For a younger, less taste-aware version of myself, coal-black briny-sweet Chung King brand soy sauce was all I needed to accompany the corner Chinese restaurant's ubiquitous white rice. As I got closer to the bottom of the bowl the poor rice would become salty enough to render the last bites inedible.

When I began experimental adventures in mom's kitchen, I thought I could imitate the stir-fry of the restaurant's Cantonese immigrant cook just by seasoning my vegetables with the same dark condiment. I invariably flopped, creating, instead, a water-bogged salty wilt of vegetables. Only later, living and cooking professionally in Japan, have I come to realize the possibilities and limitations of this virtually indispensable flavoring — soy sauce.

Vegetable-based soy sauce (shoyu — changes to joyu in compound usage) replaced protein-based fish sauce (uoshio) as a major seasoning agent when vegetarian Buddhism came from the Chinese continent, first seen in the eighth century and widely used by the 1500s. The Japanese took the raw Chinese material and did with it what they seem to do best — developed, codified and refined it, making the simple soy fermentation into their own institution. Different from the saltier, darker Chinese version of my youth, Japanese shoyu stands in my kitchen as one of the most important building blocks of cooking and is used everyday.