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

Carefully climbing the steep stairs of the building, I follow Tsunenori Kano to the floor of the fermentation room at her family’s 180-year-old soy factory, Kadocho.

The space was dark and eerily quiet, save for the creak of my footsteps on the old wooden boards set between the soy sauce pots. The soy sauce was now set to rest, late winter, but still filling the air with an appetizing aroma.

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A thick cork bark covered the ceiling around me, fell from the beams and grew along the walls.

“Bacteria and yeasts are in the building era,” says Kano, who is part of the factory’s seventh generation. According to him, they “provide the authentic taste”.

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

Its origins date back to the 13th century.

Undoubtedly, the most important type of Japanese cuisine is soy sauce. Its rich, deep and balanced flavor, both sweet and savory (known as “umami”), provides delicious taste satisfaction to almost any food. Its uses range from a variety of sushi to larger quantities in boiled noodles and chips, as well as the characteristic flavor of bright dishes such as teriyaki.

In 2017, the Japan Agency for Cultural Affairs declared Yuasa a Heritage Site of Japan as it is the birthplace of Japanese soy sauce. It is believed that Shoyu was first performed there in the late 13th century.

Tsunenori Kano: The seventh generation Kadocho soy sauce factory — Photo by TOM SCHILLER/BBC

The popular spice originated shortly after a Japanese Buddhist monk, Shinchi Kakushin, returned from a trip to China and became the abbot of 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, various other grains (such as barley and rice), and other ingredients of plant origin.

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

Over the years, Yuasa has evolved from being a stopping point on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route to the famous temples and shrines of nearby Mount Koya, to become Japan’s most important soybean producing hub.

In its heyday, the small town of only about 1,000 homes was filled with soy sauce factories—more than 90 total, or about one for every 10 homes.

Kinzanji miso is a popular delicacy in the region to this day, enjoyed as a snack, side dish or even a light meal — Photo: TOM SCHILLER/BBC

Currently, the historic district of the city is protected by Japanese law. It is a vast area encompassing 323 houses and other hongawara-buki (traditional buildings) known for their immense cultural values.

Many of these buildings still retain the architectural features of their traditional lattice windows and curved tiles, symbolizing the prosperity of their owners for anyone passing by. These include five soy sauce stores and six kinzanji miso producers that are still in operation.

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

Yuasa soy sauce’s distinctive flavor reflects its ancient origins from kinzanji miso. Unlike other types of miso used as a seasoning, kinzanji miso is a nutritious and delicately flavored dish.

It is a culinary relic of the Song dynasty, considered one of the greatest developments in the world of gastronomy, at a time when new and delicious flavors were created from common ingredients. Eaten as a snack, side dish, or even a light meal, added to a bowl of rice or mixed with chagayu (porridge made from rice, water, and tea), it has remained a popular delicacy of the region for centuries.

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

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

But tamari, a byproduct of kinzanji miso, was so delicious that locals wanted to find a way to produce it in larger quantities. That’s when they successfully adapted the kinzanji miso production method to create soy sauce, a thinner form of tamari with a similar flavor.

Founded in 1841, Tsunenori Kano’s Kadocho is one of Yuasa’s oldest soybean mills still in operation. The soy sauce they produce is close enough to the original that it can be found in Japan today.

Very little soy sauce is still made traditionally using wooden barrels and long paddles — Photo: GETTY IMAGES/BBC

On my way down the fermentation chamber, Kano showed me the factory and explained how the soy-making process was adapted from kinzanji miso production.

Pointing to ancient wooden tools and iron machines, he said, only two types of beans are used to make soy sauce (cooked soybeans and roasted wheat) – these are crushed to better extract their flavor and umami (by the way, kinzanji miso, they are left whole).

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

This mixture is then placed in wooden barrels with large 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. miso complex.

A strong-looking man, Kano says most of his work is done by hand—that involves regularly mixing the batter from 34 large barrels with long wooden paddles and pressing the soy sauce through the mixture when it’s done. Finally, Kano slowly heats the soy sauce in an iron cauldron for half a day to stop fermentation, using pine wood for the fire.


However, according to Keiko Kuroshima, a licensed soy sauce inspector and assessor, only about 1% of the soy sauce produced by about 1,200 companies in Japan is still traditionally made using wooden barrels. A self-made shoyu sommelier (there are only three in Japan), Kuroshima is the author of the definitive guide to soy sauce: Shoyu Hon (“The Shoyu Book”, free translation), published in 2015.

“Most soy sauces are mass-produced in stainless steel tanks to create flavor consistency as quickly as possible, and artificial means are often used to speed up fermentation,” he explains.

“Wooden barrels help create more flavor diversity due to the microorganisms living inside them. They also better reflect the manufacturer’s technique and greater commitment to the process.”

With the characteristic flavor of soy sauce produced in Yuasa, Kadocho’s soy sauce is rich in full and intense flavor, but still has a pleasant aroma and is velvety like an old cognac. The taste partly reflects the use of protein-rich soy, which is higher than wheat compared to the industry standard.

Most manufacturers, even traditional ones, use a 50:50 ratio of soy to wheat, producing a soy sauce that is less fuller, lighter in flavor.

Kubota soy sauce factory, another former Yuasa producer, produces two types of soy sauce. Surprisingly, it’s made with 80% soy and only 20% wheat. The other is “light” soy sauce made from 70% soy and 30% wheat, according to the head of the Fumiyo Kubota family.

When I visited him, he was busy preparing koji (a relative of koji, a blend of soy and wheat) for a new batch of soy sauce, which he would leave to ferment for a year and a half to two.

facing competition

The number of shoyu makers in Yuasa has declined significantly over the past century. The main factor, according to Kuroshima, is competition from mass producers, who “compete mainly on price, as the quality of soy sauce becomes standardized.”

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

“Competition is so intense that in recent years it has eliminated not only traditional producers but even mass producers,” he says.

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

But some manufacturers are challenging this trend. One of them is Toshio Shinko, who is working to re-establish Yuasa’s leading position in shoyu construction. Shinko represents the fifth generation of owners of the kinzanji Marushinhonke miso 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. It claims to aim to “make the best shoyu in the world” by combining the best possible materials with old techniques such as wooden barrels and new production methods.

And the main soy sauce, called Kuyo Murasaki, contains a special ingredient: some of the rare tamari by-products of the family’s kinzanji miso.

Shinko has created a number of specialty products, including organic and halal soy sauce, to ensure the condiments stay on consumers’ tables for years.

The official recognition of Yuasa as the birthplace of soy sauce has invigorated society by promising more variations and uses of soy sauce.

And before I left Yuasa Soy Sauce to celebrate this enchanting future, I stopped by the factory’s cafeteria and enjoyed a cone of soy sauce ice cream – delicious.

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

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