Soy sauce is a mixture of soybeans, salt, grain, and water that is fermented with a particular type of mold and pressed to release its liquid. Strictly speaking, there is no one definitive recipe for this sauce, but all versions involve the use of soybeans, and there are one or two that also use soy flour in the recipe. All told, there are at least 20 different versions that can be used to enhance the taste of food. Some of these nationally developed sauces are considered to be "fresh," in that the sauce is thinner and is made employing a double fermentation process. Varieties that fall into this category are often used for seasoning meats and at the table with vegetables and dipping breads, as they pack quite a lot of taste.
Also known as soya sauce, the exact origins of soy sauce are long lost to history. There is evidence that the basic mixture of soybeans, roasted grain, water, and salt has been in use for at least 2,000 years, however. The earliest recorded recipes are associated with China, although there are variations found in all sorts of Asian cuisine. There is also some evidence that Buddhist monks first brought the concept to Japan during the 7th century, where chefs set about putting their own mark on the condiment. In fact, there are those that say the fermentation process that developed in Japan produces the finest products in the world.
Dark soy sauces are somewhat thicker than fresh ones and usually employ a single fermentation process. This means that its is allowed to ferment for a longer period of time. Molasses is also an ingredient in the darker sauces, which helps to give them a sweeter taste and less of the salty zing that one finds with the fresh sauces. These types are used in cooking, both for the mixture of flavors and also because they can add color to just about any dish. They usually are not found on the table, as they are not considered suitable for dipping.
In addition to being used on its own and adding flavor to meats and vegetables, this sauce is also used as a main ingredient in other condiments. Many salad dressings include it, especially ones that are meant to take the place of high fat dressings. Many people are surprised to learn that it is also a key ingredient in another popular bottled sauce: Worcestershire. Along with being a favorite ingredient in a number of condiments, there are some interesting alcoholic drinks that call for a dash to add a little more zest to the drink.
There are purists that insist true soy sauce must be prepared in time-honored fashions, with no modern short cuts. In actuality, modern processing has not done much of anything but speed up the fermentation process so that this product can be mass marketed. Most everyday users are unlikely to be able to tell if the sauce was prepared with an old recipe or by modern means.