You’ve Probably Never Had Real Soy Sauce

I realized I hadn’t, so I set out to ferment my own

Wei Tchou
Published in
14 min readJul 12, 2019


Sumayya Ansari illustrations

I’d never even wondered what soy sauce was, really, until last summer, when I listened to Shunan Wang, the owner of Tea Drunk, wax rhapsodic about the complexities of the stuff, swooning over its citric notes as if it were a fine wine or whiskey.

At her beautiful shop in New York City, over tiny glasses of fresh Guapian, a green tea from Anhui Province, she regaled me with stories of the strange fermented delights she’d stumbled across during her adventures through China in search of tea: blocks of tofu inoculated with a mold that eventually left them swaddled in a mat of dense white hair. Fermented chili peppers fried into pancakes that you could only stand to eat a corner at a time, washed down with red hot swigs of baijiu, an incredibly high-proof Chinese liquor.

But what she really missed, she said, was soy sauce. When she was growing up in China, it was commonly brewed in small batches in her town. She said you could smell it just walking by: salty, a little alcoholic, pungent, and yeasty.

You can’t get it in the United States, she told me. I raised an eyebrow, thinking about how you might buy soy sauce basically anywhere you might buy a pack of gum.

In fact, according to a 2014 study, soy sauce is the third most consumed condiment in the United States — as American as ketchup and mayonnaise.

“No no no,” Shunan said. “Real soy sauce is fermented. All of those are made in a chemical process. They’re just like…salt.”

I later learned that much of the soy sauce found in supermarkets or at lunchtime sushi joints is made via a speedy three-day process called acid hydrolysis. After soybeans are pressed for oil, the remaining byproduct is boiled for half a day in hydrochloric acid — used mostly in industrial processes, say, for removing rust from iron or steel — until the protein breaks down into amino acids. The liquid is strained and clarified using more chemicals, then flavored with everything from citric acid to molasses, resulting in the inky brown substance we generally think of as soy sauce.