Soy sauce is one of the most indispensable seasonings in Chinese, Korean and Japanese food; it’s popular across much the rest of Asia, and even the Americas. It is typically made with a combination of soy and wheat, and is either fermented or chemically processed. It’s typically distinctly salty, umami, with a fermented flavour. It is used in cooking, or as a table condiment. There are a large number of varieties and styles of soy sauce, some of them quite different.Within and between Chinese, Japanese and Korean food, we could categorise dozens of different kinds of soy sauce. But, for the sake of sanity, we’ll focus on just three here. Japanese and Chinese soy sauces are often quite different (Japanese is sweeter, and contains more wheat), but for most intents and purposes, we interchange them.
You can probably get by with a single, generic soy sauce, but many recipes specify either light or dark soy sauce, and they’re quite distinct. It’s worth keeping a few different kinds on hand, if you cook a lot of Asian food.
Light soy sauce:
Lighter in color, thinner in texture, it’s also saltier and more flavourful. It’s not pictured here (we ran out), but it’s the more commonly used sauce in Chinese food.
Dark (Chinese) soy sauce:
A lot of dark soy sauces have additional sugar, and can be quite thick. They’re used especially when you want to add sweetness and colour to a dish. Don’t use it unless dark soy sauce is specified.
Dark (Japanese) soy sauce:
This is probably the most typical soy sauce for Americans, and accounts for most Japanese soy sauce. It’s darker, and less intense than light soy sauce. It makes probably the best all-purpose soy sauce.
Tamari is a soy-only (wheat free) Japanese sauce, that’s probably more typical of the original soy. Kecap manis is an Indonesian, sweet, dark, and seasoned soy sauce. The word kecap, incidentally, refers to a wide variety of different sauces (particularly fermented fish sauce), and is the origin of the English word ketchup.