16 February 2019
The first brewed premium soy sauce comes thick. Photo: HKEJ
The first brewed premium soy sauce comes thick. Photo: HKEJ

The patient art of fermenting soy sauce

Finally, I would be able to harvest the fruit of my patience and hard work.

Over the past six months, I frequently traveled to and from the Chun San Organic Farm in San Tin, where I was helping in the fermentation of soy sauce.

Under the guidance of Tam Keung, a devoted pig farmer and owner of Sun Kee Butcher (新記健味豬), I have been privileged to take part in the sophisticated art of making of “first brewed premium soy sauce”.

Tam is a fascinating man. He spent half of his life traveling around the world.

Right now he has chosen to be farmer, raising pigs strictly with only natural feed in order to produce the best authentic quality of pork.

In between his busy work schedule, Tam visits the market for the freshest ingredients for his various DIY projects, such as sun-drying tangerine peels, preserving spicy salted eggs and fermenting enzyme cleaners from vegetables and fruits.

And so ’tis the season to harvest his homemade soy sauce.

“I absolutely would not add sugar,” Tam declared.

He insists that his sauce should be 100 percent the work of nature. 

The flavor could be fine-tuned by adding water during the cooking process if the sauce is too salty, but that’s all, he explained.

For years, I thought the process was simply soaking the soybeans in brine. If I had not joined Tam, I wouldn’t have known the correct recipe for the brewery.

It requires 90 catties of premium-grade soybeans from Canada, 22 catties of flour, 25 catties of sea salt from Australia and 80 grams of koji mold.

First the beans are steamed and then allowed to cool through natural ventilation.

Then the ingredients have to be mixed well following the ratio of 8 catties of beans, 2 catties of flour, 5 catties of beans and 1 gram of koji mold.

The mixture is spread on woven flat bamboo trays, which are stored in a fermentation room at 35 degrees Celsius with a relative humidity of 10 percent for five days.

“Gosh, we’ve got some grey mold on the beans!” I cried in panic.

Tam teased me for being “ignorant” and explained that the presence of mold ensures the superior taste of the sauce.

Tam poured the four-month-old fermented beans into two big clay pots of brine with a salinity of 18 degrees, closed the pots with glass covers and put them under bright sunlight.

The brine turned dark brown after the Mid-Autumn Festival and was pumped out for sun-drying for another month.

This “first brewed premium soy sauce” was so thick with a layer of crystallized salt on the surface.

I was told that a pinch of this salt could effectively bring out a strong flavor of umami from any dish, especially steamed spare ribs and Cantonese long-boiled soup.

Two large pots of beans could give only a very small quantity of sauce. Tam gave me a tiny bottle.

I volunteered to join him again on his next adventure, which is to make “double-fermented soy sauce” using the current batch of beans with the addition of newly fermented ones.

That said, we have to wait another six months for the ultimately fermented soy sauce.

I sincerely hope Tam would hand me a ration of the superior sauce, though I know it should be something that is even scarcer.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 26.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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