There’s no one right ritual or rule to guide your eating extravaganza on Jan. 23. The Chinese New Year involves a number of great food traditions. Dumplings are reminiscent of coins in ancient China and will thus bring financial luck. Fish also should be eaten because the word in Mandarin for fish, yu, sounds like the word for “surplus.” Many celebrants also like to prepare chicken because its pronunciation in Mandarin, ji, has a similar ring to it as “to gather,” entreating us to reunite with our family.
Perhaps the most critical ingredient for all this culinary celebrating, however, remains unmentioned: soy sauce, the overlooked, forgotten and implicit participant, without which none of this would be possible. Compare the taste of a cheap version of soy sauce, rushed through manufacturing like another lifeless widget, to the taste of an upscale, traditional varietal, whose flavor and appearance went through carefully considered and time-tested production steps. The soy sauce won’t easily be forgotten.
Cooking with soy sauce is a key identifier for Shanghai’s cuisine, so much so that hongshao — or “red cooking,” meaning to cook using the reddish liquid — has become a synonym for the city’s dishes. This bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis is becoming known as a model of modernity, but a company that is producing soy sauce in one corner of the Pudong district relies on traditions that date back 130 years to Imperial China.
A careful, patient process
Master Wang, as Wang Liang Guan, the man in charge of the Shanghai Qian Wan Long Condiment Co. is called, follows his forefathers’ recipe for soy sauce precisely. These efforts have earned his company the prestigious China Intangible Cultural Heritage Award from the Chinese government. There are few soy sauce brands left in the world that still use traditional Chinese production methods.
Like distilling a single-malt whiskey on the Isle of Islay or pressing extra virgin olive oil in the hills of Tuscany, the process of producing soy sauce demands vigilance, experience, patience and carefully selected natural ingredients. Understanding the basics of traditional production can help shoppers choose the perfect soy sauce for a special Chinese New Year’s celebration.
Soy sauce, step by step
Here are the steps to make Shanghai Qian Wan Long Condiment Co.’s award-winning soy sauce:
- Find non-genetically modified soy beans from Dongbei, China’s northeast region. Clean, select and soak them in water.
- Steam the beans in a special machine to cook them thoroughly.
- Remove the cooked beans and let them cool on a plate.
- Add a special fungus, which is proprietary to the producer and has been preserved and used for decades. Specialty manufacturers say this effects the flavor like a good yeast affects the taste of a bread.
- Combine, then place mixture onto a bamboo plate (it must be bamboo to lend flavor).
- Put the plate on a shelf in a temperature-controlled room with a precise humidity level. The next two- or three-day waiting period is crucial, so Master Wang stays overnight to supervise the fungus growth. He is especially wary that the room temperature might kill the fungus and overcook the soy mix. Every hour, Wang stirs the fungus mixture and checks on the temperature. His years of experience have given him the skills necessary to “read” the paste and make adjustments accordingly.
- The result is a yellow-green colored-fungus, which is transferred into a huge clay pot. It must be clay, otherwise the flavor won’t be right. The pots at Qian Wan Long vary in age, from new to more than 100 years, and come from Yixin in Zhejiang, a province with its own rich culinary history neighboring Shanghai.
- Add natural salt, then mix with water and fungus according to different recipes. Let the huge clay pot sit outside in the sun for up to one year. At night, the pots must be covered with bamboo so rain or insects don’t drop in. Morning dew leads to condensation, which is allowed to mix with the fermenting material. Wang must stir the very thick soy “jam” using a wood stick, so all the elements of the jam will move around in the clay pot.
- Once evaporation has reduced the “jam” by about 10 percent to 20 percent, put it out into cotton bags.
- Using a 100-year-old wooden machine, the liquid “juice” is pressed out of the jam.
- The first liquid from the soy sauce press is the best quality. The second and third are still good, though the flavor will not be as strong. It’s like tea: The first or second cups consumed after steeping have the strongest flavor.
- After the liquid has been pressed out of the jam, the liquid is transferred into an empty clay pot and left to dry once again. This process can take six months to one year. The six-month version is made into light soya sauce, which is used to cook vegetables. Older versions are considered dark soy sauce and are best with pork and beef or other strong flavored meats.
- When bottled, the distillers clean all the bacteria from the soy sauce, though in the past the bacteria were left in the liquid, making preservatives unnecessary. People used to buy directly from the clay pot and at home. If they noticed any strange fungus growing on top, they simply skimmed and reheated it, and then continue to use it.
To purchase a bottle, you’ll have to check the website for FieldsChina and ask for international delivery from China. (A bottle will cost about $7, plus shipping). To learn more and about ways to visit Qian Wan Long Condiment Co., you can arrange tours with Shanghai Pathways. If left to your own devices to identify a decent soy sauce in your home supermarket, the easiest way is to check the ingredients label on the back of the bottle: If it contains more than just salt, water, soy and occasionally sugar — for example, food coloring, thickeners, preservatives or MSG — then this is the mass-produced and chemically-influenced kind better avoided.
Zester Daily contributor Manuela Zoninsein is a Brazilian-American reporting on sustainable food, travel and business from Shanghai. A former dining editor for Time Out Beijing, her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, ClimateWire and Newsweek. She writes about her passion for healthy, interesting and sustainable food at manuelasweb.com.
Photos, from top:
Soy-braised pork ribs at Qian Wan Long restaurant.
Wang Liang Guan, known as Master Wang, oversees soy sauce production at Shanghai Qian Wan Long Condiment Co.
An artist’s rendering depicts the traditional soy sauce-making process.
Credits: Manuela Zoninsein