What is Shoyu?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Shoyu is actually the Japanese word for “soy sauce.” In Japan, there are a number of different forms of shoyu, which are differentiated on the basis of ingredients and fermentation technique. In the West, there is some confusion about what shoyu is, compounded by the use of “Shoyu” in the branding of several soy sauce companies, including the Aloha Shoya Company in Hawaii.

Shoyu is often served with sushi.
Shoyu is often served with sushi.

All soy sauce is made from fermented soybeans. Depending on how they are handled and how long they are fermented, the soy sauce may be light in color and texture or inky black. Different soy sauces are designed to pair with different foods; in Japan, some famous types are tamari shoyu, made by pressing the soybeans used to produce miso, and saishikomi, a double brewed shoyu which is extremely strong.

Shoyu is the Japanese word for soy sauce, which is made from fermented soybeans.
Shoyu is the Japanese word for soy sauce, which is made from fermented soybeans.

The Japanese inherited the soy sauce manufacturing tradition from China, a nation which has been making soy sauce for thousands of years. Japanese techniques for soy sauce manufacture date to around the 1600s, and several other Asian nations have developed their own soy sauces and other fermented sauces like fish sauce. The fermentation of soybeans creates a rich, complex flavor and helps to preserve the sauce, ensuring that it will not go bad in unrefrigerated conditions.

Wheat may be included when making shoyu.
Wheat may be included when making shoyu.

When soybeans are fermented to make shoyu, they are packed with sea salt, which acts as a preservative, and koji, a type of mold. Wheat or another grain is often added to temper the flavor; most Japanese shoyu includes wheat, which lends a sweet and slightly alcoholic note to the finished soy sauce. When Japanese-style soy sauce was first introduced to the West, it was sometimes mistakenly labeled as "tamari," which led to general confusion when actual tamari was introduced.

Many consumers in the West think of soy sauce as a watery, extremely salty brownish liquid which accompanies sushi and Chinese food. In fact, soy sauce is incredibly complex, and much like wines, soy sauces come in a range of flavors and qualities. Really good soy sauce is comparable to fine wine for connoisseurs of Asian foods, and it can fetch a very high price. Just like wine, the flavor of shoyu varies depending on the vintage, how it is handled, and how long it is allowed to age.

Soy sauce dishes typically pair well with red wine.
Soy sauce dishes typically pair well with red wine.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

Markerrag

@Vincenzo -- I am willing to bet that more people will become familiar with Shoyu soy sauce and other, more complex varieties of soy sauce. Remember that sushi was once very uncommon in the United States and that changed. You can find exotic, better soy sauces in various parts of the country and you can bet that stuff will become common eventually.

Vincenzo

I do believe the last paragraph sums up how we in the United States (and, possibly, most of North America) views soy sauce. There is nothing wrong with soy sauce as we know it, but it tastes primarily like salt with some background flavors thrown in for the sheer heck of it.

Shoyu soy sauce? I have never heard of it, and I bet I am not alone in that.

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