The Japanese came up with the word for it: umami, that intensely savoury mouth sensation which they say is one of the five basic tastes. Umami is derived from naturally occurring glutamates.
It’s in the dried tomatoes that enrich ketchup, it’s in the anchovies that power Worcester sauce and it’s in the Parmesan cheese that amplifies a risotto. As an artificial additive – monosodium glutamate – it exaggerates commercial snacks and cheap Chinese takeaways. But in oriental cooking its most prevalent form is soy sauce, derived from fermenting soya beans. This tasting was of 16 shop-bought soy sauces. We were guided by our leading writer on Chinese cuisine, Fuchsia Dunlop (FD), who joined our panel for the blind test.
Sampling this rich, intensely salty condiment was an arduous task. Plenty of water during and a bread, cheese and wine reward afterwards. Even then there was no escaping the glutamatic assault on our taste buds: we had a delicious three-year-old Gouda that was definitely umamic. Assisting Fuchsia were the Gourmet Celeb (GC) and the Gluttonous Pig (GP). And another special guest, the FT’s Commodities Guru (CG), who happens to be of Japanese origin. She told us all about soya futures, where the price is apparently descending from its high of last year. Sell now.
As with all our tastings, products we might have been quite satisfied with on their own were exposed when thrust into comparison. We were particularly underwhelmed by Waitrose’s Dash of Light Soya Sauce. They claim it’s lighter, more salty and good for stir fries, fish and poultry. We thought a bit differently: “mono-dimensionally salty, harsh” (FD); “strange flavour – how did they ferment this?”(GP); “salt in a mudbath” (GC). Fuchsia recommends looking out for “naturally brewed” or “naturally fermented” on the label since this allows a longer, more traditional process that enhances the end result. But not always. Tesco’s Light Soy Sauce had classic ingredients (salt, soya beans, roasted wheat, sugar) but seemed to get lost in translation: “astringent aftertaste” (FD); “thin, shallow”(GP); “seawatery, unfortunate”(GC).
Finally, on our way from negative to positive, we had mixed opinions about the market leader, Kikkoman, and its Naturally Brewed Soy Sauce. The Commodities Guru loved it: “deep, strong Bovril taste”. But the others disagreed: “tongue-curling” (FD); “wheaty, yeasty, cardboard” (GP); “beyond words!” (GC).
Now for our recommendations which, rather conveniently, offer a choice of the three main soy varieties. Our two runners-up include a reasonably salty standard soy, which works as a flavour enhancer for most dishes, and a dark soy, which is used to give colour and gloss to sauces. And our winner is a light soy, which Fuchsia recommends for delicate dishes such as steamed fish and for dips where you want something rounded and not too aggressive. All three are naturally fermented, which rather proves Fuchsia’s point about the importance of the brewing.
The first runner-up is Kim Ve Wong’s Soy Sauce, imported from Taiwan in a generous plastic bottle. This is the standard soy: “ lingers on the tongue – perfect for sashimi”(CG); “a whopping flavour with malty aftertaste”(GC); “decent, rich and honest … like bankers used to be”(GP). The other is Sainsbury’s Dark Soy Sauce, fortified with caramel and made in Malaysia: “fruity, rounded” (FD); “gentle, sweet, amiable”(GP); “brown sugar, how come you taste so good?”(CG).
And our winner, describing itself rather fancifully as “extra virgin light”, is Pearl River Bridge Premium Deluxe Soy Sauce from China: “good balance”(CG); “lovely damp leaf, autumnal smell” (FD); “velvety”(GC); “like the Co-op – good with food”(GP). This entry also came first for hyperbole. Its box says: “Carries forward the ancient brewage method that was invented 3,000 years ago ... keeps the traditional tenet of ‘Natural, Healthy, Delicious’ which symbolises the healthy lifestyle of exalted modern people.” Quite so.
1. Pearl River Bridge Premium Deluxe Soy Sauce £2.15 (500ml); www.waiyeehong.com
2. Sainsbury’s Dark Soy Sauce £1 (150ml); www.sainsburys.co.uk
3. Kim Ve Wong’s Soy Sauce £2.45 (1l); www.wingyipstore.co.uk