My mom could always convince me to eat anything if it was doused in soy sauce. But for most of my life, I used the ones most folks will find in their local grocery store: sodium, and less sodium. That all changed in my late 20s, though, when I discovered a whole new world of imported soy sauces after moving to a neighborhood in Los Angeles next to Little Tokyo.
With help from a Japanese friend, I translated the foreign labels on the sauces lining my local markets’ shelves, and grabbed this bottle of koikuchi, or traditional dark soy sauce, from Shoda — a company based in the Japanese city of Tatebayashi that has been making its soy sauce for 146 years. Covered in elegantly calligraphed paper, it caught my eye because it looked like a present that I wanted to unwrap. Finer koikuchi like Shoda’s are made with just soybeans, wheat, water, and salt (mass produced ones generally have more additives), and are fermented for several weeks. Remarkably balanced, this one reins in the requisite saltiness with a sweetness, lightness, and a not-too-funky ferment — in addition to a citrusy flavor that I’d never tasted or associated with the condiment before (its almost as if someone snuck a twist of yuzu rind into the bottle). Plus, it has a lovely, clean aftertaste, unlike the more ubiquitous kinds I’ve tried, which tend to densely coat my mouth and taste intensely salty and starchy.
Following my successful Shoda purchase, I went back to the market to grab more new-to-me soy sauces to try. I bought Kishibori (which came highly recommended by Epicurious); Kikkoman’s organic, naturally brewed soy sauce;and two other kinds from Shoda — a double fermented saijikomi (which is even pricier than the koikuchi), and a tosa (an umami bomb flavored with bonito flakes and mirin). But none won me over more than that first bottle — the Kishibori’s flavor tipped too funky, the Kikkoman was too salty, and the other two Shoda varieties were just not as balanced and more overpowering in flavor, so I found myself using them less.
I’ll use the Shoda koikuchi when making anything where soy sauce (and sometimes just salt) is called for, including stir-frys, broths, and stews. I’ll toss some in cooking liquid when boiling rice and grains. On nights when I don’t have the time to fuss over dinner, I’ll braise meat in a mixture of Shoda sauce, red wine, sautéed onions, and a little cinnamon, to give it a depth of flavor that rivals the taste of something simmering all day. Since discovering this soy sauce, I’ve even started to make more of the simple meals (steamed vegetables over rice, sliced avocados and cucumbers) that I used to slather the stuff on as a kid (and, when nobody’s watching, will lick every last drop off a plate). The only thing I won’t allow is for my husband to waste it when he’s marinating beef jerky in bulk — for that, the cheaper stuff still works just fine.
Editor’s note: The soy sauce is currently sold out on Amazon, but available here.
More Strategist-approved Asian condiments
Writer Mia Leimkuhler discovered this chili topping by accident while browsing Chinatown’s Hong Kong Supermarket. Its mix of fried and crushed dried chilis, fermented soybeans, Sichuan peppercorn, and MSG delivers a balanced spicy flavor not unlike sriracha (but with “more crunch and oomph”).
These salty, sweet, and slightly crunchy Japanese “sprinkles” are made with dried seaweed, salt, and sugar, and add a savory umami flavor to any dish (rice, steamed vegetables, fish, and even French fries).
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