The Original Condiment

Last month Slow Food Shanghai members met the ancestor of the modern-day soy sauce – the naturally brewed, full-bodied light or dark liquid that originated in China close to 3,000 years ago and has little to do with the ubiquitous bottle found in kitchens and on restaurant tables worldwide. Much of Shanghai’s culinary culture is rooted in food that has been stewed, simmered, sautéed, or braised in this briny liquid, yet it is becoming increasingly rare to find the authentic product. To find out more, we decided to visit Qian Wan Long, a traditional soy sauce factory located in Pudong, an area of the city that was once primarily agricultural land.

Soy sauce was traditionally made with three basic ingredients – soybeans, salt, and water – fermented for six months or more with specific molds, sometimes with the addition of wheat. However, today most soy sauces are made in a matter of days from acid hydrolyzed soy protein – soy beans boiled in hydrochloric acid for 15-20 hours to produce an amino liquid that is mixed with sodium carbonate and filtered before caramel color, corn syrup, and salt are added for color and flavor. The additives attempt to make this industrial sauce taste like the traditional version, but ultimately the result is a poorer quality, less healthy soy sauce with a harsh flavor. Unfortunately, this is the product most of us know.

At Qian Wan Long, we were fortunate enough to experience the real thing. Soy sauce has been produced here since the late 1800’s following traditional methods that date back much further. Unfortunately Qian Wan Long is one of the last handmade naturally fermented soy sauces being produced commercially in China, a dying art that will alter China’s cuisine forever if it disappears.

Qian Wan Long soy sauce is completely free from additives and preservatives. The process starts by selecting high quality, non-genetically modified soybeans. The beans are washed and cooked before a little wheat and rice flour is added and the mix is allowed to develop the Asperigillus Oryzae mold. Salt is then added and the soybean mash is left to ferment in giant earthenware urns covered with conical bamboo hats for an average of one-and-a-half years, with their highest quality product taking two years to reach maturity. Once the fermentation process is complete, the mixture is put through a traditional wooden press. Amazingly, their annual production of 100,000 bottles is made with the help of just one ancient device.

The factory produces both a light and a dark soy sauce. The light sauce, made from the first soybean pressing, is slightly saltier and works very well as a dipping sauce or with vegetables. The darker version is thicker and sweeter, due to the fact it is aged longer and contains molasses, and is typically used to cook meat, such as the wonderful dish we tried at the end of our tour of braised pork belly and egg.

Just like aged balsamic vinegar, traditionally produced soy sauce products are more expensive than the standardized industrial versions sold in supermarkets all around the world, but the taste, health and cultural benefits definitely make the price tag worth it. While it may be challenge to get your hands on a bottle from a true artisan producer such as Qian Wan Long, some common brands do use the natural brewing process and specialty stores worldwide offer some good choices. Make sure to check the list of ingredients – it should be a short list, free of the telltale additives, preservatives and MSG that come with a ‘chemical’ sauce – and look for “traditionally/naturally brewed” and “non-gmo” and “organic” beans.

The last 130 years of making traditional soy sauce at Qian Wan Long has not always been easy, in particular due to the challenges of competing with big manufacturers and attracting young workers, but in 2008 things changed when Qian Wan Long soy sauce-making process was listed as one of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritages. Today their production is extremely sought after and they have opened a restaurant featuring Shanghai’s traditional soy-based dishes. Let’s hope this will encourage more similar productions, allowing more people to experience the joy of real soy sauce.

Allison van Camp
Slow Food Shanghai member

For more information:
Qian Wan Long website (in Chinese)
“12 Steps to Making Traditional Fermented Soya Sauce at Qian Wanlong” (in English) on the “Life on Nanchang Lu” blog.

Photo: Kunal Chandra

  • Did you learn something new from this page?
  • yesno