Some people are obsessed with having home made everything, and that industrially produced foods will never live up to home cooking. But it’s a ludicrous obsession, sure I’d prefer to make my own final dish than buy a ready meal (though seriously, what’s wrong with a ready meal?). But when they insist that you should make your own hummus, harissa, or even puff pastry then it’s going a bit far. Don’t get me wrong I love trying to make stuff myself, but sometimes you have to admit that a factory will be able to do it better. No matter how good you think your kneading is, unless you’re a robot with mechanical arms, you’ll never beat a machine. Also where would you draw the line, you want to make your own sourdough, fine, but you’re not going to mill the flour yourself, right? In fact many foods would be totally impossible to make entirely from scratch.
This made me wonder. There are a ton of ingredients I use regularly in the kitchen, but I’ve no idea how they got there (apart from buying them). I realised that I don’t have the first clue how sap turns into maple syrup, how miso is made, or even what a sesame plant looks like. So in order to rectify the situation I want to chart the road to the kitchen for some of these surprisingly mysterious items.
You need only four main ingredients to make all the complexity of flavour found in soy sauce: soya beans, wheat, salt, and water. How these can make something as amazing as soy sauce is down to process, time and as with most of the tastiest foodstuffs, micro-organisms.
First off the soya beans are soaked then steamed, and wheat is roasted and crushed. These are mixed with a mould called Aspergillus Orzae, this mixture, called koji, is left to incubate for 3 days. Of course to make something as complex as soy sauce, mould isn’t enough, clearly you’ll need some yeast and bacteria. These along with salt and water are added to the koji to make a mixture called moromi.
The moromi is left to ferment in temperature controlled tanks for several months, as the prepubescent soy sauce matures the mould breaks down proteins and fats, the yeast produces alcohol, the bacteria acid and lots of other tasty molecules are made as byproducts. When the flora and fauna of the microscopic world have done their business the soy sauce is pressed from the moromi (apparently sometimes using improbable towers of canvas see video below). The sauce is left to clarify for three days, letting the sediments fall, and the oils rise to the surface, The good stuff in the middle is then ready to be siphoned off, pasteurized to kill any remaining micro-organisms, and then the sauce is ready for your table!