A Very Brief History of Soy Sauce


You know it, you love it. You use it with fish, you use it with beef. You use it with chicken and you use it with rice. You use it with eggs, you use it with vegetables and you use it with countless other meals. Yes, it’s the good old soy sauce, without which many of your favorite meals would be nothing but a heap of mixed ingredients on a plate with no soul or personality whatsoever.

So let us throw a glance at the history of this wonder that brought taste to our mouths, and joy to our hearts for many years.

Etymology(Without the Dull Bits)


The term for soy sauce in China is Jiangyou, which means “the liquid extracted from jiang.” The other term -which is not used as frequently as Jiangyou- is Dou-yu, meaning “the liquid extracted from (soy) beans.” The Japanese word for the sauce is Shoyu(pronounced SHOW-yu).

The English and American terms soy and soya came from the Japanese word Shoyu and German Soja.

Place of Birth


China. Let’s not forget it. Again: China. Yes, let’s get this straight now because I know many people are confused about the origins of soy sauce. The soy sauce was originated in ancient China. Not in Korea, not in Japan or Indonesia. By the way, China is -as one would guess- also the home of the soybean. Soybeans were first domesticated in North China around 11th century BC.



All right, now we are in ancient China, let’s meet the ancestor of soy sauce. It is widely believed -and documented- that soy sauce was originated from jiang. Jiang was a type of seasoning produced from various preserved foods. People used to wrap their food in salt to preserve them for a long time, and the liquid byproducts of this was used as a seasoning for other meals. You could produce different types of jiang from preserved meat, seafood, grain or vegetables. And of course, you could produce jiang from the soybeans. The first mention of jiang(quite likely made from meat or fish) in history goes back to 300 BC and the first mention of soybean jiang appeared around AD 535.

Let’s Get Technical


The method to produce traditional Chinese soy sauce was based on the method for making old soybean jiang. Basic ingredients were soy beans, wheat, salt and water. The cooked soybeans were mixed with wheat flour and water in large earthenware pots. Then this mixture was left outside to get sunlight(open at daytime, covered at nights) and stirred once or twice a day. The effect of sun is crucial here, since it accelerates the fermantation process and deepens the aroma. After 3-6 months of this, a thin strainer or sieve(made of bamboo) was used to eventually get the liquid out of the mixture. The produced liquid was left out on sun again for a week or two, then it was ready to be used or sold. While this traditional method is still used today, not all soy sauces are made like this. A lot of the cheap soy sauces are not fermented at all. They are synthesized from HVP(hydrolyzed vegetable protein) mixed with hydrochloric acid. Although HVP can be produced from soy, it can be made from lots of other materials too. So my advice is to look for a naturally fermented sauce when buying.

Light vs Dark


Apart from countless variations out there(containing mushrooms, pepper, shrimps or eggs) there were two basic types of traditional Chinese soy sauce: Light and Dark. The light sauce, made from the first drawing of the process described above, was considered to be the best quality, while the dark sauce was the production of subsequent fermantations and drawings after producing the initial light one.

Going Abroad With Buddhism


As you would guess, the sauce did not stay inside the Chinese borders forever. Earliest mention of soybean paste and soybean sauce in Korea goes back to AD 683, while the earliest mention of the sauce in Japan dates back to AD 775. Many think that the product was travelled from China along with the spread of Buddhism.

Some Facts

I will leave you with some facts about soy sauce:

  • It is the most widely used soyfood in the West.
  • Many people use it in place of salt.
  • In West, it is used to marinate the meat before grilling.
  • Used with ice cream!
  • It is better to store it in the fridge.

So there you are! I hope this little bundle of information helped you to get  more intimate with this wonderful creation. May the soy sauce continue to honour our tables with it’s brown color, rich flavor and deep aroma!

To write this article, I performed an exceptional act of investigative journalism by writing “History of soy sauce” to Google, and by doing so, I stumbled upon this vast source on soy: http://www.soyinfocenter.com/. If you are interested in further research, I suggest you take a look at it.

Photo Credits:


Alberto Carrasco-Casado

Scott Robinson

Rory MacLeod

Nicolas Raymond

Martin Pilkington

One Comment
  1. July 24, 2015 |

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