Now that it’s so easy to buy a cheap, mass-produced bottle of soy sauce (醬油; 生抽) in any supermarket, we don’t give much thought to the dark liquid anymore. It’s just one of those savory seasonings you bust out for Asian cooking.
But just wait until you find a quality bottle, and you’ll see for yourself — soy sauce is one of the most underrated heroes in your kitchen pantry. Made from fermented soybeans, soy sauce is packed with umami, a sweet-savoriness similar to what fish sauce brings to the table. Quality soy sauce takes roughly 180 days to ferment, infusing the liquid with a depth and complexity you can’t mimic with just salt.
Think of it as a powered-up salt in liquid form. In fact, many Chinese chefs use soy sauce as a salt replacement. The ways to use it are truly endless, from marinating meat and stir-frying noodles to grilling tofu. Look out for our upcoming story on how soy sauce makers use soy sauce at home.
First things first, get your hands on a quality bottle! Read below for where to find some of the most umami-packed bottles from local factories who still ferment soy sauce the old-fashioned way.
With over 90 years of history, Koon Chun Sauce Factory first opened its factory in Kowloon City post-WWI. Nowadays, the brand makes its own soy sauce in its Yuen Long factory, using the same method since it’s been in operations. The non-GMO soybeans from Canada are cooked and then fermented twice. No additives and preservatives are added throughout the process. Up until 2018, Koon Chun exported most of its goods, making it one of the most commonplace brands in Chinatowns.
But when fourth-generation owner and the Harvard-graduated Daniel took over, he decided to reintroduce its brand to its city of origin. The brand’s most signature product is Thin Soy Sauce (HK$33; 生晒頭抽), known for its delicate balance of savoriness, fermented soybean flavor, and umami taste.
Shop: Room 303, Chuk On Building, 23 Mercer Street, Sheung Wan, 2543-7868, http://www.koonchun.com.hk/
Established in 1945, Yuet Wo has its own factory in Kwu Tung, Sheung Shui, where they ferment their own soy sauces and other soybean-based condiments. It’s also the only sauce factory in the city with a distillation room for making Chinese wine and vinegar. Other than fermenting soy sauce the traditional way free of any additives and preservatives, Yuet Wo is loves to develop new products. Their latest Organic Soy Sauce ($40; 有機頭抽) is made with organic soybeans — because the beans are of a better quality, the end product packs more of that umami punch while being less savory than their standard YW Premium Soy Sauce ($18; 特級醬油) — which still tastes amazing, of course.
Shop: G/F, 33, Tsuen Wan Market Street, Tsuen Wan, 2492-3354, http://www.yuetwo.hk/shop/
Walking into Kui Lee’s Wan Chai shop, which has been around for over half a century, is like entering a little treasure trove. There’s almost too much to look at — all sorts of sauces, pickles, and dried goods fill up every single surface and corners.
All the pickled goodies inside Kui Lee’s shop
You’ve got their signature Premium Soy Sauce ($28; 高級生抽), made with premium soybean, barrels of sour ginger, pickled plum, preserved ginger, and their most popular product: soybean paste (麵豉). The first to come up with a sweet soybean paste (甜麵豉), Kui Lee’s exclusive concoction became very popular. They are now one of the biggest local soybean paste manufacturers in Hong Kong.
Shop: G/F, 10A, Canal Road West, Wan Chai, 2670-3594, www.kuileehk.com
A well-known premium soy sauce brand in Hong Kong, Tai Ma Sauce not only ferments its soy sauce the traditional way, it also insists on doing the process by hand. The resulting liquor has a slightly golden hue, a subtle soybean aroma, and a pure taste that leaves no unpleasant aftertaste. The brand’s most signature product is the Double Fermented Soy Sauce (HKD95; 雙璜生抽). After the initial fermentation of soybeans, the liquid is then fermented two times. Compared to regular and even “first-draw” (頭抽) soy sauce, this version is more viscous, packs more punch, and also less salty — a more nuanced flavor overall.
Shop: G/F, Majestic Apartments, 301 King’s Road, North Point; G/F, 33 Shung Yan Street, Kwun Tong, http://www.taimasauce.com/
Yuan’s sells the city’s most expensive soy sauce. It’s Royal Soy Sauce (御品生抽) retails at $218 per bottle, and is coveted among many chefs and high-end Chinese restaurants, including Canton Room at the Luk Kwok hotel. The price tag comes from the laborious processing — it’s made with water drawn from their own well, non-GMO soybeans, and undergoes at least a year and half of fermentation. Each bottle takes roughly three years to make. For those looking for an everyday soy sauce, they do offer a cheaper variety. The Light Soy Sauce (金標生抽) undergoes one year of fermentation and retails at HKD28.
Shop: On their website here
A lot has been written about this famous soy sauce maker about their unfailingly delicious Gold Label Soy Sauce (金牌生抽皇) and their quaint little shop tucked in Central’s Graham Street market. The brand ferments its soy sauce under the sun in small batches. While most soy sauce makers have switched to glass-ceramic or concrete containers, Kowloon Soy Sauce still uses traditional ceramic crocks, which are more porous and results in a more complex flavor.
Shop: G/F, 9 Graham St, Central, 2544-3697