As Master Zhang lifted the black conical bamboo hat from the top of the vast earthenware pot, the intense and deeply yeasty aroma of soy sauce filled the air. So this is how real soy sauce smells, I thought. I peered over the rim of the waist-high jar and saw the sky reflected in the inky blackness inside.
Master Zhang turned to the bespectacled soy sauce master Dàshī Wang, and a small smile moved imperceptably across his face, as if to say "this year's brew is very good." Wang Dashi remained implacable, without a flicker of emotion in return. In his thirty years of making naturally fermented soy sauce he's seen everything, and seemed to be saying "We'll see."
Dashi Wang listens as Master Zhang explains
I had come to see the inner workings of one of the few remaining traditional soy sauce makers in China, Qian Wan Long. Master Zhang immediately set the scene by telling us that modern manufacturing processes enable a bottle of soy sauce to be made in only twenty days. Qian Wan Long's soy sauce, on the other hand, takes a minimum of one and a half years to develop its complex flavours the natural way before they will even consider putting it in a bottle. These people were serious about their soy sauce.
Qian Wan Long set up shop in 1880, in the village that was once Zhangjiang but is now part of modern day Pudong in Shanghai. In those days, owing to the need for large amounts of salt in the production of soy sauce, it was necessary to have an Imperial permit or seal to produce it, essentially a royal decree. Incredibly Qian Wan Long is still in possession of theirs, a heavy wooden tablet made from gingko wood and inscribed with their name in faded gold characters.
The seal survived the Cultural Revolution (and the destruction of all things imperial) when a carpenter working for the factory hid it in his home, but only because he thought it was a fine piece of wood. It's the only such soy sauce maker's Imperial seal left in China.
We began the day with a tasting and Master Zhang surprised me by opening a cupboard full of competitor's sauces. All the big names were there - Lee Kum Kee, Kikkoman, and an organic Japanese brand I often buy. We tasted them against Qian Wan Long's two year aged soy sauce, and they all fell short. Very short.
The other sauces tasted 'thin' and very salty with a metallic aftertaste and hints of something not quite right, compared with the full-bodied, intense umami and salt flavour of Qian Wan Long's sauce. I guess it's not often you taste soy sauce before it goes in your food, but next time you cook I suggest you give it a try.
Soy sauce can be made using either the traditional fermented or brewed method (slow), or the modern chemical hydrolysis method (fast, but requires additives - often MSG and artificial colours - to enhance both taste and appearance).
Here's a factual description of how soy sauce is made using the non-brewed, or chemical hydrolysis method (source: madehow.com):
Master Zhang, with occasional nods and tacit agreements from Dashi Wang, then explained their traditional twelve step process. 'It's not a secret recipe' he said, 'everyone here in this factory - and most of them have worked here for two or three generations - knows what goes in the sauce, as you will see. But the difference is that Dashi Wang has the most experience dealing with the small problems, with the weather, and with the different processes, so he can make adjustments.'
Twelve Steps to Making Traditional Fermented Soy Sauce
1.Choose your soybeans.
You have to start with the best soybeans, of course and theirs come from Heilongjiang (Black Dragon River) province, a part of far northern China where the air is clean and the soil is good. Equally importantly, these beans have a stable level of protein, and the breakdown of proteins in the fermenting process is what give the sauce its complexity.
2. Wash and soak the beans
The beans are washed and soaked overnight, then steamed in an enormous tin pressure cooker, the only modern bit of machinery in the whole place.
3. Add wheat and rice flour
The next step is the most crucial - the beans are mixed with a little wheat and rice flour. Over the next year, the fermentation of these wheat and rice starches will help develop the deep colour of the soy sauce and add sweetness to the flavour.
4. Grow some mold
Without mold, there is no soy sauce, and if this step is incorrect or incomplete, the finished product will be inferior. Nearly two years of work down the drain. The bean and flour mixture is spread on broad, flat woven bamboo trays and stacked on shelves in a humid room to develop the soft downy white mold necessary for the beans to ferment and develop flavour.
In the crucial 48 hours needed for the mold to grow, the vagaries of the weather can interfere enormously, so to make sure all goes well, Dashi Wang often sleeps by the baskets, adjusting the humidity or temperature of the room by minute degrees. His long experience means he knows exactly how to control for any unforeseen difficulties.
5. Add brine
Salt is an essential component of soy sauce - it assists in the fermentation and importantly, inhibits bacterial growth and acts as a preservative.
6. Age in earthenware jars
The courtyard of Qian Wan Long is filled with around a hundred heavy earthenware jars, each with a number painted on its side. The soybean mash is placed in the jars covered with a gauze net to keep out insects, and topped with a double-layered bamboo lid.
7. Leave for a year
Outside in the weather, the beans undergo a slow fermentation, stirred from time to time. The bamboo lid keeps out the rain but sun and warmth are essential to the process.
8. Press the beans
After a year the beans are dark brown and smell like soy sauce. They're removed from the earthenware jars and pushed into cloth bags for pressing using this aged wooden press. The clear dark brown liquid is separated from the pulp, which is used as animal feed.
9. Add more brine
More salt water is added to the first-pressed soy sauce to bring the salt up to the requisite level (eventaully about 16% for light soy sauce, and 20% for dark soy sauce).
10. Pour into jars
The soy sauce is not yet ready and needs to be returned to the earthenware jars in the open air for aging.
11. Age a second time
The soy sauce is now aged for six months to two years and reduces in volume. It spends the entire aging process, like the fermentation process, in the outdoors protected by a bamboo lid. As one of Qian Wan Long's staff, Janni, says "It dries under the sun, it sits under the moon and gathers dew. It's like a meditation."
After all this time, 18 months to three years in total, it's ready to be bottled.
At Qian Wan Long Master Zhang said that the last 131 years of making traditional soy sauce has been filled with ups and downs, not least of which is the difficulty of competing with big manufacturers who can make soy sauce cheaply and quickly, and the challenges of getting young people interested in the skill of making soy sauce. Currently, everyone who works there is over fifty years of age.
Suddenly, in 2008, Qian Wan Long's fortunes changed. There was finally recognition that the traditional method they employ to make their artisanal soy sauce is valuable, and they were named an 'Intangible Cultural Heritage' by the Chinese Government. Now, all of their soy sauce is sold before it is bottled, and they have been able to open a restaurant featuring traditional soy-based dishes in Zhangjiang district.
Things are definitely looking up and Master Zhang says 2011 has been "a very auspicious year". Last month, food writer and activist Michael Pollan visited to research fermented food methods.
Master Zhang feels confident that the renewed interest in traditional methods will mean they can find a new generation of soy sauce masters who are as passionate about the craft as they are. At last, people are beginning to understand that this is knowledge worth keeping.
Qian Wan Long
Unfortuately Qian Wan Long is not open to the public (many thanks to SEA for arranging the visit), however everyone can visit their restaurant and enjoy traditional Shanghainese food cooked with their famed soy sauce.
Qian Wan Long Restaurant (Qian Wan Long Da Jiu Dian)
778 Guanglan Lu near Zuchongzhi Lu
Zhangjiang district, Pudong
Open 7 days for lunch and dinner
Ph ＋86 21 58552088