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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.

Today more than 99 percent of shoyu is manufactured in a less-than-traditional way. Old-method shoyu (true wheat-free tamari and double-processed shoyu like kanro shoyu) may often accompany food standing alone, with its bold clean flavors at the fore. Unfortunately, this may not be said for most shoyu produced today. When not used as a flavor agent directly in cooking, modern distilled shoyu performs best when given a little boost. There are several common shoyu-wari (enhanced shoyu) sauces that you should know before setting out to cook or eat washoku as an advanced student.

Before you begin, you should note the difference between dark or heavy (koikuchi) shoyu and light or thin (usukuchi) shoyu. Dark and light refer to color and not salinity. Actually, light shoyu has a higher salt content and thus saltier flavor. Generally light shoyu plays its role in cooking preparations, and dark shoyu is used in sauces or straight on the table as a condiment. In labeling their reduced-salt shoyu, some companies use the confusing term “lite.” Be careful to distinguish between this and the original products.

Tosa joyu (Tosa soy sauce)

Tosa refers to Kochi Prefecture, which is famous for producing bonito flakes (katsuobushi), and indicates a fortification with or infusion of the smoky katsuobushi. This sauce is most commonly served with first course o-tsukuri (raw fish or meat) and called sashimi joyu. In some sushi restaurants, it is referred to simply as murasaki (purple) because of its dark rich color. It keeps well — actually developing flavor over time — and can substitute plain shoyu in most recipes.

200ml koikuchi shoyu
20ml sake
20ml tamari
10ml mirin
5cm/10 grams konbu
small handful/10 grams katsuobushi

1) Place all ingredients in a pot and bring to a simmer.

2) Simmer for 10 minutes, skimming the froth off the top.

3) Strain through cheesecloth and cool in ice bath. Because of the salt content, Tosa joyu will keep indefinitely unrefrigerated and will taste even better after some aging.

Wasabi joyu (Wasabi soy sauce)

An obvious combination, wasabi often appears alongside sashimi joyu and is added as needed with the discretion of the customer. In this sauce, used at fine restaurants, Tosa joyu is cut with an equal amount of dashi, and a small portion of freshly grated wasabi is added in the kitchen for punch. This condiment commonly comes with very thinly sliced o-tsukuri dishes such as the thinly sliced tai (sea bream) arranged to look like a chrysanthemum flower (kikka zukuri). Made with fragile dashi, it should be prepared in small amounts as needed.

50ml Tosa joyu
50ml dashi ( ichiban or niban )
1 T (or less) freshly grated wasabi root

1) Mix ingredients in a small bowl and serve.

2) Refrigerate and use as soon as possible any leftover portion.

Karashi joyu (Mustard soy sauce)

Like wasabi joyu, karashi joyu is diluted with stock and flavored in the kitchen. Japanese mix their mustard powder with water rather than vinegar, as is done in the West. Bought in a tube or jar already mixed, karashi may be used immediately. Powdered mustard, brought back with hot water, should stand for several minutes to let the mustard flavor bloom before use. You might see this sauce sent out with a grilled fish or even grilled or fried chicken (kara-age). A delicate sauce, prepare as needed.

50ml Tosa joyu
50ml dashi or chicken stock
1 T (or less) karashi

1) Blend ingredients at time of service in a small container.

2) Refrigerate and use as soon as possible any leftover portion.

Shoga joyu (Ginger soy sauce)

Again, a dashi-enhanced, flavored shoyu sauce used with grilled dishes and sometimes seen with charred tataki-style sashimi such as fresh katsuo tataki.

50ml Tosa joyu or plain koikuchi shoyu
50ml dashi
1T freshly grated ginger

1) Mix shoyu and dashi.

2) Place grated ginger between thumb, index and middle fingers and squeeze juice into mixture, discarding the pulp.

3) Refrigerate unused portion.

Goma joyu (Sesame soy sauce)

This sauce is delicious as a replacement for traditional wasabi joyu and even goes well with many types of sushi. Freshly roasted and hand-ground sesame seeds give a wonderful aroma and may be added on their own to hot or cold noodle dishes, soups or even pickled daikon (radish) or plain white rice. Only grind what is needed and store unused sesame, roasted or not, in the freezer for longevity.

50ml Tosa joyu
50ml (or less) dashi
2 rounded T ground roasted sesame

1) Roast small amount of sesame seeds in a heavy-bottomed pan, careful not to burn. Have mortar ( suribachi ) ready to receive hot sesame when they are golden brown (in Japanese: kitsune iro — the color of the fox).

2) Grind seeds and add to mixture of shoyu and dashi in small serving dishes.

3) Refrigerate unused dashi/shoyu.

With these simple sauces under your belt, you can consider a little more advanced shoyu preparations. Next time, that tangy citrus shoyu sauce: ponzu.

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