Gastropology 101

Soy Sauce 101

by Edwan S. Photography Friedchillies on Sat, October 10, 2015

Soy sauce is something we eat everyday. From a few drops into your soft boiled eggs, to stir-fries and marinades... what would we do without it? We had the chance to visit a soy sauce factory during the course of our filming and came back enlightened.

The black gold of cooking...

Soy sauce or kicap as it's widely known in this country, is a pantry staple. In every household in Malaysia is a bottle or two of soy sauce lying in wait to give much needed oomph and savouriness to our cooking. So how is soy sauce - really good soy sauce - made? The Friedchillies team visited the Enaq soy sauce factory in Johor to find out.

Soy sauce's unique salty, sweetish and umami flavour plays nice with a plethora of local dishes from stir-fries to heartier fare like roast chicken. We even drizzle it straight from the bottle onto our rice and noodles, or mix it up with fiery chillies to make a dip.

Ayam kicap - a classic local dish with soy sauce as a starring ingredient

Soy sauce is so ubiquitous in our cuisine, yet we really don't give much thought into it. But at the Enaq factory, we were shown how this black gold comes to your table.

It starts with soya bean, naturally. More importantly, it has to start with really good soya beans. Enaq gets their soya beans from Canada. They painstakingly made sure to find a supplier who grow quality beans that most importantly, are not genetically modified. They wanted natural, quality soya beans.

Premium quality, GMO-free soy beans

The soya beans are first soaked in water for up to a couple of hours to soften them up. After this initial soaking, the beans are washed several times in cold running water to get rid of impurities that could affect the final product. All this is done by hand to ensure quality and thoroughness. Then the soya beans go into a big industrial steamer (known as an injector) to cook for 45 minutes.

These are beans that have been freshly steamed..

After cooking is when the magic begins. The cooked beans are then mixed with a mixture of flour and a culture known as Aspergilus. This mixture will develop wonderful funky flavours during the fermentation process. And fermentation, dear friends, is what sets apart really good soy sauce from the pretenders.

Soy beans ready for fermentation.

The beans are left to ferment in an airy room, ensuring good air circulation so the culture gets to work its magic into the beans. This process can take up a few days. Once the beans are ready, they're transferred into giant vats and salted water is poured in. Now we wait... for up to 6 months! In that time period, the beans break down, releasing its natural sugars and flavours into the liquid and in the process, turning a dark jet-black. This mixture is left to sit those 6 months for a really long and slow fermentation process.

Those giant vats are filled with soy sauce in various stages of fermentation.

From time to time, the covers of the vats are opened to expose it to sunlight. The sun's rays help develop the flavour even more. The people at Enaq did say they could short cut the process; but they wanted to make the best soy sauce. And the best soy sauce needs time.The vats are all labelled according to when each batch of sauce (called 'air kicap' in the factory) was made. When we were there, some of the vats have been fermenting for 3 months, some even more. Of course, there were also vats of soy sauce that were ready to go to the next step.

Checkout the date: still a few months left before ready!

The sauces that served enough fermentation time are then piped into processing vats that stir and mix the liquid. To this mixture, the final product can now be made.

These are the mixing machines that make the three kinds of soy sauce at Enaq.

Enaq produces three types of soy sauce at the moment: a sweet soy sauce (lemak manis), regular (lemak masin) and a spicy sweet soy sauce (manis pedas). The sweet and regular soy sauces differ in the amount of sugar used, with the sweet one obviously having more sugar added.

One is sweet...

.... one is salty...

All soy sauces are flavoured with caramel that also gives it a more viscous texture. For the spicy soy sauce, fresh birds-eye chillies and garlic are added to give it a unique taste.

... and the last one is spicy!

The sauces are then bottled in a semi-automated process. A worker prepares the bottles onto a sanitizing wash, and then transfers them to the dispensers where the soy sauce is put in.

A high pressure sanitizing wash shoots into the bottle.

That's soy sauce going in the bottle.

He works with 6 bottles at a time. Once the sauces are in the bottle, another worker caps them with a simple hand-cranked machine.

Capped and ready to be labeled.

The bottles are then labelled accordingly before being packed into cardboard boxes and shrink-wrapped. Once they're done, the thousands of bottles of soy sauce are ready for distribution throughout shops, supermarkets and hypermarkets in Malaysia.

Ready for Malaysia!

We caught up with Hj. Jaffar, owner of Enaq. Eloquent and soft-spoken, he talked about how he wanted to produce the best soy sauce that, more importantly was 100% Muslim owned and Halal.

Hj. Jaffar, the brains behind Enaq Soy Sauce.

"Enaq is our effort to make the best soy sauce on the market. That is why we have probably the longest processing period to make soy sauce. We did blind tests comparing several other brands of soy sauce on the market to Enaq’s. I can say almost 10 out of 10 times, Enaq's soy sauce came out on top," he said.

"Truly good soy sauce is unique," Hj. Jaffar continued. "The moment you open the bottle, take a whiff. It shouldn't smell 'chemical' like. It should be fragrant, appetizing. It should smell of soy sauce."

We did a little impromptu soy sauce tasting session while we were at the factory. The 'kicap lemak manis' was sweet but not overtly so, and it would do well in dishes like Ayam Masak Kicap or Steamed Fish with Soy Sauce. The 'kicap lemak masin' was more assertive, and is a great soy sauce to use in stir-fries or more robust dishes such as Ayam Pongteh. The 'kicap pedas' was great: the flavour was sweet with a kick from the chillies and garlic. It makes an excellent dip for meats and seafood, or have it like the Johoreans do: with fried bananas! All of the soy sauces possessed a deep, intense savouriness and umami and tastes clean.

Choose your size...

We enjoyed the time we spent at the Enaq factory. The processes were meticulous and the workers clean and thorough in their jobs. Soy sauce is such a simple and universal condiment and ingredient, one that we usually take for granted. But now that we know what it takes to make a really good one (6 month fermentation!!!), we'll never look at a bottle of soy sauce - and the black gold inside - the same way again.