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


Head to head with Hendo’s

Ready to bottle after a year's maturing Sheffield Relish

Deep in a corner of my cellar there is a jar full of murky liquid whose time has come. It has been there for exactly a year and must now be strained, bottled and sprinkled on food as the Nectar of the Gods. Some people make do with Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce, great on a fry-up or in stews.

In Sheffield people swear by Henderson’s Relish but I won’t settle for second best. I make my own. I call it Sheffield Relish.

Worcestershire sauce dates back to the 1830s but is another great British brand now in foreign hands, in this case Heinz. The story is that a customer asked chemists to concoct a recipe acquired in India but it was forgotten and matured quietly for years until rediscovered and tasted.

Henderson’s, known locally as Hendo’s, is truly local. It was first concocted by a Henry Henderson in ‘the latter part of the 19th century.’ It is vinegar and water coloured with caramel and sweetened and spiced with cloves, cayenne and garlic oil. The label proudly states that it has been ‘made in Sheffield for over a 100 years,’ or it did until someone unfortunately recently tidied it up grammatically by removing the indefinite article. Both have orange labels although Hendo’s has produced variants for local football sides, sports and pop music stars.

Both are, in essence, flavoured vinegars, although Worcestershire sauce is more complex, with anchovies.

While both can be traced back to the Nineteenth Century the recipe is very much older. Dorothy Hartley, writing in Food in England in 1954, mentions ‘Nun’s Sauce’ made in a Yorkshire convent over 80 years previously. She states: “Most of the large farms in the north made their own relish to eat with meat.”

She gives a recipe of three quarters of an ounce of cayenne, two tablespoons of soy, three cloves of garlic, a tablespoon of anchovies, a few cloves, three or four shallots, a large spoonful of sugar and a quart (two pints) of vinegar. The dried ingredients were pounded together, the shallots chopped and after everything being mixed with the vinegar sealed in a jar and left at the foot of the kitchen stairs.

“Everyone passing up and down to chapel (twice daily) had to give it a shake. At the end of the month it was strained off through muslin into the tall glass bottles in the old fashioned cruet stands.”

This is more or less my recipe but because there is no chapel in my cellar the jar is shaken less but left longer.

This is the recipe. Chop finely three large onions and put them in a large jar with 10 dried Bird’s Eye chillies, 1 tbsp each of peppercorns, white sugar, Thai fish sauce, allspice, coriander and yellow mustard seed, 1 tsp salt, 3 chopped anchovies drained of oil, 2 tbsps of kekap manis (thick soy sauce), a few bay leaves, two inches of fresh ginger and five whole cloves plus several of garlic.

Pour over malt vinegar (I managed 600ml plus a little left over from an empty pickled onion jar. Add a spoonful or two of tamarind  extract if you wish.

Seal tightly, keep away from light and shake the jar whenever you remember. Leave for at least four months.

I have just strained and bottled this sour, salty, pungent brew. It is better than Henderson’s, although I would say that. Just note this: mine has no water added. And there is a little more romance in the way I make mine.

Some years ago I visited the then factory in Levygreave Road and while I was not allowed into the holy of holys, the bottling room, I noticed plastic drums of various oils and essences so it was a shrewd guess they were simply mixed and that this Relish matures longer on your pantry shelf than in the factory. Today it made in the less romantic surroundings of a trading estate.

Hendo’s stirs the Sheffield heart with pride, has spawned memorabilia, mugs and recipe books, and is bought by the likes of film star Sean Bean and ex-minister David Blunkett. I can’t beat it for image but I can for taste.