Between sips: The soy sauce express

Soy sauce makes for a great marinade and pre-cooking seasoning for raw ingredients

‘Fernweh’ is a German word, which describes the feeling of missing a place you have never been to. There could be no word more apt to convey how I feel about Japan every single day. But, in my defence, I have personally and stoically deferred my travel to this great nation till I can speak the language because, I feel, that to truly capture the essence of the land and its people, communication will be key and English may just not be enough.

So I sit patiently and watch from a distance, following up on everything they do, even more so when eventful occasions take place on local shores. From the launch of high-end designer brands to the more commonplace ones making an entry, nothing goes unmarked. Recently, when the most reputed soy sauce brand in the world, Kikkoman, landed officially on Indian shores, I just had to attend the proceedings, even if virtually and from 1,600 km away.

Soy sauce is a natural all-purpose seasoning, a condiment made by fermenting soya beans along with water, wheat and salt, using the honjozo method, the way it has been done by the brand over its 300-plus-year history. The process takes a few months, slowly evolving the brew into this special seasoning. There is literally nothing else added to it and, yet, the resulting sauce packs in a heady range of flavours, from mildly spicy to sweet, salty and sour. You may catch a touch of coffee, a lick of vanilla, florals hints, all packed in with generous lashings of Umami, that fifth element, which can only best be described as a wholesome and rich sensation that envelopes the mouth and enhances all the other notes present. In a good soy sauce, the sum is greater than the parts, so don’t worry if you can’t tell each individual note (Kikkoman last counted 300!), but just relish the overall harmony of this natural blend. All in all, it still seems like quite a tall order for a humble table condiment.

That said, soy sauce is also a great marinade and pre-cooking seasoning for raw ingredients. The sauce, although traditionally limited to Japanese (and Chinese, Korean and other south-east Asian) cuisine, has now found application in other places around the world and it’s one of the most established brands in the United States, a curiously unlikely market. Not just that, even in Europe, chefs in Michelin-star restaurants have found it to be a harmonious addition to their brand of flavour, introducing hitherto untried elements. At home, it’s an easy way to spruce up an otherwise bland dish irrespective of the cuisine.

In the last century, the brand has managed a successful foray in over 100 countries, so the entry in India isn’t a mere afterthought. Harry Hakuei Kosato, director and representative of Kikkoman India, understands the richness and historical implication of the local cuisines and is in no rush to invade and conquer the subcontinent. Indian cuisines are a rich heritage because they have always embraced the novel and untried, finding ways to give it expression in their own unique way. Be it chillies, tomatoes, carrots or even potatoes, all these weren’t native to Indian cooking, but today, we can’t think of a meal without them. It’s this sentiment of assimilation that is common to both the Indians and the Japanese, which helps traditions survive and evolve at the same time. So the brand’s approach will be slow and sincere. They initially partnered with some top chefs to show how Kikkoman can be used to get our collective imaginations fired and, going ahead, it will be down to us, experimenting with the sauce and finding new ways to incorporate it into our quotidian cooking rituals over time rather than anything forced or contrived.

I was fortunate enough to meet Harry-san during his brief Delhi visit. He asked me to try some plain vanilla ice cream with a dash of Kikkoman soy sauce. Salad dressings, barbecue marinade, pizza topping, instant noodle enhancer, I thought I was doing fairly well already, but creamy desserts and soy sauce… mmmmm.

So what will be your ticket to the soy sauce express?

The writer is a sommelier

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