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Sauced Up: A history of Hong Kong’s homegrown soy sauces

By Catharina Cheung 28 April 2020

Header image courtesy of Pun Chun

Confucius said, “Do not eat if sauces and seasonings are not correctly prepared.” Yes, we’re not joking. Most people know him as the great Chinese philosopher and thinker whose words shaped a huge part of Chinese ethics and beliefs, but few know that the man was also a huge foodie.

He was also absolutely correct in his insistence on the right condiments being used in cooking—seasoning can make or break a dish! And what better start for delving into the wide world of Chinese seasoning than the all-important soy sauce. Here’s an informative look into its history, the different types, as well as Hong Kong’s best soy sauces.

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Photo credit: Yu Tang (Shutterstock)

Origins

First made in China around 2,500 years ago, soy sauce’s predecessor was a fortuitous result of food preservation. In order to keep food from spoiling, people would preserve their meat, fish, vegetables, and grains; they then discovered that the liquid leftover from this fermentation process was delicious in itself, and started using it as a seasoning called jiang.

During the Han dynasty (circa 206 BC to 220 AD), people started fermenting soybeans because they were easy to grow even in poor soil. The result was a salty, semi-fermented paste called douchi, which eventually evolved into a sauce similar to the one we know by the Song dynasty (circa 960 to 1279 AD).

This production method made its way to Japan, where the recipe was refined to their cultural tastes, and the sauce was named shoyu. This term was then the genesis for its eventual English name soy sauce. The major change that the Japanese made was to add wheat to the mixture, which balanced out the strong flavours. This successful addition was taken back to China, where the perfected seasoning spread in popularity throughout Asia and to the rest of the world.

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Yuan’s Royal Soy Sauce

Founded by biochemist Tsang Heh-kwan, Yuan’s Royal Soy Sauce is probably one of the most expensive soy sauces out there. You might blanch at forking out around $200 for a bottle of soy sauce, but it’s pricey for good reason. Everything is still hand-made the traditional way, with none of the rapid churning out with chemical means. One batch of Yuan’s can take approximately two years to make, and everything is bottled at their factory in Yuen Long.

The main difference is that Yuan’s is a Fujian-style soy sauce, which doesn’t involve water being mixed with the soybeans, salt, and flour starter. Their first press is the Royal Soy Sauce, and the dark variety is cooked by hand with pure cane sugar. There aren’t many places that stock Yuan’s Royal Soy Sauce across Hong Kong, but you might get lucky at higher-end supermarkets such as city!super.

Photo credit: Tai Ma Sauce

Tai Ma Sauce 

Tai Ma Sauce is run by third-generation owners and, apart from soy sauce, also produces hand-made condiments such as fermented bean curd, soybean pastes, chilli oil, satay sauce, and more. The entire process of making a bottle of Tai Ma’s soy sauce takes 18 to 20 months, with the bean mixture still being fermented the traditional way in clay urns under the sun.

Their most premium product is the Supreme Shine On Basin Soy Sauce, which is made through a double-fermentation process to intensify its taste—this retails for close to $300 per bottle. If you manage to get your hands on a bottle of this stuff, for goodness’ sake, don’t make the wasteful mistake of dumping it in your cooking! The best way to appreciate the flavours of this top-notch soy sauce is to use it as a dipping sauce. You can find Tai Ma Sauce in select retailers, or on their online shop.

Pun Chun

There are also a few other local brands which are collectively known as the “Five Treasures” of the Hong Kong sauce industry because they each have the character 珍 (pronounced chun, meaning treasure) in their names.

Pun Chun has been around since 1898 as a little shop on Wellington Street that sold soy sauce, bean paste, and marinated ginger. Like Yuan’s, they also produce their soy sauce Fujian-style, and was highly popular in the 1970s, thanks in large part to a catchy jingle on their telly commercial.

As befitting its product, Pun Chun insists on manual production in Hong Kong, and today the fourth generation of the Lai family is running the business, with their soy sauces still readily available at a good price point in stores.

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Photo credit: The Industrial History of Hong Kong Group

Mee Chun

Mee Chun is a brand that is associated with Kowloon Sauce; it was the umbrella company that had to rename their product during the Japanese occupation. The character 美 (pronounced mee), though used to signify beauty, could also be read as the character for America—something that could cause problems with the Japanese forces during the war.

After the war, their export business to other parts of the world resumed under Mee Chun, while local business retained the name Kowloon Sauce. The company suffered in the 1970s when soy sauce started to be mass-produced by competitors, but Mee Chun insisted on traditional natural brewing. They then gave up on Hong Kong’s mass market and mostly rely on export, with some restaurants such as Luk Yu Tea House using their soy sauce in-house.

Tung Chun

Another such brand is Tung Chun, founded in 1919. Under the command of the second-generation owner from the 1930s to the 1970s, the company expanded beyond soy sauce to produce a wider range of food products, and also invested heavily in real estate, with the owner even going on to co-found the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Kowloon. Today, Tung Chun is still a major player in Hong Kong’s sauce industry, but the majority of their income now comes from property.

Koon Chun

The fourth of the “Five Treasures” is Koon Chun, who took advantage of the trade embargo on mainland China during the Korean War to focus on exporting their sauces overseas to fill this gap in demand. Because of this, they are lesser known domestically as compared to the other five, though it’s clear they retain a historic pedigree.

Koon Chun still uses the traditional methods of soy sauce-making, using only Canadian non-GMO beans. Naturally fermented under the sun for at least half a year, only first-draw soy sauces are produced, with no second or third extracts of inferior quality. Nowadays, you can find Koon Chun stocked periodically in high-end supermarkets or available for ordering online.

Dr Trevor Ng, managing director of Pat Chun. Photo credit: Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce

Pat Chun

The final “Treasures” brand is Pat Chun, which made a name for itself with its superior product quality in a range of sauces. They were also one of the first sauce companies to actively do advertising and offer free home delivery. Though Pat Chun is more synonymous with their sweetened vinegar, which Hongkongers all agree is the best for cooking pork knuckle and ginger stew, their soy sauce is also one of our finest.

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Soy sauce in foods

Soy sauce is absolutely the staple seasoning in Asian cooking. Chinese kitchens could do without salt, but not soy sauce. We can add it to pretty much anything: from stir-fries and soups to slow-cooked stews and even Western dishes such as pasta. Of course, soy sauce also works beautifully in marinades, sauces, dressings, and as a dipping sauce all on its own.

Just like when you sear a steak or caramelise sugar, the wheat produces a slightly sweet flavour in the sauce. There is also an acidic tang from the fermenting. Most importantly, the breaking down of soy and wheat proteins produces lip-smacking umami flavours—the same flavours that make parmesan cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, and stock such as dashi so delectable.

Added to food, soy sauce lends your dishes a salty tang, a slight sweetness, an umami explosion, and an enhanced depth of flavour that just elevates your choice of food to the next level. Praise be to the kitchen gods for this damn tasty boss sauce!

Making soy sauce

Traditionally, soy sauce is made from a paste of soybeans and wheat, mixed with salt and water, then fermented over months. Modern advancements have made it possible to break down the soy proteins artificially in just a few days—a process known as acid hydrolysis. A lot of soy sauces are mass-produced this way, but the final product lacks the subtle complexities of the real McCoy made the time-consuming way.

Actual recipes vary between producers but, in general, the essential steps to make soy sauce are as follows.

  • Soybeans are washed, then cooked until soft. An equal amount of wheat is toasted and milled.
  • These are mixed together with yeast and incubated at around 27 degrees Celcius for two days.
  • Brine is added to create a mushy slush, which is then left to ferment for several months. Over the fermentation process, the complex flavours develop and the mixture turns a reddish-brown colour.
  • The thick slush is strained and pressed to produce a liquid, which then goes through filtering to refine and clarify it. This is what’s known as light soy sauce.
  • The sauce can be further aged to develop deeper flavours, or enhanced with other umami-filled ingredients such as mushrooms, seaweed, shrimp, or molasses.

Different types of soy sauce

There are so many types of soy sauces available that differ according to factors such as raw ingredients used, production time, and region. Here are some of the most common and popular types used in Hong Kong and neighbouring Asian nations.

Light soy sauce

When the umbrella term soy sauce is used, this type is usually what is meant. As the name implies, light soy sauce is lighter in colour and less strong in flavour, best used for general seasoning and fine-tuning the flavours of dishes. You’ll often see the terms “gold label” and “silver label” on bottles in shops, which respectively refer to second and third extractions. The further the extraction, the less intense the flavour, and therefore the more affordable the sauce. Every Chinese household will have a bottle or two in their pantry.

First-draw soy sauce

If the ubiquity of soy sauce is compared to the use of olive oil in Western kitchens, then first-draw is the extra virgin olive oil of the soy sauce world. First-draw or first-extract refers to the sauce that is collected when the soybeans are fermented for the first time; the resulting soy sauce is of finer quality with a richer taste. It is, of course, sold at a higher price point.

Dark soy sauce

Don’t let the intense colour of dark soy sauce intimidate you: This is essentially light soy sauce with sugar or molasses added, which is then further matured under sunlight. It is more sweet than salty and is used to give dishes a distinctive flavour (very good when paired with Hainan chicken, for example). Do note that this thick sauce will also make your food take on its colour, and everything will be dished up with a brown tint. If you’re going for aesthetics, dark soy sauce may not be your best bet.

Sweet soy sauce

This is made by combining light and dark soy sauces, then cooking together with sugar, onion, spring onion, shallots, and other such herbs. It strikes a nice mid-point between sweet and salty and is handy to have for various dishes. Technically, you can make sweet soy sauce yourself and infuse it with flavours that you personally enjoy, but producers do sell this already pre-made.

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Catharina Cheung

Senior editor

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.

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