History of Soy Sauce, Shoyu, and Tamari - Page 1

by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi

A Chapter from the Unpublished Manuscript, History of Soybeans and
Soyfoods, 1100 B.C. to the 1980s

©Copyright 2004 Soyfoods Center, Lafayette, Californi

For updated and greatly expanded free information on this subject,
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Soy sauce is the best known and most widely used traditional soyfood in the Western world. It was also the first soyfood to become widely known and used in the West. This all-purpose liquid seasoning with its deep brown color, pleasant aromatic aroma, and richly satisfying flavor is increasingly used in place of salt to add flavor to favorite foods and, through its wealth of natural glutamic acid, to enhance and evoke the complex of delicate indwelling flavors in these foods.

This chapter will assume a familiarity with Chinese jiang and Japanese miso, the ancestors of soy sauce and shoyu, as discussed in the preceding chapter. The history and microbiology of Aspergillus oryzae and of koji, and key sources of information on soy sauce in East Asia are also given in the preceding chapter and in Chapter 33.

Etymology . There are few soyfoods that, historically, have had as many different names as soy sauce. The basic name for soy sauce in China is jiangyou , written with characters meaning "the liquid extracted from jiang ." Another term, less widely used, referring to the same product is dou-yu . These two characters, meaning "the liquid extracted from (soy) beans," are pronounced "tamari" in Japanese. A type of soy sauce very similar to jiangyou is chiyou ("the liquid extracted from soy nuggets" or "soy nugget sauce"); soy nuggets ( chi or douchi ) are described in Chapter 34. The Cantonese word for "soy sauce" is shi-yau or si-yau (derived from chiyou ). The Japanese word for "soy sauce" is shoyu (pronounced SHOW-yu); it derives from and is written with the same characters as jiangyou .

The various early English words for soy sauce, soy and soya, came from the Japanese word for soy sauce, shoyu , rather than from the Chinese word, jiangyou . Despite reports to the contrary (Yule and Burnell 1903; Markley 1950), the terms so-ya , soya , and soy have never existed in Japanese or Chinese. It is interesting to note that the present American and British terms "soy" and "soya," now generally used to refer to soybeans, were originally derived from the Japanese word for soy sauce ( shoyu ) and the German word Soja rather than from the Japanese word for soybean ( daizu ) or the Chinese word for soybean ( dadou ).

The earliest known reference to soy sauce in English was by the Englishman John Locke in 1679; he referred to it as "Saio." Since the product was probably a Japanese soy sauce imported to England, the term was probably a corruption of the Japanese shoyu (King 1858). In 1688 another Englishman, Dampier, made the second reference to soy sauce, calling it "soy," a name which stuck and became the most popular English term for this sauce for over 230 years, until the early 1920s. In other words, during this period, the English term "soy" referred to the sauce and not to the beans. Moreover, the sauce was known and used in the West long before the beans. Together with the term "soy," the Japanese term "shoyu" was extensively used in America and Europe, by both Western and Japanese writers. "Shoyu" first appeared in English quite late, in 1884 or 1889?? in a translation of an article by the German Rein; the first English-speaking writers to use the word were Georgeson et al. in 1891, followed by Langworthy in 1897. "Shoyu" continued to be fairly widely used up until the 1950s. While the term "soy" was used generically to refer to all types of soy sauce, "shoyu" was used to refer specifically to the uniquely Japanese product.

Starting in the latter half of the 19th century, Japanese soy sauce was extensively studied by German and French researchers, who seemed to have as much trouble as the English and Americans in arriving at a standard name and spelling. In German publications it was called, chronologically, schoju (1874), bohnensauce (1874), shoyu (1895), shoyu sauce (1897), shoyusauce (1899), schoyu (1905), soja sauce (1907), and soja (1912).

In French publications it was called soya or la sauce de soya (1776), le soja (1880), shoyu (1885), sooju (1888), soyou (1911), choyou (1911), shoyou (1981). As of 1981 the term for "soy sauce" has not been standardized in either French or German.

In 1899 the American Blasedale first used the term "soy-bean sauce," then in 1905 the Japanese Oshima became the first to use the modern term "soy sauce." He referred to the term only once, in passing, preferring to use the Japanese term "shoyu" throughout his article. Loomis (1914) was the first Westerner to use the term "soy sauce" and it was first used in the title of an article by Groff, of Canton (Guangzhou), China, in 1919. Then in 1923 it was used throughout two very important publications by Margaret Church and by Piper and Morse. Thereafter the term "soy sauce" came to be the most widely used generic term, with "soy" slowly decreasing in use generically and "shoyu" being used intermittently to refer to the Japanese product. Still as late as 1981, the first definition given under the term "soy" in Webster's dictionary was "soy sauce" while the second was "soybeans." Occasionally the name for the product was spelled as one word,"soysauce," starting with Van Gundy in 1936 and continuing into the 1980s.

In the 1920s?? a very significant development took place in soy sauce manufacture, that took 40-60 years to be reflected in the popular terminology of the product; soy sauce started to be manufactured by a completely new process, using quick acid hydrolysis instead of the traditional slow fermentation method using enzyme hydrolysis. Yet in popular parlance, both products were called "soy sauce." Scientists and microbiologists often differentiated the two products by calling the new product "HVP (hydrolyzed vegetable protein) soy sauce," "chemical soy sauce," or "nonfermented soy sauce," and the traditional product "fermented soy sauce." However the general public was almost entirely unaware of this crucial distinction, even though specialists in the field generally agreed that the traditional fermented product was of superior quality.

A second important change in soy sauce manufacture took place in Japan between about 1900 and 1950 when the traditional process for making fermented shoyu was altered in four basic ways: defatted soybean meal replaced whole soybeans, the fermentation was done more quickly in heated rooms, epoxy-lined steel or concrete vats were used in place of the traditional cedar vats, and preservatives were added to the shoyu.

The first person to try to make a change in the common or usual names of the various soy sauces to reflect their differences was the macrobiotic teacher George Ohsawa. He chose to use the term "tamari" to refer to the traditional, naturally fermented Japanese-style shoyu, which he worked to introduced into the West. The term "tamari," introduced in about 1960, began to catch on in the mid-1960s and was the most widely used term for natural soy sauce in the natural- and health-food trades from about 1970-1980. Ohsawa made a mistake, however, in using the term "tamari" to make his distinction, since "tamari" also referred to a type of Japanese shoyu containing little or no wheat. By the late 1970s this "real tamari" started to be marketed in the US, creating a great deal of confusion over terminology. Starting in 1975 Shurtleff and Aoyagi began a mini-campaign to have all Japanese-style soy sauce called "shoyu" (to distinguish it clearly from both chemical soy sauce and Chinese soy sauce), to have the term "tamari-shoyu" or "tamari" used, as in Japan, to refer only to shoyu containing little or no wheat, and to have the product that Ohsawa and the macrobiotics called "tamari" be renamed "natural shoyu." By 1980 groups marketing real tamari joined the campaign, running big ads stating that other so-called tamaris were not the real thing. By late 1980 the East West Journal and much of the macrobiotic community had made the suggested shift in terminology; distributors of the so-called "tamari" followed suit slowly. Kikkoman was hesitant to switch to calling their product "Kikkoman Shoyu," the name they used in Japan. They agreed that "shoyu" would help clarify the distinction between their quality product and lower-quality HVP soy sauce, but they felt they had invested too much in promoting "Kikkoman Soy Sauce" and that a switch might be confusing. During the late 1970s and early 1980s a number of natural food cookbooks began to use the terminology "1 tablespoon shoyu (natural soy sauce)."

In this chapter we will use the term "soy sauce" generically to refer to all types of soy sauce; fermented and HVP/chemical regardless of the country of origin. We will use the term "shoyu" to refer to all the various types of Japanese soy sauce, among which are regular or modern shoyu (Kikkoman's product), natural or traditional shoyu (made with whole soybeans, unheated fermentation, and no preservatives), and tamari-shoyu (made with little or no wheat).

In some publications, especially those written in Japan, the term "to brew" is used in translation of the Japanese term jozo , which means "to ferment," as applied to making fermented shoyu, sake, and miso. The English terms "to brew" and "brewery" refer only to the manufacture of malt liquors, particularly beer and ale, and not to any fermented beverages, as will be clearly seen by looking under "Brewing" in the Encyclopedia Britannica (1981). Hence we avoid use of these terms to refer to shoyu, which is neither a liquor nor made with malt??


Early Chinese Soy Sauces ( chiyou and jiangyou ). Surprisingly little is known about the early history of soy sauce in China. It is well known that the two ancestors of soy sauce were jiang and chi (soy nuggets). In the previous chapter we saw that the first mention of jiang (made with meat or fish) in China appeared in both the Chou-li ("Rituals of Chou") in about 300 BC and the Analects of Confucius in the third century BC (Waley 1938??), and that the first mention of soybean jiang appeared in the Ch'i-min yao-shu in about AD 535. Soy nuggets (soft salty soybeans fermented with Aspergillus oryzae ; see Chapter 34) were first mentioned by Ssu-ma Chien in the Shih chi in about 95 BC and were also mentioned in the Ch'i-min yao-shu . Jiang had a consistency resembling that of porridge, applesauce, or a soft paste; soy nuggets somewhat resembled raisins.

There are a number of key questions which arise when one attempts to research the origin and early history of products resembling today's soy sauce: (1) What were the Chinese characters used to describe such products and how did these change with time? (2) Did the words for "soy sauce" used today ( jiangyou and chiyou ) refer to similar soy-based products in early times? (3) When documents in English mention "soy sauce" are they referring to porridge-like jiang (as many are) or to a filtered liquid soy sauce?

In a very detailed analysis of the early history of soy sauce (shoyu), Ichiyama (1968) in the Kikkoman Shoyu-shi shows that the present set of characters used to refer to soy sauce in both China and Japan ( jiangyou in China and shoyu in Japan) first appeared in Japan in 1597 in the Ekirin Honsetsu Yoshu , but that two characters ( ??) presently used to write the word "tamari" in Japan first appeared in the Pen-ts'ao kang-mu (Li Shih-Chen 1578-97). It is implied that liquid soy sauce did not originate until the 16th century. Our research, however, indicates a possible earlier origin.

In his excellent Food in Chinese Culture , K.C. Chang (1977) states that in all likelihood soy sauce ?? was known toward the end of the Chou period (1100 BC-221 BC), based on evidence from the Shi chi (written ca. 85 BC) Chapter 129 ?? 135 ?? "Huo Ch'ih Lieh Chuan." Here the term jiangyou appeared for the first time as an item indicating a family's wealth (Swann 1950, p. 434):

Whoever in the market towns and commercial metropolises sold annually any of the following goods in the specified amounts was also equal in wealth to the head of a great hereditary family of a thousand chariots.

1. Liquor, a thousand brewings

2. Pickles and chiang-yu, a thousand jars

3. Chiang, a thousand jars . . .

It is not clear from this statement whether or not this chiang-yu ( jiangyou or soy sauce) was made with soybeans; it could have been a meat extract. During the Han dynasty, at about the beginning of the Christian era, the I li , chapter "The Rituals of the Public Banquet Officials," mentioned jiang ch'i ("jiang liquid") stating that "When offerings of wine and beans are made, salted fish and jiang ch'i are not offered." This liquid was probably made from a meat or fish jiang; its relationship to jiangyou is not clear. Today the term refers to a thick, dark soy sauce. Moreover, in the Japanese book Kandai-no-Bunbutsu ("Han dynasty civilization") there is an illustration apparently showing the removal of liquid from jiang in a crock (Sakaguchi 1979). No mention of soy sauce is made?? Yet both these facts seem to indicate that the idea of removing a liquid from jiang existed by the Han dynasty. It is important to note that, whereas detailed descriptions of making both jiang and chi from soybeans are given in the Ch'i-min yao-shu , there is no mention of jiangyou or chiyou , indicating that these products probably did not exist or were not well known. However, as we shall see later, the first mention of a liquid soy sauce appeared in Korea in AD 683 and in Japan in AD 775. It seems highly likely that these were derived from a similar Chinese ancestor.

A widely cited early reference to a product that may have been a Chinese liquid soy sauce appears in the Pen-ts'ao kang-mu ("collected essentials of grasses and trees;" Japanese: Honso Komoku ), a famous and large collection of botanical and medical writings by Li Shih-chen (1578-90??; Ming dynasty). In addition to various types of jiang, it mentions a product written with the two characters ( ??) meaning "bean" and "oil or extract." The term probably refers to soy oil rather than to soy sauce, but it is not certain which. The term jiangyou clearly appears in the Hsien-ch'ing ou-ch'i ("Idle Curiosities") by Li Yu" (ca. 1630-76) which states that "As soon as white meat is cooked, a little jiangyou should be added." Thereafter the term was used with increasing frequency.

Given the gap of some 16 centuries between the appearance of the term jiangyou in the Shi chi and its next appearance in the Hsien-ch'ing ou-ch'i , it seems fair?? to question the meaning of the original term and to assume that soy sauce may have originated in and was probably not widely used until the 1600s in China.

If references to jiangyou are few and late, they are even worse with respect to chiyou ("soy nugget sauce"). We have no information on the earliest mention of this seasoning (Steve didn't look it up??). A substance called shih-chih ("soy nugget juice") is mentioned in the Ho-han san-ts'ai t'u-hui ("translate??, 1711), chapter "Making Fermented Products--Soybean chi" which states "chi is often used at meals to harmonize the five flavors. People used to use it during this dynasty. Nowadays if people do not use jiang, they also do not use chi; rather they use soy sauce (jiangyou), not shih-chih (soy nugget liquid)." The Erh Ya I (translate??) written by Lo Yuan in 1174 specifically mentions shih-chih .

The method for making Chinese soy sauce ( jiangyou ) was based on that for making soybean jiang, described in the previous chapter. The koji (called huang and later ch'u ) was made of cooked soybeans mixed with a relatively small amount (typically 5% but sometimes up to 40%) of wheat flour and sometimes powdered starter from a wheat-flour based mold block. The finished koji was mixed with salt water in large earthenware pots or vats (45-227 liters, or 12-60 gallons), which were allowed to stand outdoors in a courtyard in the sunlight, open during the day and covered at night. The mixture was stirred once or twice a day. The warmth from sunning accelerated the fermentation and improved the color and aroma. After about 3-6 months, a slender strainer or sieve made of woven bamboo (and sometimes wrapped with coarse-weave cloth) was pushed down into the surface of the fermented mash and weighted with a stone; the liquid soy sauce that collected in it was ladled or siphoned off into smaller earthen jars, covered with cloth and bamboo leaves, placed in the sun for about 2 more weeks, then used or sold, typically without being heated/pasteurized as first grade soy sauce. Meanwhile, more salt water was added to the lees ( teng shi ; "original chi") and the mixture was fermented for 1-2 months before a second drawing. This method of drawing might be repeated a total of 3-4 times, with each drawing representing a lower grade of soy sauce. In some cases these lower grades were mixed with the first-drawn sauce to extend it; in others, caramel might be added with the brine and the mixture might be simmered before drawing. Note that the residue was never really pressed. The final spent lees were typically ground, mixed with other ingredients, and used to make thick condiments such as min see jiang (what is it??) and hoisin sauce . In later affluent periods the lees were sometimes used as hog feed or fertilizer, but nothing was ever wasted (Stuart 1911; Shih 1918; Groff 1919; Fukushima 1981).

Eventually a number of varieties of soy sauce were developed; some contained mushrooms, shrimp eggs, or seasonings such as sansho green pepper. However most soy sauce was divided into two basic types: light and dark. Light soy sauce, made from the first drawing, was considered to be the best quality. Dark soy sauce was the product from the second or subsequent fermentations and drawings, often mixed with molasses. In addition, a sweetened thick soy sauce (called tain jiangyou or see yau ) was made by adding extra wheat flour during the fermentation and plenty of molasses at the end, to either a light or dark sauce. The finest soy sauces were said to come from Fukien and Amoy. Later, in Japan, Chinese-type soy sauce evolved into tamari-shoyu.

Soy nugget sauce ( chiyou ), prepared today?? in the southern provinces of China, was made by fermenting soybeans alone, without wheat (Li 1948). For centuries the best known chiyou has come from Kuantou in Fukien province. Cooked soybeans are spread on bamboo trays and fermented for 12 days until well molded and quite dry. The mold mycelium is then washed off in running water, the beans are next soaked for 8-12 hours immersed in baskets, then allowed to referment until the heat of fermentation develops. This koji ( ch'u or huang ) is then mixed with salt water in large wooden vats and fermented for 3 months. Then the liquid is drained off into large porcelain jars and exposed to sunlight for 2-10 weeks, resulting in the finished soy nugget sauce. The residue left in the vats is extracted three or four times with salt solutions to make lower grade sauces.

Starting in the 1890s?? a number of articles began to appear in Western publications describing the preparation of Chinese soy sauce. These included Prinsen Geerligs (1895, 1896), Shih (1918), Groff (1919; a very detailed description of soy sauce manufacture in Kwantung with 13 photographs), Chinese Economic Bulletin (1926; detailed descriptions of manufacture in Peking/Beijing and Foochow), Chow (1935; a review of the chemistry and manufacture of soy sauce in China), Wang and Ni (1936), and A.K. Smith (1949; a comprehensive report).

Very little is known about the dissemination of soy sauce throughout China or to surrounding countries, except Japan and Korea. Korean documents first mentioned soybean paste and soybean sauce ( jang and kanjang ) in AD 683 (Wang and Lee 1978). The earliest mention of soy sauce in Japan dates from AD 775. These products probably traveled east from China with the spread of Buddhism. No dates have yet been found concerning the spread of soy sauce southward, where it was probably taken by traders or Chinese settlers; in most areas it retained its basically Chinese identity, although in many southern countries, it evolved into a thicker product sweetened with molasses. In the Philippines it became toyo ; in Indonesia and Malaysia, kecap or kechap (formerly spelled ketjap , a word that originated in Hokkien??), in Thailand see-iew , and in Vietnam tuong , the most unique of the southern soy sauces.

Recent Asian Soy Sauce History . In China and Southeast Asia the preparation of soy sauce has remained largely a household art, with each family (even city apartment dwellers) making their own supply once a year. The fact that the process does not require a pressed extraction makes it well suited to home application. Surprisingly little has been published in European languages about the recent history of soy sauces in China and Southeast Asia. Perhaps the best publication is the proceedings of the ASEAN Workshop on Soy Sauce held in Singapore in 1978 (ASEAN Soy Sauce Committee 1978).

In China, the Chinese Economic Bulletin (1926) mentioned that there were then about 140 makers of soy sauce in Peking/Beijing, however most were grocers making soy sauce on a small scale as a side line; only a dozen or two were large companies making only soy sauce. Most of the latter had a long history, having been in business since the Ming dynasty (1368-1662); many had more than 1,000 fermentation pots, and 70-80 employees. Chow (1935) reviewed the chemistry and manufacture of chemical soy sauce in mainland China; Wang and Ni (1936) reported on the manufacture of soy sauce by the Kwantou process.


Soy sauce has long been and still is one of China's most widely used soyfoods. It is clearly the most important seasoning liquid, and is widely used in place of salt. There are two basic types of soy sauce in China: dark and/or thick soy sauce ( lao chou ) and thin soy sauce ( sheng chou ). The former is usually considered to be the best quality; it has a high relative density, viscosity, and nitrogen content, and is sometimes sweetened with cane sugar (Yokotsuka 1964). Light soy sauce is preferred for dipping. Some people mix the two. Chinese soy sauce, unlike Japanese, also comes in a host of tantalizing flavors, such as mushroom soy sauce and shrimp roe soy sauce--to name but a few. These vary from province to province. Flavored soy sauces are used mainly for dipping, for special flavors in vegetable or noodle dishes, or to add a final special touch (Lin 1976; Nakayama 1973). Soy nugget sauce ( chiyou ) is a close relative of jiangyou , but made from soy nuggets instead of jiang.

An informal survey of several stores in Beijing by Shurtleff (1983) indicated that Superior Soy ( ?? ) made in Guangzhou (Canton) was considered to be the best and most expensive soy sauce. Ingredients, in order of predominance, were soybeans, wheat flour, salt, and water. A 623 ml jar retailed for about US$0.58 at a Friendship Store, catering to foreigners. The next best was Xianzhi Soy, a brand made in Beijing.

Smith (1949) discussed the production of soy sauce in China after visiting several plants in 1948. He noted that soy sauce was always produced locally, never being transported from one town to another. The largest plant in China was said to be that operated by the Chang family in Shanghai; it covered about 6 acres (2.43 ha) and had 6,000 or more 190-liter (50-gallon) earthenware crocks. Most plants used 40-100 crocks. Equal weights of wheat and soybeans were typically used in making the koji, showing Japanese influence. When wheat was expensive, wheat bran, oats, kaoliang (millet), or rye were substituted. Barley was not favored. Typical fermentation time was 8-9 months, with a range of 3 months to 2 years. All insisted that the longer the fermentation, the better the sauce. Many manufacturers told Smith that exposure of their soy sauce to the sun and even to the moon were significant factors in producing the best flavor and aroma. The liquid was extracted with a filter press and pasteurized. To most grades (except the best), coloring (caramel), sweetener (licorice or maltose), and sometimes spices and chemical preservatives were added.

Soy sauce manufacturing processes and availability have apparently changed considerably since 1949, based on research done in Beijing and Shanghai. Fukushima (1981) and Guo (1983) reported that a new inexpensive method, quite different from the traditional one, was being used. Total production of soy sauce was estimated at 1,700,000 tonnes made by about 4,000 factories which belong to the Vegetable Processing Main Corporation. In the new method the basic ingredients are 6-7 parts defatted soybean meal to 3-4 parts wheat bran. The reduced-salt brine fermentation takes 3 weeks at 40-45°C (104-113°F).


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