More Than a Condiment

Soy sauce is the traditional taste ambassador of Vietnamese and Asian cuisine.

Soy sauce is an indispensable condiment for Asians and Asian food lovers. It is the first seasoning to in any Asian kitchen, whether Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Korean or Thai. And it is a source of national pride for each country. If it is the soul of the Japanese cuisine or the essence of Chinese food, it is the taste of the memories for a Vietnamese family dinner. If it is absent, adults will find the food tasteless, children won’t eat and the dinner is disappointing.

Soy sauce was originally created in China more than 2,000 years ago during the Western Han dynasty. It quickly spread to other East Asian and Southeast Asian countries, and gradually became an essential seasoning. Today, soy sauce is popular in Western countries and widely sold in most supermarkets and Asian food stores. For those who are far away from their homeland, seeking the flavours of their traditional dishes is a top priority. Soy sauce is a great comfort to foreign residents in strange lands.

Soy sauce is made by fermenting soybeans and wheat in jars for three to six months. A variety of processing methods and ingredients create different flavours and colours from region to region and country to country. Yeast, temperature and humidity are important factors.

There is no record of when soy sauce came to Vietnam. But, according to the book History of Soy Sauce from 160 CE to 2012, by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi (Soyinfo Center, 2012), it was eaten with tofu by monks who came to spread Buddhism in the 3rd century AD. In Vietnam, soy sauce has different names in each region.

Heath Effects

  • Some recent studies show that soy sauce has potential benefits for the digestive tract because its fermentation process can create certain unique carbohydrates that help support the growth of friendly bacteria in the large intestine.
  • Soy source is also a source of vitamin B3 and minerals including iron, phosphorous and manganese.
  • Soy sauce is high in sodium which is essential for the body to function properly, but it is lower in sodium than table salt, so it may be used as part of a healthy diet rich in whole foods. However, avoid using large amounts to reduce the risk of high blood pressure.

Southern people call it nước tương, or sometimes tàu vị yểu which comes from Vietnamese of Chaozhou origin living in Saigon. The term nước tương is different in Northern Vietnam, and refers to tương bần which is a paste fermented from sticky rice, soybeans, water and salt. Therefore, the term xì dầu should be used when buying soy sauce at grocery stores in the North.

Since the Vietnamese family dinner is imbued with cultural identity, soy sauce is used differently in each region. Northern or Central people often eat rice with boiled vegetables or salted and fermented fish so they select a lighter version. Southern people like a salty sweet taste often use the dark, thick, concentrated soy sauce to season food before cooking. Soy sauce is the secret to create a strong aroma, and an attractive colour. It gives consistency to typical Southern dishes such as fish cooked with sauce, grilled copper fish, and caramelized pork and eggs. Vietnamese also often use soy sauce as a main condiment for dishes of Chinese origin.

A few decades ago, when most Vietnamese lived in difficult economic conditions, soy sauce was considered a delicacy. Steamed rice or plain bread with soy sauce could match the flavour of viands. The salty taste of soy sauce became the unforgettable taste of hard times. Memories of the past combined with many indescribable emotions are triggered every time Vietnamese savour soy sauce. These memories and spiritual values create a greater value for the condiment. A bowl of soy sauce with a few slices of chili is essential at the Vietnamese family dinner, and is a feature of cultural identity.

How to Store

  • Opening bottles of soy sauce does not reduce the delicious flavour. For longer life, store in the refrigerator.  Avoid putting soy sauce in a place with high humidity and direct sunlight.

All family members share the soy sauce bowl placed in the middle of the table, pouring and dipping food as they chat and eat. These moments are simple and precious. The condiment creates an appetite for dishes, accepted by all ages and people from different cultures. People from different generations, ethnic groups and regions can come together and learn from each other through cuisine.

Soy sauce is a symbolic flavour of love, and an ambassador of traditional taste for East Asian cuisine and that of Vietnam in particular. Adults and children enjoy it, as do Eastern and Western people. Soy sauce is produced in different ways for different tastes and each type is unique. A delicious soy sauce consistently possesses the typical fermented soybeans’ taste.

This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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