Research Notes · 01/31/2014

Soy Sauce For Beginners

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Kirstin Chen writes about Soy Sauce for Beginners from New Harvest Books.

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To Soy Sauce Enlightenment and Back

My mother was visiting me in San Francisco, and after a string of heavy restaurant meals, she offered to cook dinner. I was twenty-five and living by myself for the first time, having recently moved out of the four-bedroom Victorian flat I’d shared with a rotating cast of college friends. I adored my shabby Russian Hill studio, with its cracked bathtub and noisy radiator and narrow galley kitchen in which two petite women had to stand side by side.

Mom was making stir-fried kai lan to go with broiled black cod. “Where’s your soy sauce?” she asked.

I stuck my head in the refrigerator and emerged with a bottle of low-sodium Kikkoman.

She frowned. “Not that kind. The Chinese kind.”

I turned the bottle to read the label. “What’s the difference?”

Her face crumpled — so deeply had she been wounded by her only daughter’s ignorance. “One’s Japanese and one’s Chinese. They don’t taste the same at all.”

I shrugged. “Oh.”

She rolled her eyes and took the bottle from me.

I’d grown up in Singapore, where soy sauce could be found in just about every local dish and on the tables of just about every restaurant — in slender-spouted porcelain pots at the better Chinese establishments, in family-sized plastic dispensers at casual eateries. Perhaps because of its ubiquity, I’d never given soy sauce a second thought. After Mom left San Francisco, I went on throwing together stir-fries with that bottle of Kikkoman. After all, I didn’t want it to go to waste.

Two years later, I moved to Boston for graduate school. There I continued to use Kikkoman, the only kind the supermarket stocked. I had more important things to worry about than food, like the novel I was trying to write. Back then, all I knew was that I wanted to tell the story of a young woman in America who is forced to return home to Singapore. Once I started writing, however, I realized I needed to give my narrator Gretchen Lin a job. At first I made her an aspiring writer, a decision that my entire workshop panned. Pushed to come up with a new job, I realized that making Gretchen a part of a family business could potentially heighten drama. I searched for something mundane: a factory that made mannequins, for instance, or maybe the springs in retractable ball point pens. Eventually I settled on a factory that made that ubiquitous Asian condiment, soy sauce.

Days before my workshop deadline, I turned to Wikipedia, and that’s when I discovered soy sauce wasn’t quite as mundane as I’d thought. While all soy sauce consists fundamentally of soybeans, grain and brine, the ratio of these ingredients, the duration of fermentation, the kind of mold cultures employed, and even the temperature at which fermentation takes place all alter the resulting sauce. Yes, the Chinese and the Japanese each have their own versions, but so do the Koreans and the Indonesians, the Filipinos and the Vietnamese. And then there’s the issue of soy sauce grades, based on quality of raw ingredients, fermentation time, use of additives, and a whole slew of other factors.

Clearly, there was plenty I needed to figure out before I could write this factory into my novel. More research was necessary, but I quickly exhausted my sources. The Boston Public Library had exactly one book on soy sauce, The Kikkoman Chronicles, commissioned by the soy sauce corporation. I didn’t know where else to look.

That Christmas, just as I was beginning to despair that I wouldn’t be able to do the research I needed to keep writing, I took a trip home to Singapore. At Sunday lunch with my extended family, I mentioned how much trouble I was having imagining this fictional soy sauce business. My grandmother looked up from her plate. “Soy sauce factory? Go to Tai Hua. They’re still family owned. Ah Kwan knows them very well.”

I called Auntie Kwan, our family friend, who very kindly offered not only to make the introduction, but also to take me to Tai Hua herself.

At the factory, a young mid-level employee who didn’t quite understand what I was doing there gave me a tour. He walked me through the raw-materials shed, where sacks of non-GMO Canadian whole soy beans lay stacked to the ceiling, and past the steaming tanks, where the soybeans were cleaned and cooked. Finally, we arrived in the courtyard that held rows and rows of specially constructed clay jars, in which the mixture of soy beans, wheat and brine was left to ferment for five to six months before being pressed, filtered and bottled. And what struck me most was the smell that permeated the entire place. I’d expected the factory to smell like my bottle of Kikkoman — kind of salty and meaty, with faint metallic undertones. But standing there in that courtyard, I inhaled the scent of something clean and earthy and alive, like a field after a monsoon shower.

At the end of my tour, I was introduced to a young woman — the fourth generation of the family — who had just joined Tai Hua’s marketing department. She told me that back when her great-grandfather, the company founder, was alive, “He always ended tours by serving his signature drink: sprite mixed with light soy sauce.” It was the perfect detail and it had to be in my novel. At that moment I knew I’d be able to go on writing.

Back in Boston, I noticed a burgeoning interest in artisanal soy sauce. The New York Times profiled Blue Grass soy sauce, “microbrewed” using Kentucky-grown soybeans, soft red winter wheat and the purest limestone-filtered Kentucky spring water, and aged in re-purposed bourbon barrels. The specialty market by my apartment started stocking Kishibori shoyu, aged in 100-year old cedar barrels on the Japanese island of Shodoshima in the Seto Inland Sea. I found a Chowhound message board whose members passionately debated the virtues of their favorite soy sauce brands. And peoples’ eyes lit up whenever I told them what my novel was about. “Artisanal soy sauce!” they cried. “I never knew!” I was more motivated than ever to finish my manuscript, and, along the way, to become a soy sauce connoisseur. My fridge held a cache of pricy, exquisite bottles that I saved for special occasions. I made delicate dipping sauces and brushed sheer golden coats over fresh fish. Sometimes, as a special treat, I dribbled a teaspoon over a bowl of plain white rice. And I kept writing. I finished drafts, earned my MFA, signed with my agent, and wrote some more.

Eventually, four and a half years after I first discovered artisanal soy sauce, my agent sold my novel. I sent her a bottle of Kishibori as a thank-you gift. By then, without being entirely aware of it, I’d stopped replenishing my own expensive bottles. Perhaps money was a little tight as I prepared to move back to San Francisco; perhaps I was wary of accumulating items I couldn’t consume in time. Perhaps I’d simply learned everything I’d needed to know about soy sauce, and my mind was on other things. Indeed, I’d started a new novel, set in China in 1958, and I was immersed in memoirs and history books and films from that region and time period. In retrospect, I wonder if the task of writing a novel so consumes me that I can’t move on to a new project without letting go of the old — and all that came with it.

My first week in San Francisco, I stopped in at the neighborhood Whole Foods and bought a bottle of basic Japanese soy sauce. The plan was to pick up something better the next time I was in an Asian market or a specialty store; I have yet to follow through.

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Kristen Chen is the author of Soy Sauce for Beginners. A former Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing, she holds an MFA from Emerson College and a BA from Stanford University. She was born and raised in Singapore and currently lives in San Francisco, where she’s at work on her second novel, set on a tiny island off the coast of southern China in 1958.