Forget salt and pepper. As the product of two generations of Chinese restaurant chefs — not to mention a literal thousand years of Hokkien Han Chinese ancestry — soy sauce was the fundamental seasoning basis of nearly everything I ate after I had graduated from Gerber baby products. At the restaurant, we had various types, but they were such commonplace staples that I gave them little thought. That is, until I moved away and had to figure out how to make Chinese food on my own.
Armed only with your everyday Kikkoman “regular” soy sauce, whose logo I recognized from the buckets at my parents’ restaurant and the iconic double-spouted bottle, I tried my hand at stir-fry, fried rice and wonton meat. Everything tasted weak, watered down and weird. I called my dad, who told me all I needed was soy sauce. But what was lost in translation is that there are a bajillion types of soy sauce, and each of them does different things and has different flavor nuances.
When I finally found an Asian supermarket, you could have knocked me over with a soybean pod. With an entire row dedicated to different types of soy sauce, I was overwhelmed by the selection and the realization that even though I’d been consuming various forms of it my whole life, I actually knew next to nothing about soy sauce.
So for the sake of those who didn’t grow up with it, I ask on everyone’s behalf: What the soy? And who uses what and why?
Why So Many Types Of Soy Sauce?
The origin of soy sauce as we know it starts with the discovery of Chinese jiang, a fermented soy paste that brings out intense umami. Its use spread to Korea and Japan, which made it their own in the late 1600s by thinning it into a liquid and calling it shoyu — the basis of the word soy. In its new form, it began the journey that continues today.
“Historically, there was hyper-regionality; communities and individuals would produce their own supply of soy sauces,” explained Brian Yong, culinary director of the viral mail-order soup dumpling brand Mila (formerly XCJ). “Different culinary traditions expanded on the definition of ‘soy sauce,’ with varying viscosity, salinity, umami, and use of natural and artificial flavors and colorings.”
This led to preferences by geography, ethnicity, and individual chefs and restaurants. For instance, Sachi Nakato Takahara, the owner of Atlanta’s oldest Japanese restaurant Nakato, told us: “Sushi chefs like playing around with different types of soy sauce and ratios to find the perfect balance and harmony with ingredients.”
There’s also the development of proprietary formulas for large-scale production, which may even serve as a basis on which manufacturers have built entire brands without even marketing their products as soy sauce. Golden Mountain and Maggi “seasoning sauces” popular among Thai and Vietnamese cooks are examples of this.
However, what all of these beautifully brewed soybean products have in common, Hawaii’s Na’au Hilo chef Brian Hirata noted, is that they’re acids on the pH scale (“which is why it performs well as a vinaigrette and marinade”), have a high salt content, and “carry umami — scientifically known as glutamic acid — which the human palate finds delicious.”
“To me, this is the most profound characteristic that soy sauce offers to the food world,” Hirata said.
And with that, let’s dip into the other characteristics.
Light Soy Sauce
Light soy sauce is what commonly comes to mind when people think of “regular” soy sauce, but that doesn’t mean the default is lighter in flavor or sodium. It’s actually a reference to the color of the soy sauce, said Chris Kimura, Lee Kum Kee’s corporate chef.
“Since Japanese culinary culture uses soy sauce as a base, the color profile offers many different shades of brown,” Nakato Takahara explained.
Kimura elaborated that within this category are two more subcategories: koikuchi, a “dark” light variety that serves as a catch-all for most recipes, and usukuchi, used when you want the flavor and umami but without the color.
Usukuchi, a Japanese specialty variety, is preferred for clear brothy soups for delicate nuance, and when vibrant-colored vegetables and proteins are used to allow their brightness to shine through their sauce.
“Typically, lighter colored soy sauce has a higher perceived saltiness, whereas darker soy tends to lean sweeter,” Kimura said. If you’re looking for soy sauces with less salt, he recommends varieties specifically labeled as less sodium or low sodium.
Although light soy sauce is the most common type of soy sauce, it’s far from garden variety. Beyond the predominantly Japanese style, there’s also Korean light soy sauce, as Atlanta chef Lino Yi of TKO pointed out — a foundational ingredient in bulgogi and many cooked and pickled ban chan dishes.
“It’s a little saltier, lighter in color,” Yi said of varieties like Sempio Jin S, Asian grocery brand Umamicart’s top seller to the Korean community. This type of light soy sauce shares attributes with the Filipino favorite, Silver Swan.
Not only are there different levels of color and salinity, but “grades reflect the ‘purity’ of a soy sauce,” said Andrea Xu, the CEO of Umamicart.
“Premium soy sauce — the top seller for the Chinese customers — is the first extracted product in the fermentation process,” Xu said. “Later extractions have more additional ingredients added in and may be less flavorful.”
This is why it’s important to “look for flavor and not saltiness when picking your preferred soy,” advised Ron Hsu, the renowned chef-owner of Atlanta’s Lazy Betty. “The higher the grade, the deeper the flavor — which is not to be mistaken for salt! And viscosity is also important.”
Generally, though, “You want to use light soy sauce for seasoning, just like you would salt,” Yong said. “For example, if your stock is a bit bland, add some light soy sauce to enhance the rich bouquet of flavors that are waiting to be unleashed. It’s great for adding salinity to a dish and enhancing the savory quality of meat, avoiding unnecessary additional flavors.”
Another soy sauce we have the Japanese to thank for is tamari, which hit the mainstream when word got out that this type is almost always gluten-free.
“As a background, many light soy sauces are made using a higher percentage of wheat to soybean,” Kimura explained.
However, “Tamari is the byproduct of making miso, meaning it [usually] contains 100% soybeans and no wheat,” Xu told us.
“The high percentage of beans creates a soy sauce that is both thicker and darker, with a milder saltiness, than its light soy sauce counterpart,” Kimura said.
Both said these characteristics make tamari a good choice for dipping or finishing a dish, regardless of gluten tolerance. However, it’s important to note that not all tamari is pure tamari, and some may have wheat added or be processed in a facility where there is wheat floating around.
“Always check the label to be certain,” Kimura said.
Another now-common specialty Japanese soy sauce is ponzu.
“This is light and citrusy, and usually used to ‘cut’ through more decadent or marbled ingredients like sashimi-style skipjack tuna or shabu shabu beef with its citrus kick,” Nakato Takahara said.
Thick, Dark, Black, Double Black Soy Sauce
As previously mentioned, there’s dark light soy sauce, but that’s not to be confused with thick, dark or black soy sauce (there are technically minute differences between the three, but some brands use the names interchangeably). These types of soy sauce embody all of those titular qualities in great concentration. Generally, these are viscous, heavy, syrupy, slightly sweet and densely flavored.
Black soy sauce, for instance, “sometimes has added palm sugar or molasses, which makes it even darker, thicker, and sweeter than dark soy sauce,” Kimura said.
These sugars allow for caramelization for dishes like Thai pad see ew, “which adds a nice brown color that coats the whole dish, creating a much more complex depth of flavor and appearance,” as opposed to other types of soy sauce, Kimura said.
“The darker color comes from pushing the residuals of the fermented soybeans into the sauce,” Xu noted. “Because of that, it has a much more intense flavor, so should be used lightly compared to light soy sauce.”
Hsu pointed out that “it’s also less wet, so for something like stir-fried noodle dishes, it keeps the noodles from getting soggy.”
“Dark soy sauce is for dimension: color, flavor, texture,” Yong said. “Use it to boost visual appeal and add breadth to the flavor profile. It’s a paint that coats the canvas of noodles and the wok is the brush that imbues the dimension of the sauce.”
These elements are what make it a foundational soy sauce — usually mixed with light soy sauce — for high-heat, high-speed Chinese cooking and braises.
Mushroom Flavored Soy Sauce
Kimura described this as “darker, thicker and sweeter than light soy sauce with a rich savoriness and umami from the addition of mushrooms,” all elements that make it a favorite for Chinese cooks.
“This is the most popular sauce for the Chinese community, commonly used as a color enhancer to enrich the color proteins in the dish,” Lee Kum Kee corporate chef Fred Wang explained.
That said, it’s rarely used alone and is often paired with a Chinese soy sauce, which is more soybean-based than wheat-based.
“It’s usually used in conjunction with light soy sauces when a darker color and subtle sweet flavor is preferred, like with fried rice and chow mein,” Kimura said.
Hsu and Xu, both of whom have Chinese heritage, vouch for its use in braising. “It adds an extra dose of umami on top of regular soy sauce and deeper color for red pork belly,” Xu said.
It can also be used as a swap for dark soy sauce, as Vanessa Pham, co-founder of viral sensation Asian sauce kit brand Omsom, learned from her company’s “tastemakers.” She recommends this exchange “if you want to amp up the umami flavor a bit, especially if the dish already has mushrooms in it.”
Sweet Soy Sauce
Like light soy sauce, this type of soy sauce can mean different things to different cultures. It can be the sweet soy served over cheung fun (steamed rice rolls) at dim sum, a dipping sauce for Thai dumplings, or the signature kecap manis of Indonesian cuisine.
This is “the sweetest of the soy sauces, bordering on a candy-like sweet and saltiness with a sticky texture similar to thin molasses,” Kimura said. This syrupy consistency is created by the addition of palm sugar in proportions as high as 50%.
“Sweet soy sauce is meaningfully thicker and sweeter than light soy sauce,” Pham said, but “it has similar uses to thinner soy sauces.”
Pham and Xu recommend it for dipping, marinades, braises, stews and stir fries.
Hsu’s pro-tip is to try it for savory and sweet applications. “It goes great on ice cream!”
Who Uses What?
“The preferred soy sauce type or brand has much to do with cultural influence,” Jordan Cabatic, the culinary director of Maui Nui Venison, told us. However, across the board, the starter pack begins with light soy sauce, and the “regular” supermarket Kikkoman.
When given the choice, though, Korean, Filipino and Chinese cooks prefer light, thin and salty soy sauce with a larger soybean-to-wheat ratio. Japanese cooks prioritize wheat over soy unless it’s tamari, as “this adds a sweeter flavor with a hint of alcohol and slightly less salt,” Wang explained. Hawaiian chefs like Kirata and Cabatic also gravitate toward the Japanese-style shoyus.
For a Chinese kitchen, pick up mushroom flavored soy sauce. For a more Malaysian Chinese feel, Grumpy Ginger founder Sue Anne Yong keeps sweet soy kicap pekat in her home, while Indonesian homes prefer kecap manis.
Thai food enthusiasts will want to add dark soy sauce to their pantries, while seasoning sauces like Golden Mountain are something Pham considers “a staple in many Vietnamese households.”
Or try them all, and get started on an Asian cooking adventure that will have your taste buds saying, “Soy whaaaat?!” in wonder.