Soy sauce is a versatile fundamental condiment found in Korean, Chinese, and Japanese restaurants, embodying the three essential elements of taste, aroma, and color. With its rich aroma reminiscent of delightful scents, soy sauce is a well-balanced food item that contains five distinct tastes: sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and umami.
The history of soy sauce in China is nearly identical to that of soybean paste, which is believed to have emerged during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) and was documented on bamboo slips discovered at the archaeological site of Mawangdui.
Similar to many other savory seasonings, soy sauce originally served as a method to stretch salt, historically an expensive commodity. During ancient China's Zhou Dynasty, it was employed as a condiment alongside salt and fermented fish, using salt to amplify its flavor.
Samuel Wells Williams, a 19th-century Sinologist, described the process of crafting the finest soy sauce in China, involving boiling beans until soft, adding an equal amount of wheat or barley, allowing the mixture to ferment, then incorporating a portion of salt and three times the amount of water. This mixture was left to ferment for two to three months before being pressed and strained.
In Korea, the earliest soy sauce production likely began before the era of the Three Kingdoms around 57 BC. The Chinese historical text "Records of the Three Kingdoms," written and published in the 3rd century, mentioned that "Goguryeo people excelled at brewing fermented soybeans." Evidence such as equipment used for soy sauce production has been discovered in the 4th-century Goguryeo murals.
Historical records like "Samguk Sagi" and "Goryeosa" document the extensive use of soy sauce and soybean paste in various contexts in Korea especially in japanese food sashimi and sushi. They were prepared for royal events, used as relief supplies during crises, and detailed procedures for crafting high-quality soy sauce and soybean paste were recorded in texts such as "Guhwangchwaryo" and "Jeungbo sallim gyeongje."
In Japan, the initial condiment was fish-based "gyosho." However, when Buddhism spread to Japan from China and Korea in the 7th century, introduced vegetarianism and soy-based products, including soy sauce, known as "shoyu" in Japan. The first exportation of shoyu began in 1647 by the Dutch East India Company.
Today, Japan boasts approximately 1,600 soy sauce manufacturers, with the top 16 companies holding over 70% of the market share. Since 2001, October 1st has been designated as "Soy Sauce Day" in Japan.