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