Got into a conversation last weekend with the same friends with whom we did the soy sauce tasting over eleven years ago. I noticed that Annabelle still uses Kikkoman, the soy sauce she grew up with in Hawaii. Though she's Chinese and Chinese soy sauce was available, her family favored the Japanese sauce (it's now also made in America but back then it would have been a Japanese import). Though she remembers the tasting we did, time has been kind to the Kikkoman and she remembered it as one of the winners. Which in a sense it was, since we didn't hate it. But it was last place among the contestants deemed just "acceptable". I still seek out the Kimlan I-Jen.
Then yesterday over a sushi lunch with friends in Vancouver, soy sauce came up again, but Kikkoman vs. another Japanese brand easily available there. Anyway, both conversations made me want to dig out the tasting notes from long ago, and as long as I'm doing that I'll republish them below. Btw, we did eventually do the test of Japanese sauces mentioned in the post, but apparently I never published the results here. No reason why not that I recall.
Anyway, as long as I had dug it out, figured I'd repost. Maybe next time one of you reaches for Kikkoman, you might be tempted to choose another brand. If nothing else, you might reconsider for a lower sodium choice.
Date: 05-Sep-2002 20:50
Author: Jenise Email
Subject: Notes from Soy Sauce Tasting #1 (long, boring)
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I love soy sauce. A bowl of plain rice doused with it is, for me, a major comfort food. So it piqued my interest when Larry Greenly mentioned a Chinese artisanal soy sauce called Bo Wo. Artisanal? What would that mean, and would the differences be like balsamic vinegars, cheeses, olive oils? And how much difference was there, anyway, even among the industrial brands? Loosely, I understood the regional preferences that resulted in the salty Chinese soys vs. the sweet Indonesian "Kecap", but what did I really know of Vietnam, Thailand, etc?
So I went shopping.
The "Bo Wo" Larry mentioned has not surfaced, but most of those I bought did claim to be naturally fermented. 18 non-Japanese sauces were rounded up--the best will be tasted with Japanese sauces, where true artisanal versions have been easier to locate. I'm looking forward to that, because where we truly expected this to be a boring, useless exercise, we instead found off-the-chart variations. We, in fact--we being Bob, myself and our friends John and Annabelle--found ourselves thinking in wine terms: bouquet, aroma, attack, mid-palate flavor, balance, complexity and finish all mattered. In the end, we found two to be exceptional, thought six others were likeable, and we flat-out detested the remaining ten. The two we loved stood out the way a fine Burgundy and a fine Bordeaux would stand out in a tasting of $15 and under wines. They were also, at around $5 each, the only two that cost more than $2 but I was the only taster out of four who knew that.
Each bottle selected contained only the following: soy beans, water, wheat, salt and sugar as long as it was the last ingredient listed. This disqualified the sweeter Indonesian and Thai soys. An American-made Kikkoman ringer was included, as was the Hawaiian-made Aloha Shoyu because we were at Annabelle's and she had some. All bottles were new except the Aloha, which had been purchased and opened about a year ago.
Although in retrospect I now think it naive to have done so, when shopping I avoided the reduced sodium versions based on my Kikkoman-based belief that sodium reduction is achieved by dilution, dumbing-down of ingredients or both. This tasting proved that not to be true, because though not marketed as "lower sodium" products, it turned out that those we favored were the lowest in sodium and at levels equivalent to those labeled "low sodium". And, note that Kimlan brand is routinely lower in sodium regardless of grade and that they make/import an impressive variety--until doing this, I have shrugged off all Kimlan products as industrial based on the ubiquitousness of Kimlan packets with take-out Asian. I'm glad to have found out otherwise.
The two we loved:
Kimlan I-Jen; Taiwan; 660 mg sodium; soy beans, I-Jen, salt, water, sugar; med-dark; winey, yeasty, a floral sweetness, extroardinarily complex with layers of subtle flavors, medium-bodied. The Burgundy of the two best sauces. I actually phoned Kimlan to find out what I-Jen is, and it was explained to me that this is a roasted rice commonly used for medicinal purposes in China--perfect for anyone with a wheat allergy and, since it uses rice instead of wheat, equivalent to Japanese "Tamari" style soy. Excellent strength for dipping. Naturally fermented for 9-12 months. $4.39.
Kimlan Super Special Naturally Fermented; Taiwan; 660 mg sodium; soy beans, wheat, salt, sugar; very dark; big, robust and winey, complex, strong, superbly balanced, the Bordeaux. Also naturally fermented for 9-12 months. Would favor this one for seasoning, condiment use. $5.39.
The other six we liked, in order of preference:
Kimlan Ponlai; Taiwan; 740 mg sodium; dark; a chemical odor we named 'vinyl' was at first offputting, but this blew off with air time and integrated into this soy sauce's unique character, spicy with strong soy bean character, complex and interesting. Fermented three to six months. $1.89.
Wanjashan; Taiwan; 880 mg sodium; dark; soy and wine aroma, proper soy flavor, becomes more interesting with time. $1.29. The best value of those we tasted and what I'll be buying instead of Pearl River Bridge in the future for cooking/marinades. Note that Wanjashan is also brewed domestically in Middletown, New York; ours was the Taiwanese import, however.
Kimlan (plain yellow label); Taiwan; 660 mg sodium; dark; salt and soy nose, assertive and full-bodied, unexpectedly sweet but it works. Fermented about three months. $.89.
Lee Kum Kee "Naturally Brewed"; Hong Kong; 1200 mg sodium; medium color; too sweet for us but nonetheless shows some complexity. $1.79.
Pearl River Bridge Superior Light Soy; China; 1590 mg sodium; med-dark; too salty but otherwise nothing wrong here. $.80.
Kikkoman; Walworth, Wisconsin; 920 mg sodium; medium; tangy, well-balanced. Nothing special, nothing offensive. IOW, Americanized. $1.59.
The ones we disliked, in brief and no particular order:
Koon Chun, Hong Kong; atrociously salty (1400 mg), couldn't taste anything else.
Silver Swan, Phillipines; as salty as the Koon Chun with a petrol note--the label claims only 850 mg sodium, but surely they lie.
Kimlan "Sang Chau" light soy, Taiwan; overwelms with salt and a fake caramel taste.
Soy Bean Sauce #1, Thailand; Looked like mud, tasted like boiled straw, but the whole beans in the bottle did look pretty cool.
Amoy "Premium Light", China; toasted wheat, caramel and tin can.
Aloha Shoyu, Hawaii; manure, seaweed and motor oil. (Possibly the result of oxidation; this bottle had been open a year and not refrigerated.)
Tau Vi Yeu Chay "Vegetarian", Vietnam; fish oil and tin can. Vile.
Lotus Xi Dau Chay; Hong Kong; rotten sardines, fungal. Awful.
Nuoc Thong Dau Nanh; Vietnam; less fishy than two above, but quite unpleasant.
Golden Mountain; Thailand; we loved the porcini mushroom nose, but this was the biggest DNPIM of all. Sent me running for a glass of water.
My wine shopping and I have never had a problem. Just a perpetual race between the bankruptcy court and Hell.--Rogov