When you are making a rice dish from East Asia, what kinds of condiments do you have on the table? What ingredients do you add during the cooking process?
There are probably many that spring to mind, but there is only one I can think of that universally applies to any savory dish from this region: soy sauce.
Soy sauce is a flavor bomb inside any dish that contains it.
Even just a thimble full of the stuff on top of plain old rice packs a punch and can leave you chowing down on a rice bowl before even getting to the other dishes lined before you.
Most savory dishes can be improved with just a dash of soy sauce.
Surely with such variety in application and the abundance of soy sauce available, anyone can use it no matter what diet they are on, right?
Well, that’s the question, really, especially when it comes to vegan cuisine and cooking.
Sometimes there are things added to sauces, condiments, or dishes that have animal products in them without realizing and, with that said, it stands to reason we would ask: Is soy sauce really vegan?
Today, we are going to look at this question in detail and find out the answer for you.
What Is Soy Sauce?
Soy sauce is a liquid condiment that is made from fermented soybeans. First, the soybeans are soaked in water and boiled until cooked, at which point some wheat is roasted and crushed.
Then, equal amounts of crushed wheat and soybeans are mixed together, before mold cultures are added to the mixture or the mixture is left in an environment where it can gather mold spores on its own.
There are many different mold cultures that can be introduced to create a soy sauce, but the most common variety to use is of the fungi family Aspergillus, from which three different soy sauces can be created.
Once the mold cultures have been added, brewing the sauce can begin. For wet fermentation, the grain mixture is mixed with salt brine in a specific amount and for dry fermentation, the mixture is mixed with coarse salt.
Over an extended period of time, the mold breaks down the proteins in the mixture into amino acids and protein fragments, while the starches are broken down into simple sugars. This mixture is then left to age and ferment further, which causes the sugars to become lactic acid and yeast.
This further fermentation gives the soy sauce its unique flavor. After the fermentation, this mixture is pressed through clothes or sieves to separate the solids and the liquids, with the liquids being taken for further processing.
The liquid soy is then pasteurized and bottled, ready to be used in cooking. This process gives the soy sauce huge amounts of umami and is an essential part of anyone’s pantry.
Soy sauce has been one of the key parts of east Asian cooking for thousands of years. Originally, it was made in China alongside soy paste and has been around since the Han Dynasty.
It is considered to have started as a way to stretch out the use of salt, which was an expensive commodity in the past, and with a naturally salty sauce like soy around, it gave common folk a delicious flavoring without having to use precious salt.
The spread of soy sauce from China is thanks to the spread of Buddhism, which brought soy products to the countries where its missionaries. These missionaries often adhered to a strict vegetarian diet, which relied on soy products to provide them with the necessary protein they needed to survive.
This led to growing popularity for the product around East Asia, especially in Japan and Korea.
Soy sauce only came to the western world in the 15th and 16th centuries, when the Dutch East India Company exported it from Japan through Indonesia, although it took a lot longer in other countries and only really came to the US after the influx of Chinese immigrants to America in the 19th century, at which point it exploded in popularity.
So, Is It Vegan?
In its traditional pure form, yes, it definitely is vegan.
In the modern mass-produced form, well, that is a little more tricky to answer. The problem lies in the lactic acid used in the fermentation process.
Most lactic acid used in the production of foods is taken from plants, such as beetroot, and so is completely fine for vegans to eat.
However, so big brands of soy sauce have traditionally been tested on animals and are a bit sparing with information regarding where their ingredients come from, especially lactic acid.
This doesn’t mean they use lactic acid from animals still, but the history of brands like Kikkoman and Shiso is spotty at best, especially with regard to animal testing, and so it is a bit difficult to trust them without written confirmation.
Unfortunately, the only way to know for sure it is vegan, excluding if the manufacturer has assured people on the label of their product, is to contact the manufacturer themselves, which with big brands may be difficult, but smaller brands will be more accommodating.
Varieties Of Soy Sauce
There are many varieties of soy sauce that come from different countries all over the world.
However, there are only two countries where the product is its own industry and used in most meals: China and Japan. Surprisingly, there are quite large differences between these two countries’ products.
Chinese Soy Sauce:
- Light Soy Sauce – This sauce is thinner and more delicate than the others, but it has a good aroma and a salty flavor.
- Dark Soy Sauce – This sauce is darker and left to mature for longer. It has caramel added to the mixture and is sweeter than the lighter variety.
- Thick Soy Sauce – This soy sauce has sugar and wheat added during the fermentation process. It is thick and very sweet in flavor.
Japanese Soy Sauce:
Usukuchi – The sauce is the lightest of the soy sauces, but it is still saltier than light soy sauce.
Temari – This sauce is very dark and thick with an intense flavor but with less salt than the others.
Shoyu – Shoyu is the most flavorful of all the soy sauces and is used as a cooking sauce most of the time.
Soy sauce is a great condiment to add to your pantry.
For vegans, it is a great condiment to add to your pantry, if you know where the ingredients come from. This sounds like a problem but isn’t as big of an issue as you might think.
Bigger brands may be secretive about where they source their ingredients, but many smaller brands or mum and pop brands will give you the ingredients freely and will be just thankful for you purchasing from them.
As such, don’t discard soy sauce immediately from your vegan diet, because once you’ve found a good brand that uses zero animal products you can just keep buying it over and over.
Your tongue will thank you for the bountiful flavor that it adds to your cuisine.
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