A Soy Saucy Affair

Soy sauce was the raison d'etre for a most lavish affair last night at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, complete with a receiving line, political big wigs, a video message from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, flowing booze, incredible sushi and a taiko drum performance, all MC'd by former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Richard Myers (whose first encounter with Kikkoman was in the early 1970s when he was stationed in Japan).

Specifically, the root of all the hoopla is Kikkoman , the global condiment giant that is celebrating 50 years of doing business in this country. The company, owned and operated by the Mogi family -- 17 generations! -- has been in the soy sauce business since the 17th century. Kikkoman first came to this part of the world in the late 1800s, exporting to Hawaii well before it was a state.

In 1957, Kikkoman opened its first U.S. headquarters in San Francisco, Calif., where soy sauce was bottled. By 1972, the company opened its first manufacturing plant in the southern Wisconsin town of Walworth, with close proximity to soybean farms in neighboring Illinois. Soy sauce was then born in the U.S.A. and quickly became part of the American culinary vernacular. In 1972, I was only six, and I knew about President Nixon and Birds Eye frozen vegetables but had not been introduced to soy sauce just yet.

By the way, who remembers their first soy sauce experience? Was it in a Chinese restaurant or at Benihana (remember how popular they were?) -- or was your mother one of those experimental cooks who was curious about this newfangled seasoning?

In the 1970s, Kikkoman's only other competitor was LaChoy (maker of those crispy chow mein noodles in a box), a company that got its start in Detroit in the 1920s selling bean sprouts (the company is now owned by agri-biz behemoth ConAgra). Throughout the disco era, "oriental" is the word we used to characterize soy sauce -- nobody seemed to care if it was Japanese or Chinese, but 30-some years hence, there are countless brands to choose from in the supermarket, and as Kikkoman CEO Yuzaburo Mogi suggested last night, we have become a "nation of ketchup, mustard and soy sauce." In fact, some 25 million gallons of soy sauce are produced in the tiny town of Walsworth, and in 1998, Kikkoman opened a second plant in Folsom, Calif. (ergo, the congratulatory message from Da Arnold)

All this soy saucy talk got me thinking: In 2007, how do we as a culture use the stuff? Do we dip and dunk for dumplings -- or do we splash into marinades, salad dressings and stir fries? Have we moved on to the lower sodium versions or does it not matter?

When was the last time you used soy sauce? I used some last week sprinkled over cucumbers, with rice wine, sesame oil, sugar, lime and chili flakes. That's probably one of my favorite ways to use the stuff these days.

Share your soy sauce notes in the comments area below. And if you're game, join me today at 1pm ET for this month's What's Cooking Vegetarian.

By Kim ODonnel |  September 27, 2007; 11:58 AM ET Culinary History
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I don't remember the first time I had soy sauce--I have one uncle who is Chinese and one who is Samoan (both via Hawaii), and we moved to Hawaii when I was 5, so we've always eaten Asian / Pacific Island food.

I remember my dad telling me about when he was a child and his neighbor's wife was Japanese. One night they were over for dinner and he and his brothers asked for milk and sugar to put on the rice. I thought, "Why would anyone want to put that on rice?" Also, when I was in high school, my boyfriends parents were Eastern European immigrants and they thought it hilarious I wanted soy sauce for my rice. (Of course, they were the ones who put ketchup on _everything_, including toast and ramen, because that's what they thought Americans did.)

I use it for a lot of things, including sauces and marinades as well as just dribbling it on things. I prefer Yamasa, though I don't use the low sodium--probably just out of habit. Sometimes I'll get a special soy sauce if I'm making something that calls for it. I'm lucky because I can run to our huge Asian market (Uwajimaya) for anything I need.

Posted by: seattle | September 27, 2007 1:18 PM

I switched to tamari soy sauce several years ago. I can't remember if it's the low sodium kind. I found it to have a richer flavor.

Posted by: SSMD | September 27, 2007 2:04 PM

Interesting piece on Kikkoman and soy sauce!

The last time I used soy sauce, was just a few days ago for a salmon filet. (If I do say so, I make a very good salmon filet!)

My recipe is so easy and I always get compliments - I put soy sauce in a plastic bag, in a bowl, add quite a bit of crushed garlic, a splash of lemon juice, and about a teaspoon +/- of sugar; marinate for at least 30 minutes at room temperature.

Remove from marinade and place on an oiled metal steak platter; cover with lots of coarsly ground pepper.

Save to cook at the last minute. Heat your broiler, make sure your top rack is the highest it can be.

Before putting in the broiler, place the metal steak platter over a burner on high, leave just until it starts to sizzle, then place in broiler for just 1-1/2 minutes. Serve immediately!

Thanks for chats and blogs!

Posted by: Jody | September 27, 2007 2:14 PM

Kim --- I was born in the Philippines where soy sauce has always been part of the cuisine. The 'national' dish, adobo is meat (pork and/or chicken), soy sauce, vinegar, black peper, lots of garlic and bay leaf. Combine in a pot, simmer until almost dry. Fry a bit in the rendered fat. Add a bit of water if you want it saucy, bring to boil and serve with rice. Prep time is about 5 minutes, but delicious.

Posted by: Leah | September 27, 2007 5:44 PM

Not really soy saucy, but I only get to read the transcripts, wasn't sure how to post elsewhere and had a question about one of today's chat suggestions about saving basil, naming covering it oil and putting it the fridge.

There are warnings not to do this with garlic (botulism!) Is it entirely a garlic issue or should we be wary about this method of preserving other foods too?

Inquiring minds, and all


Posted by: leftcoast portland | September 27, 2007 6:51 PM

Trying to recall if there was a "first time" I had soy sauce got me nostalgic for what my mom always called "chow mein," a dish that always appeared in my house in the week after holiday turkey dinners. Pretty much it was just chunks of turkey and cans of those La Choy (or Kikkoman) "Chinese vegetables," cooked up and served over rice with those crunchy noodles over the top. (And the soy sauce, of course.) It's interesting to think about a dish like this morphing from mainland Chinese cooking through the Chinese-American restaurant experience and ending up in my family's kitchen in what I'm sure most foodies would consider a very dumbed-down version. And even though they'd probably be right, Mom's turkey chow mein still remains my favorite post-Thanksgiving dish.

Posted by: gmg | September 27, 2007 9:17 PM

My family was among the first to be sent to occupied Japan in 1946. The young man who worked for us introduced us to sukiyaki (not sure how to spell). Very thinly sliced beef sauted with vegetables over rice with soy sauce as a condiment. That is still my favorite way to eat rice. He also introduced us to tempura. All delicious and exotic to us as our finances had made my mother a pretty unimaginative cook.

This is quick and good for salmon and meat patties. Equal parts of crushed pineapple and soy sauce simmered and reduced somewhat to a fairly thick sauce. Lately, I have been putting chopped jalapenos and onion in it too. I add soy sauce to soups and have branched out to try many other asian condiments.

Posted by: Dona Dunsmore | September 28, 2007 11:23 AM

P.S. Leah, if you see this--what are the proportions for the soy sauce and vinegar to the meat? This dish sounds like something I had once as a child and really liked.

Posted by: Dona Dunsmore | September 28, 2007 11:26 AM

I love to make that same cucumber salad, Kim! It's one of my staples. So easy to make, so healthy, so tasty.

The last time I used soy sauce was as part of a marinade for some beef to stir-fry.

The first time I remember using soy sauce was at my house. My mom is an adventurous cook, and after eating at a Chinese restaurant decided to learn to cook Chinese-style dishes, too. I think I had it on rice, but I really can't remember. Soy sauce has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

I still use the high-test stuff. The low-sodium tastes fine, but not quite as good. Since neither of us have heart or blood pressure problems, I see no need to switch to low-sodium.

Posted by: DC Cubefarm | September 28, 2007 1:31 PM

Shame that most of the packets of soy sauce you get with carry out contain no soy products. Read the ingredients!

Posted by: Anonymous | September 29, 2007 9:36 AM

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