydrolysis of proteins by heat and food-grade acids. During the production of acid-HP, the reaction of hydrochloric acid (HCl) with residual fat in the protein starting material may form 3-chloro-1,2-propanediol (3-MCPD), a member of a group of chemicals known as chloropropanols, which have been identified as carcinogens. The manufacturing process for acid-HP can be modified to reduce the levels of 3-MCPD that are formed.
Frequently, acid-HP is added to soybeans and other ingredients to produce soy sauce that does not undergo a traditional fermentation process. Acid-HP also may be added to fermented sauces to enhance the flavor of the sauce.
The governments of Vietnam and Great Britain have taken regulatory steps to limit the amount of carcinogens in non traditionally produced soy sauce. From what I can tell from the FDA site, the U.S. is taking a more laissez faire attitude.
But that does not matter to you, because you are going to toss out any non fermented soy sauce you have laying around and go get something natural, fermented, traditional and delicious.
I actually don’t recall where I first read about fake soy sauce. It was probably in the Omnivore’s Dilemna, because I only remember the HFCS part. I do remember that when I went to the local grocery store to get some natural, fermented shoyu, every single brand was chemically hydrolyzed. Obviously, your mileage may vary, but people in my neighborhood are never even going to know their soy sauce is untasty and suspect, because they have nothing to compare it to.
I eventually made my way out to an Asian market in a neighboring town which had about one thousand and eight choices. How Products are Made has a pretty good breakdown of the different kinds of soy sauce and the grades of the types you might see in a store like that if you want to become a connoisseur or something. If not, and you think your grocery store is better than mine (it probably is,) the Kikkoman website has some pretty good tips for separating the fermented wheat from the revolting chemical chaff.
I’m still experimenting, but I think I prefer organic tamari. It has a deep, rich flavor, not overly salty, and can be used as a condiment or in cooking. I’ve had to adjust down the amounts in recipes that were written with non-fermented “soy sauce” in mind, but you know what? It only took about two meals to get used it, and now I don’t know how I ever lived without it.