Soy – the ultimate umami flavour

I think it was the great Ken Hom who said there was no English dish which could not be improved without the judicious addition of soy sauce. He was right.

It goes into my stews and gravies, brightens up my mince, particularly shepherd’s pie, adds resonance and colour to French onion soup, has been known to find its way into my curries and is added to my home-brewed Sheffield Relish, this cook’s answer to the city’s favourite sauce, Hendersons Relish. It may be in, although I cannot be certain, Lea & Perrin’s Worcestershire Sauce.

A spoonful or two in a jug of hot water will make you a useful stock if you have nothing else.

I had always thought that soy sauce was a relative newcomer to this country but I was wrong. I was puzzled by a reference in Dorothy Hartley’s excellent Food in England to a recipe for Nun’s Sauce, made in a 19th century convent. It included, along with anchovies, cloves, vinegar and onions, two tablespoons of soy. Did they really have it then?

They did. As Miss Hartley explains, it would have been imported though the British East India Company. The Dutch might have got it first. Their own East India Company is recorded buying it in 1737 from Japan and taking it to their possessions in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) before sending it on to the Netherlands.

Different cultures seem to have invented their own dark, salty brews like soy, which is made from fermented soya beans. The Romans had garum or liquamen, made as far as we can tell from rotting fish. In fact, the Chinese soy originally included fish as the main ingredient, with soya as a subsidiary, until its properties were fully recognised. Fish sauce, a great favourite in Thai and South East Asian cooking, then went its separate way.

Mushroom ketchup might very well have been devised as a British answer to soy. There’s a certain logic here: it’s a fungus which gives soy its distinctive taste.

What soy sauce has is umami, that savouriness which British chefs were extolling a few years ago as if it was something new. It wasn’t, only the description.

While the Chinese invented soy sauce it is the Japanese Kikkoman which is most popular in the West. You can get cheaper but it’s not as good. It doesn’t hurt that the bottle, which looks stylish on the table, is a design classic.

Most countries in South East Asian have their own versions of soy sauce and it can be fun trying them out. One favourite of mine is the Indonesian kekap manis, a thick, sweet sauce, which is great in stir-fries.

Whether it’s soy sauce, fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce or mushroom ketchup, the world wants its umami. It’s everywhere. That’s what makes Marmite so tempting. Pontack sauce made with elderberries is in the same category. Give it a try this autumn.

You make your own Sheffield Relish right now. Here’s the recipe



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