The sleepy town where shoyu was born, the ubiquitous soy sauce in Japanese cuisine | World

Carefully climbing the building’s steep staircase, I follow Tsunenori Kano to the floor of the brewhouse in Kadocho, his family’s 180-year-old soybean factory.

The space is dark and eerily quiet, save for the creaking of my footsteps on the old wooden planks set between the soy sauce containers. The soy sauce was now at rest, it was late winter, but it still filled the air with an appetizing scent.

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Around me, a thick crust of mushrooms covered the ceiling, falling off the rafters and growing along the walls.

“They are bacteria and yeasts, they are of construction age,” says Kano, who is part of the factory’s seventh generation. According to him, “they provide the authentic flavor”.

I was in Yuasa, a quiet Japanese port located in a bay on the west coast of the Kishu Peninsula in Wakayama Prefecture, on a journey to learn about the ancient origins of the “Holy Grail” of Japanese cuisine: soy sauce, or shoyu.

The origin dates back to the 13th century

Soy sauce is arguably the most important condiment in Japanese cuisine. Its rich, deep and balanced flavor, both sweet and salty (known as “umami”), gives almost any food the satisfaction of a delicious taste. Its uses range from a small amount of sushi to larger amounts in stewed noodles and French fries, as well as the distinctive flavor of bright dishes like teriyaki.

In 2017, the Japanese Cultural Affairs Agency declared Yuasa a heritage of Japan, as it is the birthplace of Japanese soy sauce. Shoyu is believed to have been produced there for the first time in the late 13th century.

Tsunenori Kano: Seventh Generation of the Kadocho Soy Sauce Factory – Photo: TOM SCHILLER / BBC

The popular condiment emerged shortly after a Japanese Buddhist monk, Shinchi Kakushin, returned from a trip to China and became abbot of the Kokoku-ji temple near Yuasa. He brought with him a recipe for kinzanji miso, a unique, full-bodied type of miso (fermented soybean paste, commonly used in soups and sauces) made from whole soybeans, a variety of other grains (such as barley and rice) and other ingredients of plant origin.

The people of Yuasa soon realized that because the ingredients of kinzanji miso were pressed with heavy stones, the liquid that accumulated in small quantities in the fermentation vats was delicious. This by-product was called tamari (a generic Japanese word meaning “to accumulate”) and became the basis of the soy sauce we know today.

Over the years, as a stopping point along the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route, which leads to the famous temples and shrines of nearby Mount Koya, Yuasa has developed into Japan’s most important soybean production center.

In its heyday, the small town of just 1,000 homes was filled with soy sauce factories – more than 90 in all, or nearly one in every 10 homes.

Even today, kinzanji miso is a popular delicacy in the region, eaten as a snack, side dish or even as a light meal – Photo: TOM SCHILLER / BBC

Currently, the historic district of the city is protected by Japanese law. It is a large area that includes 323 houses and other hongawara-buki (traditional buildings) recognized for their immense cultural value.

Many of these buildings still retain their traditional half-timbered windows and curved tiles, architectural features that symbolized their owners’ prosperity for anyone who passed on the street. They include five soy sauce shops and six kinzanji miso producers that are still in business.

Visiting these buildings brings with it the remarkable story of the intertwined progress of miso kinzanji and soy sauce.

The distinctive flavor of Yuasa soy sauce reflects its ancient origins from kinzanji miso. Unlike other types of miso, which are spreads used as a condiment, kinzanji miso is a nutritious and exquisitely flavored dish.

It is a culinary relic of the Song dynasty, considered one of the great developments in the gastronomic world, at a time when new and exquisite flavors were created from common ingredients. It has remained a popular delicacy of the region throughout the centuries, eaten as a snack, side dish or even as a light meal, added to a bowl of rice or mixed with chagayu (rice, water and tea-based porridge).

Kinzanji miso was part of all my meals during my stay in Yuasa.

The liquid accumulated in the kinzanji miso fermentation vats became the basis of the soy sauce we know today – Photo: TOM SCHILLER / BBC

But the tamari, a byproduct of kinzanji miso, was so tasty that the locals wanted to find a way to make it in larger quantities. It was then that they successfully adapted the method of making kinzanji miso to create soy sauce, which is a thinner form of tamari with a similar flavor.

Founded in 1841, Tsunenori Kano’s Kadocho is one of the oldest soybean factories in Yuasa still in operation. The soy sauce they make is the closest to the original that can be found in Japan today.

Few soy sauces are still made in the traditional way, using wooden barrels and long shovels – Photo: GETTY IMAGES / BBC

As we walked out of the brewhouse, Kano showed me the factory and explained how the soybean making process was adapted from the production of kinzanji miso.

Pointing to old wooden utensils and iron machines, he said that only two types of beans (cooked soy and roasted wheat) are used to make soy sauce – these are crushed to better extract their flavor and umami (while, in the case of kinzanji miso, they are left whole).

The beans are then mixed with koji kin (green spores of the Aspergillus oryzae mushroom), in the same way as kinzanji miso, and stored for three days in a closed room, called a muro, where the temperature is carefully controlled. There, the grains germinate and their starches are converted into sugars, which promote fermentation.

This blend is then placed in wooden barrels with huge amounts of fresh water and salt (replacing the water-rich vegetables used for kinzanji miso) and fermented for at least a year and a half to achieve the same kind of smooth flavor. complex miso.

A strong-looking man, Kano says much of his work is done by hand, which includes regularly mixing the batter from his 34 large barrels with long wooden scoops and squeezing the soy sauce from the mixture when it’s done. Finally, Kano slowly warms the soy sauce in an iron cauldron for half a day to stop fermentation, using pine wood for the fire.


But only about 1 percent of the soy sauce produced in Japan by about 1,200 companies is still made in the traditional way, using wooden barrels, according to Keiko Kuroshima, an authorized soy sauce inspector and evaluator. A self-styled shoyu sommelier (there are only three in Japan), Kuroshima is the author of the ultimate guide to soy sauce: Shoyu Hon (“The Shoyu Book,” in free translation), published in 2015.

“Most of the soy sauce is mass-produced in stainless steel tanks to create an aromatic texture in the shortest time possible, often using artificial means to speed up fermentation,” he explains.

“The wooden barrels help create a greater diversity of flavors thanks to the microorganisms that inhabit them. They also better reflect the producer’s technique and greater dedication to the process.”

Kadocho’s soy sauce, with the distinctive flavor of soy sauce made in Yuasa, is full-bodied and intensely rich in flavor, yet still has a pleasant scent and is velvety like aged cognac. Its flavor reflects, in part, the use of a higher percentage of protein-rich soy than wheat compared to the industry standard.

Most producers, even traditional ones, use a 50:50 ratio of soy to wheat, which produces a less full-bodied and lighter tasting soy sauce.

The Kubota Soy Sauce Factory, another former Yuasa manufacturer, produces two types of soy sauce. One, to my surprise, is made with 80% soy and only 20% wheat. The other, according to the matriarch of the Fumiyo Kubota family, is “light” soy sauce, made with 70% soy and 30% wheat.

When I visited, she was busy making koji – the blend of koji kin, soy and wheat – for a new batch of soy sauce that she’ll let it brew for a year and a half to two years.

Face the competition

The number of shoyu producers in Yuasa has dropped dramatically over the past century. The main factor is competition from mass producers, “who compete primarily on price, as the quality of their soy sauce is standardized,” according to Kuroshima.

Traditionally made soy sauce is two to three times more expensive than mass-produced soy sauce.

“The competition is so intense that in recent years it has been removing not only traditional producers, but also mass producers,” he says.

Traditional soy sauces have a wider range of flavors – Photo: GETTY IMAGES / BBC

But some manufacturers have challenged this trend. One of them is Toshio Shinko, who works to restore Yuasa’s position as a leader in shoyu production. Shinko represents the fifth generation of owners of the miso kinzanji Marushinhonke factory, a company founded by his great-great-grandmother in 1881.

In 2002, Shinko created Yuasa Soy Sauce, in a new building strategically located on a hill on the outskirts of the city. She claims to aim to “make the best shoyu in the world” by combining the best possible ingredients with ancient techniques such as wooden barrels, as well as new production methods.

And their main soy sauce, called Kuyo Murasaki, includes a special ingredient: some of the family’s rare kinzanji miso tamari byproducts.

Shinko has also created a line of specialty products, including organic soy sauce and halal, to ensure that the dressing stays on consumers’ tables for years to come.

Official recognition of Yuasa as the birthplace of soy sauce has revitalized the community, promising more variations and uses of soy sauce.

And to celebrate this fascinating future, before leaving Yuasa Soy Sauce, I stopped at the factory coffee shop and enjoyed a cone of their soy sauce ice cream – delicious.

Soy sauce is used in a wide variety of Asian dishes – Photo: GETTY IMAGES / BBC

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