Recap: In Search of Great Soy Sauce, 6.16.21
This program was part of China Institute’s Food & Ideas Festival, exploring modern China through food all June!
In Search of Great Soy Sauce: How a new artisanal movement is sweeping the Chinese food world was the second panel program of China Institute’s Food & Ideas Festival! We assembled the world’s top artisanal soy sauce maker in Taiwan, a Hong Kong-born New York restaurateur, a Shanghai-based food entrepreneur, and a New York City gourmet Taiwanese food retailer to discuss the rise of a new back-to-roots, farm-to-table movement in Chinese cuisine and popular Chinese food trends.
Mara King (MK) is a native of Hong Kong, chef and food professional with 2+ decades of experience. Co-founder of Ozuké, a fermented foods business that distributes throughout the US. She is currently working on a book on Chinese fermentation as well as the second series of People’s Republic of Fermentation that will focus on Taiwan and China’s Eastern provinces. Her TedX presentation and the full series of People’s Republic of Fermentation is on YouTube.
Lisa Cheng Smith (LS) is the founder of Yun Hai Taiwanese Pantry. Smith grew up in Houston Texas in mixed-heritage Taiwanese and American family, and learned to eat good things from her mom and, later on, to cook. She’s a lifelong student of Taiwanese food, culture and language.
Yi-Cheng Hsieh (YH) is a third-generation soy sauce brewer at Yu Ding Xing. He is also the founder and chef of “Future Dining Table,” a series of food events connecting local farmers and consumers with vegetarian/plant-based cuisines, using artisanal soy sauce.
Full Video of In Search of Great Soy Sauce:
Selected Quotes from In Search of Great Soy Sauce:
I grew up in Hong Kong, and my grandfather founded a noodle factory based in Hong Kong in the 1940s. A year and a half ago my uncle sold the noodle business- but it is still in operation!
Dinda Elliott (of China Institute): Then you got heavy into fermentation and traveled to China to learn about traditional methods there.
This is a chef who operates an eco-tourism spot. There is a trend of people in the cities taking local vacations to the countryside to experience where food comes from.
We picked fresh vegetables and made a dinner. There was even freshly pressed tofu waiting for us!
This was a chili bean paste (豆瓣酱，douban jiang). The Sichuanese version is famous because it features chilis. Some will have soy beans, some will not. The fermentation is a two-year process. The beans and chilis are separate for a year and then they are blended in these large vats to ferment for a year. Every single day, the vats are stirred. There is an artisanal version on the rooftop with seven-year-old douban jiang. Every day these vats are opened to the humidity and sunlight!
This is the chef who runs the restaurant next to the factory. It is massive. He boasts that he can serve 6,000 people in one day! This is his famous [fish] dish, featuring the douban jiang from the factory.
This is Grown of the Earth restaurant, one of the first farm-to-table restaurants in the [area]. It is the first with vegetables and animals grown directly for the restaurant and it was hard to convince farmers not to use pesticides. Then the farmers would say ‘Your vegetables will not be perfect, they will have bite marks in it.’ It was a return to organic practices. The old people used to farm in traditional ways, and they remembered how to do it.
DE: So there is a fascinating traditions about people in China going back to their roots.
MK: There are two big bloggers (Li Ziqi 李子柒 and Dianxi Xiaoge 滇西小哥) whose videos on the Chinese YouTube, have a lot of videos and are hugely popular. [They show traditional life in the villages and promote the return to tradition and the farm to table movement]. Anyone who is of age to work in China is off in the city or in the factories. The traditional knowledge in the villages is vast and takes a lifetime to learn because it is practice-based.
These are from a soy sauce factory in Hong Kong. This is from Yuan’s Royal Soy Sauce, founded by a woman in 1974, and it prides itself on being the most expensive soy sauce in HK. The little 125ml bottles sell for $25 each. It is fermented from whole beans and is a hands-on preparation.
Lisa Cheng Smith
For many years, people in Taiwan have been returning to their roots, but it’s important to remember that people have been preserving these traditions for generations. Ozzie’s brewery is third generation! There are many small places that have been doing it. It is like balsamic vinegar production, or olive oil. We are used to seeing northern European top shelf foods, but when I started importing these specialty Taiwan ingredients, no one was selling soy sauce for $20.00.
I function as a connector. In Taiwan, there are endless products to work with.
A lot of people in Taiwan are well versed in hospitality and the art of design, so people are creating new things that are very Taiwanese. This is at MAJI [a specialty food store in Taipei] and the packaging says “Made in Taiwan” with heirloom grains and you can’t buy as a large commodity. It is like Eataly [in New York City].
DE: It gives a sense of pride of place. These places—the villages, the countryside—in mainland China and in Taiwan might have once been considered backward and poor, but now there is a new sense of pride in that. And we can see it is flourishing in Taiwan.
LS: And this is not for Western tourists. This is for people coming from [all across Asia]. Taiwan is known for foods. The Taiwanese wave is the term for all the cultural products that are coming out of Taiwan.
Taiwan has developed a strong generational voice, and that is happening in food as well. From a product point of view, there are always tiny new businesses.
Yi-Cheng Hsieh (YH)
DE: You are the third generation of the family business. What makes your soy sauce so special?
YH: People don’t know how soy sauce is made. We post our daily basics online and share what we are doing. We have one year and a half soy sauce and three years soy sauce.
DE: You are adding new flavors.
YH: I thought we should put a little bit of fun in there. We started to add the pineapple in 2005…the customers give me a lot of encouragement. The second one we made with mulberries.
With pineapple soy sauce, you can use it for dishes with protein, like chicken. You can add it to soup with other flavors. Every year we will produce one new limited-edition flavor.
This is the wood fired stove. And we stir and then we press it. After we soak the fermented black bean, we use the temperature, pressure and heat to cook the black soybeans.
What do you look for to make it a good or bad soy sauce?
LS: Good soy sauce is very much distinguished by its aroma. People describe natural wines as ‘barn-yardy’ and I would say the same for good soy sauce, it has that kind of funk. When you are looking at something hand-crafted, you use it differently, like you may not use it for a big pot of stew.
The Chinese use the hanging cup method, they look at it as you pour it out of the air and the viscosity to see how [good it is].
This program is part of China Institute’s Food & Ideas Festival, a month-long exploration of modern China through food, happening all June!
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