Thursday 23 April 2015

Dark Brew

I was on about Irish soda bread the other day and "Dark Brew" might, in that context, bring Guinness to mind but I'm going further afield than Dublin today.  The far side of the world indeed, to talk about Soy Sauce. In my youth soy sauce was utterly foreign.  I went to a Chinese restaurant about half a dozen times before I was 18, but we never had soy sauce at home where the only available added flavorings were salt, pepper and mustard; and maybe an ancient tub of curry powder.  Only recently, I've taken to adding soy sauce to a wide variety of food to give things a bit of colour and flavour. What flavour?  Umami! which, in my soy-free youth, hadn't been discovered as the fifth taste after salt sweet sour and bitter. The flavour umami depends a lot on the presence of glutamate, the salt of glutamic acid [D, glu] one of the 20 amino acid building blocks of proteins.  You will have met it, maybe in excess, as mono-sodium glutamate MSG in the Chinese restaurants we all go to more often nowadays.  Soy sauce is loaded with glutamate because it is, like bread and beer, a fermentation product. Unlike the yeasty staples of the Western world, soy sauce depends on a different species of fungus called Aspergillus oryzae or possibly A. sojae.

The ingredients of beer and bread, even without Reinheitsgebot purity regulations are really simple but in the East, the Aspergillus molds are given a more complex cocktail to work on, consisting of cooked soya beans Glycine max, [roasted] wheat Triticum aestivum (occasional barley Hordeum vulgare) and some sort of brine.   Often the fermenting brew is more complex too, including some lactic acid bacteria LABs, some regular yeast and, in some parts of the world including Korea, some Bacillus subtilis.  The brine must be there to inhibit the growth of other microbes, because LABs are often quite salt-tolerant. All these species will have a complex variety of genes and their enzymatic products which have been selected over hundreds of years to give a product that is a) safe to consume and b) tasty.  As a new-comer to soy-sauce eating, I just go to the Asia Market and buy 750ml of Pearl River Bridge Light Soy Sauce which is manufactured in Southern China and shipped over the whole world, it is tasty but also cheap.

Cheap suggests that it is made in a chemical process rather than by slow fermentation. If you want something that is rich in glutamate for the umami kick, you can get there really quickly by adding a protease [or even 1M caustic soda NaOH] to a mash of soya beans which will break down the proteins into their component amino acids, some of which will be glutamate.  We carry out a similar chemical attack in Ireland to make soda bread (as I am doing even at this moment to warm the kitchen) rather than a slower fermentative process with yeast that will have time to develop some subtlety of flavour.  In all manufacturing process, but perhaps particularly in the food industry, time is money, and less time is more profit. The several new start-ups in Ireland making various high-alcohol beverages need to be heavily capitalised because their first batch of product is required to sit on a shelf (supposedly developing wonderful flavour) for several years before it can be sold as "Irish Whiskey".

A feel-good story is circulating in the East and now on the blogosphere about a soy sauce company that was destroyed in the Fukushima tsunami and has now after four years started selling the same old product which they are rebranding as Yagisawa 'Miracle' Soy sauce. The current CEO, Michihiro Kono [L with a bottle of the miracle], is the ninth generation of this family firm that has been producing soy sauce for more than 200 years.  One of the things that people learned the hard way in Hurricane Sandy and in the 2011 tsunami is the importance of maintaining back-ups.  Kono-san's whole factory, including his precious and meticulously maintained microbiological stock strains, was filled to the brim with a salty, oily sludge from which nothing could be recovered. But he had left some vials of these stocks with a local university medical school, where they were pursuing some woo-wah theory about the anti-carcinogenic properties of the soy sauce or its ingredients.  The laboratory was similarly inundated and its contents swept away but one of their workers providentially found the carton of Yagisawa material safe-and-well some distance away.

Like Irish Whiskey, Yagisawa is a quality product that must sit tight for 2 years before being sold, and it has only started selling in the last few months, but sales are recovering well with a different direct-to-consumer marketing strategy it looks like new markets will open up. They are supplying one toney Parisian restaurant. It is particularly feel-good because the company kept all its surviving staff (one died in the waves) on the payroll when they had nothing to sell and contributed in all sorts of ways to the local community in the wake of the disaster.  Maybe you'd like to support it, too?  A crowd-funding site raised $1.5million to getting the company back on its feet. More deets. Same deets. More.

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