Soya Sauces (30 Days 30 Asian Ingredients Series Day 1)

I thought I might start with an ingredient that almost everyone is familiar with, but which is nonetheless somewhat confusing.

There are 3 broad types of soya (aka soy) sauce –

  1. sweet soya sauce

  2. salty soya sauce – for this exercise I’ll call it “regular soya sauce”

  3. thick soya sauce aka caramel sauce

Growing up in Malaysia, the soya sauces we used in my family’s kitchen were – salty soya sauce and dark (aka thick) soya sauce – that’s pretty much it.

We used sweet soya sauce for the chilli relish that was offered with the cut fruit we sold at my dad’s canteen at the Odeon cinema in Seremban. Beyond that I have no recollection of ever seeing my mom use sweet soya sauce for any of her cooking.

I have to mention that sweet soya sauce does get used a bit more in Malay recipes (my family is Chinese, in case there’s any confusion) but it’s still not as ubiquitous as what you’d find in Indonesian cooking. Sweet soya sauce is known as Kicap Manis in Malay and Indonesian.

My live broadcast discussing different types and brands of soya sauce.

I don’t know if growing up in Malaysia I was just too young to get the nuances of salty soya sauce or if the product has evolved into various sub-types over the years, but nowadays you might find “light soya sauce”, “soya sauce”, “salty soya sauce” or “dark soya sauce” on all kinds of different bottles. These all fit into the regular soya sauce category since their primary role is to provide saltiness to a dish.

The label “dark soya sauce” is problematic because I grew up knowing thick soya sauce as dark soya sauce (literal Chinese translation of thick soya sauce is “black soya sauce”). I know it’s not just me because lots of Asian and Malaysian recipes that call for thick soya sauce in fact list the ingredient as “dark soya sauce”.

It seems though that the term “dark soya sauce” has been hijacked and it can now refer to soya sauces that fit into the darker, richer spectrum of your regular soya sauce.

Rather than black and treacly, they’re just a few shades darker than the lighter coloured types, but their flavour is still predominantly salty and the consistency is still very thin i.e. they pour easily out of the bottle.

If I’m looking for thick soya sauce at the shops and see a bottle labelled “dark soya sauce”, I tilt the bottle to see if the content tips easily – and that’s how I know whether it’s in fact thick soy or just a dark version of the regular variety.

I’m almost certain (I’m too lazy to research it fully) that the term “cooking caramel” which is what is on the Cheong Chan thick soya sauce label is a fairly new adoption. I always knew it as dark/thick soya sauce and that’s what the recipes I grew up with referred to it as. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a traditional Asian recipe that refers to the ingredient as caramel sauce.

I still instinctively call it thick soya sauce but I do remember to self-correct and explain it’s labelled cooking caramel or caramel sauce (which confuses people who associate caramel sauce with ice cream toppings).

Clear as mud, huh?

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