In Chinese cooking, it does not get much more basic than soy sauce. This fermented bean paste is used widely across all styles of food, either as a condiment for cooking or simply as a dipping sauce. In Taiwan alone, a huge number of brands are available, with mass market local and imported products dominating the supermarket shelves.
“The problem with most (mass market) soy sauces is that we have no idea what’s in them,” Lu Mei-ying (盧美英) told the Taipei Times as she sought to explain why she and her mother-in-law Chen Ah-gui (陳阿貴) had launched their own brand of handcrafted soy.
“At a time when people are putting more and more effort into finding good produce to put on the table, something as basic as soy sauce is often overlooked. Because we have always used it, we don’t necessarily think about what goes into making soy sauce.”
Ah-Gui Natural Handmade Soy (阿貴天然手工醬油) had its origins with a desire on Chen’s part to have control over this key ingredient in her cooking, and at first it was intended only for the consumption of family and friends. Word-of-mouth publicity has since led to orders from around the country, and the small operation has grown to incorporate all the commercial paraphernalia of international certification and elegant packaging.
The whole project started following a visit from Lu’s brother to see his sister’s family in Hualien three years ago. Chen made a big meal to celebrate the event, but Lu’s brother was hesitant to eat much of the food. His reason: He didn’t want to eat any soy sauce, a condiment that could be found in most of the dishes. According to Lu, he asked his mother-in-law whether she knew what went into the making of the soy sauce she used.
Lu worked her way through this well-rehearsed story, heading for the punch line. Her brother had worked with a soy sauce manufacturer for 20 years, and he knew not to touch the stuff. “They put all kinds of chemicals in it,” she said. “Not just preservatives and artificial color, but all kinds of other stuff to expedite the production process.”
It is no secret that many soy sauces, as with all kinds of prepared sauces available in supermarkets, use a whole arsenal of modern technology to make their product both appealing and profitable. The question for Lu was that given a list of ingredients with unpronounceable names and the vagaries of legal labeling requirements, could you ever be really be sure what you were getting. Having been alerted to the hidden hazards of mass-market soy, the answer for Lu was to return to basics, making everything from scratch using age-old recipes.
The company uses locally grown black beans and cane sugar, as well as another rather surprising local ingredient: coffee. The water is taken from mountain streams running off the Central Mountain Range.
Black beans are increasingly popular with makers of artisan soy sauce in Taiwan because it is a product that can be sourced locally, rather than soybeans, which are generally imported from the US, and are often tainted with the suspicion of genetic modification.
“We want to use products from our local area as much as we can,” Lu said, adding that almost all their primary ingredients are sourced from small farmers in Hualien County whom she knows and trusts.
As for the use of coffee, Lu said that this innovation had come about in response to an issue with the color of their naturally fermented soy. “It came out a very light color, and when used for stewing food, it did not provide a really attractive depth of color,” Lu said.
Artificial color was not an option, and a chance meeting with Chen Po-yu (陳柏佑), a lecturer from the Taiwan Hospitality and Tourism College (台灣觀光學院) in Hualien, led to a solution. Adding brewed coffee to the mix added both color and flavor to the soy, and also provided Ah-Gui with its unique selling point.
“I understood the desire to make a natural and additive-free product,” said Chen, who runs a small coffee and teashop selling local small batch tea and coffee. “We are all aiming for the same thing.”
Despite the unconventional addition of coffee, Ah-Gui has an old school flavor and texture and is markedly different from many of the richer, sweeter boutique products on the market. “It is a return to basics,” Lu said, adding that she had never realized how incredibly arduous and painstaking the traditional production process could be.
“I used to be pretty casual about many things,” Lu said, “but in making soy with my mother-in-law, I have learned to be meticulous every step of the way. Just one mistake and a whole batch is wasted.”
Lu was excited that three years on, the achievement of Ah-Gui is being recognized with government support and guidance to improve the production facilities.
“It is possible that this year we might get a subsidy to purchase temperature and humidity control equipment,” Lu said, adding that up to now, temperature control had all been done with home thermometers and strategically placed fans.
Ah-Gui has a very niche in the growing artisan soy market, but Lu emphasized that the product still adheres very much to a “home-made” ethos that relied on time and care, rather than technology, to achieve a high quality product, and adds another natural choice to an oft-neglected area of the Chinese dining table.