IFFA Homemade Soy Sauce

Posted on March 6, 2006 by Aun

2nd Annual Independent Food Festival Awards:
Best Hand Crafted Virgin Soy Sauce in Southeast Asia

Many thanks to Hillel from Taste Everything for once again organizing the Annual Independent Food Festival Awards. This unique web-based Festival asks participating bloggers to come up with an award to present to a person or organization creating exceptional food. My award is for a soy sauce manufacturer that produces the best-tasting soy sauce I’ve ever tried. More importantly, they make it by hand.

I never knew that soy sauce could be special until I visited Penang in 2001. My wife S and I spent a few days there while working on a book we were putting together on Malaysian and Singaporean food. While there, we were lucky enough to be taken around by two charming women, cousins and local food experts. We followed them around the island as they took us to cafés, restaurants, hawker stalls, a durian plantation, and several markets.

At the edges of one of these markets, we came across a curious sight. Dozens of large vats, filled to the brim with a dark liquid and what looked like crushed beans, covered a large vacant lot. As we got closer, the smell was overpowering. The air smelled toasty, salty and slightly yeasty. Opposite the lot was a small one room, open-air store. It was manned by an old man and his wife. Our feisty and energetic tour guides were regular patrons and quickly introduced the couple to us.

The couple, they explained, were part of a dying tradition, that of making soy sauce by hand, with no extra ingredients, unwanted additives or preservatives. They make their sauce the same way that it had been made for generations before them but which, sadly, is becoming more and more rare today.

This traditional method for making Chinese soy sauce uses cooked soybeans, wheat flour and sometimes a powdered starter from a wheat-flour based mold block. This is mixed with salt water and left to sit in large earthenware pots or vats. The vats are then left outdoors, open during the day (positioned under the sun) and covered at night. This is stirred once or twice a day. The warmth from sunning accelerates the fermentation and enhances the sauce’s color and aroma. After about 3-6 months, a slender strainer or sieve made of woven bamboo (sometimes wrapped with a course cloth) is pushed down into the surface of the fermented mash; the liquid soy sauce that is collected in it is ladled or siphoned off into smaller earthen jars, covered with cloth and bamboo leaves, placed in the sun for about 2 more weeks. This resulting sauce, bottled without being heated or pasteurized, is considered the very best soy sauce, i.e. “first grade”. European food fans can consider this the equivalent of extra virgin olive oil.

Meanwhile, more salt water is added to the original vats and fermented for another 1-2 months before a second drawing. This method of drawing might be repeated a total of 3-4 times, with each drawing representing a lower grade of soy sauce. All of these soy sauces, I should point out, are what people are speaking of when they refer to “light soy sauce”. Dark soy sauce, which is both darker and thicker, is essentially light soy sauce mixed with caramel.

Our new friends and guides convinced us to buy several bottles of both light and dark soy sauce from Kilang Kicap Kwong Heng Loong. They especially recommended buying the first grade soy sauce, or “virgin soy sauce” as S and I have taken to calling it. Because we were rushing around all day, we didn’t have the time to taste the sauces when we bought them.

When we eventually did, we were astounded. The virgin soy sauce, especially, was really special. It was also nothing like all the factory-made commercial stuff that we’d been buying and using for most of our life. Where most supermarket soy sauces are simply salty, this hand-crafted sauce had depth. It also had a distinct and delicious flavor. The level of salt was strong, but not overpoweringly so. More importantly, we could taste the flavor of the soy beans, something that I had never gotten from factory-made sauces.

Since having discovered Kilang Kicap Kwong Heng Loong, we’ve become hooked. We now make any friend who visits Penang pick us up a few bottles, always encouraging them to buy a few for themselves of course. Right now, however, we’re down to our very last bottle–and it’s a bottle of dark soy sauce as well. Which means that unless someone we know is heading to Georgetown, I might have to make a special trip to Penang really soon. Not that I’d mind; Penang, as many know, has some of the very best hawker food in both Malaysia and Singapore.

Kilang Kicap Kwong Heng Loong
No 7A, Jalan Pasar
Pulau Tikus, Penang, Malaysia
Tel: 04-2265452

About Aun Koh

Aun has always loved food and travel, passions passed down to him from his parents. This foundation, plus a background in media, pushed him to start Chubby Hubby in 2005. He loves that this site allows him to write about the things he adores--food, style, travel, his wife and his bouncing baby boy!

What Others Are Saying

  1. Fiber March 6, 2006 at 2:19 am

    Gorgeous pictures, and a very well-written post.
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. GastroChick March 6, 2006 at 4:32 am

    Hi Chubby Hubby

    Sounds like you had a great time in Malaysia, I am off there in October to visit my husbands family who live in KL. We usually spend a few days at the Datai in Langawi or Pangkor Laut – have you ever visited either of these resorts? If not I highly recommend.

    Last time I was there I tried a Durian and to everyones amazement I really liked it, it was like a cheesy tasting fruit – a completely unique flavor. The soya sauce sounds worthy of an award I would love to try myself.

  3. Anonymous March 6, 2006 at 11:40 am

    Thanks for sharing, CH :-) However, I hesitate to impose on anyone to go hunt down the soy sauces & lug the heavy (and potentially messy) bottles back…

    Quick! Somebody import the soy sauces and market it here in Singapore! I want! :-)

    LY

  4. eve March 6, 2006 at 2:12 pm

    you should import the soy sauce and sell it via this blog! they sound reall good but not everyone is willing to go all the way to penang just for that.

  5. fooDcrazEE March 6, 2006 at 5:34 pm

    great post chubby….what an insight

  6. Anonymous March 6, 2006 at 5:38 pm

    you should tell them to repackage them nicely and market it worldwide …and before you know it they are on the shelves of Dean & Deluca selling for $39.99

  7. Melissa CookingDiva March 6, 2006 at 9:39 pm

    Great report! Loved the photos too :)

  8. MM March 6, 2006 at 11:47 pm

    Wow, I always learn something new from you! That was a brilliant insight into something we take too much for granted. Thanks so much for an uninformed neophyte!

  9. Sam March 7, 2006 at 1:23 am

    I love this award, and although of course I would love to try it, I wouldn’t wish for them to go the global mass marketing route, because that would undoutedly change what makes them so unique.

    So my tastebuds will, instead, love vicariously through yours!

  10. Chubby Hubby March 7, 2006 at 10:32 am

    Fiber: Thanks.

    Gastrochick: Ooh, you really do live the good life. Haven’t been to Datai yet, although I’ve written articles about it several times ;-) I stayed in Pangkor Laut way back in 1997. Back then, though, they had a lot of teething pains. I got 43 mosquito bites in one night when staying in one of the over-water bungalows; the food was awful and worse, they wouldn’t serve Malay food. At the end of my trip, I had to tell Small Luxury Hotels, that had sent me on the trip, that I couldn’t write a totally positive review, so we decided to kill the story.

    LY: I wish someone would import them. I’d be a happy customer.

    Eve: Hah… maybe I could actually start making money from this blog for once. Good idea.

    Foodcrazee: Thanks.

    Anonymous: I totally agree. All they need is some super-sexy slick packaging — a minamalist label on a cool bottle with words like “organic”, “virgin” and “handcrafted” and they could charge tons of money for this.

    Melissa: My pleasure. Thanks for dropping by.

    MM: My pleasure.

    Sam: Hiya. I tend to agree with you. Once things get too commercial, the quality often drops. It’s really nice to still be able to discover small producers like these guys.

  11. Anonymous March 7, 2006 at 7:53 pm

    Hiya,

    I’ve been to Penang only once and little did I know! I guess I know what it’s like to have a good handcrafted soy sauce as compared to mass-produced common kinds. I am just curious, but what do you guys usually use Chinese soy sauce with? As a Japanese I’d use our kind of soy sauce with, eh, basically anything…

    Thanks for the great info and beautiful shots, per usual!

  12. chika March 7, 2006 at 7:55 pm

    ooops sorry, the Anonymous comment right above was me.

  13. Anonymous March 7, 2006 at 8:17 pm

    Should try the one from Kelantan as well. I grew up having that, and nothing in S’pore can even match up to it slightly. There’s a distinct aroma to the sauce, and not salty, it just complements your dish, as a final touch, but doesn’t overpower the essence of the lead.

    I can’t remember the brand name, just remember that it has an elephant in front as its logo.

  14. gwenda March 8, 2006 at 8:05 am

    ooh the souffle looks so cute!

  15. Voluptuous Viper March 10, 2006 at 10:18 am

    hi chubby hubby – what a coincidence that you too discovered this great soya sauce – i have two bottles in my kitchen of the light and dark which i treasure and use oh so sparingly. i just chanced upon them in penang about 5 years ago when on a foodie tour with my hubby and since we were scoping out pulau tikus market (which is where they are located) we found this treasure trove and were amazed that they actually made the soya sauce themselves! it is really wonderful, BTW if you go to penang again do go armed with this wonderful book called Penang Food Odyssey (can’t remember author’s name) – she published it herself and it is a definitive guide to the superb hawker food there!

  16. keiko March 13, 2006 at 9:34 pm

    Hi Aun – I love this post (and your photos are gorgeous, as always), would like to taste the soy sauce one day as one of whom can’t live without it :) Happy blog birthday.

  17. Rani May 8, 2006 at 5:06 pm

    Hi, you may want to check out this Indonesian sweet soy sauce.

    I’d love to visit this place if i ever go to penang.

  18. Mr Sanguine March 18, 2007 at 6:14 pm

    Just picked up several bottles of the dark sauce this afternoon. Hope the trek to dusty Pulau Tikus pasar was worth it… and here’s hoping the plastic bottles won’t blow up in our luggage on our way back to Singapore.

  19. Annie October 10, 2008 at 10:38 am

    I have not had the sauce in this article, but a friend of mine just released the only microbrewed soy sauce in the U.S. It’s awesome! I was so embarrassed he saw my Costco jug of Kikoman in my pantry. Anyhow, it’s called Bluegrass Soy Sauce and it’s available via http://www.bluegrasssoysauce.com or http://www.bluegrasssoysaucecompany.com. It’s handcrafted in small batches and aged in Bourbon barrels that he gets straight from the distilleries (we live in KY).

  20. Pingback: Soy Sauce | Easy Asian Recipes at RasaMalaysia.com

  21. Tim Fong July 25, 2014 at 5:04 pm

    Thanks for writing this up! We are in Penang and have been looking for soy sauce factories to visit and pick up some of it…I had a sense that the soy sauce here is special, but didn’t know where to get some to try.

    Was the place you described where you saw it actually made this factory in Pulus Tikau, or was it a separate place in a market?

  22. Tim Fong July 31, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    Hi, just visited and got a bottle. I couldn’t tell which was the “virgin” grade so bought the one labelled “special” — any advice?

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