Soy sauce, like jiang but more liquid

The Chinese word for soy sauce is jiangyou, literally ‘jiang oil’, or oil of fermented paste. It is not chemically an oil, but it probably struck the early users as oily.

If we were to conduct a survey in any European city and ask people what they see as the most typical ingredient of Chinese food, the top substance on the list of answer will definitely be soy sauce. Soy sauce indeed originates from China. It is first mentioned in texts from the Northern Wei Dynasty (AD 220 – 265). Early recipe books indicate that it was at first mainly used to season salads, cold cuts and other cold dishes Chinese typically start a dinner with. The use in various ways of cooking pops up in the 12th Century.

Typology

Current Chinese commercial texts distinguish 4 types of soy sauce:

  • Cantonese soy sauce: represented by Haitian and Zhimeiyuan; based on solid fermentation (see below).
  • Shanghai soy sauce: represented by Amoy and Laocai; mainly using liquid fermentation.
  • Foreign soy sauce: represented by Maggi, Kikkoman, Lee Kum Kee, Wadakan; foreign invested, mainly using liquid fermentation.
  • Local soy sauces: e.g. Jinshi (Beijing), Zhenji (Shijiazhuang), Tianli (Tianjin), etc.; small plants or even workshops using proprietary processes.

Most Chinese households have a regular stock of two types of soy sauce in their kitchen: light and dark. Light soy sauce is the original product, while the dark version is produced by adding additional caramel, which also makes the sauce a little thicker. Dark soy sauce is mostly used to flavour and colour meat.

Production

There are various ways to produced soy sauce. The main raw materials are always (soy) beans and cereals. The main distinction is between natural fermentation and the chemical process. The latter is obviously not a traditional process, but a cheap and quick way to cut the long chains of the proteins and starches in the raw materials. Chemical soy sauce is nowadays regarded as inferior. All major brands employ some kind of fermentation.

The earliest fermentation process used so called ‘solid fermentation’, in which a relatively thick broth was inoculated with the moulds to start the fermentation. After the fermentation, salty water was added and after a second period of fermentation the sauce was ready to be packed. The first part of this process resembles that introduced in my earlier post on jiang, fermented pastes, and explains why soy sauce is called jiang sauce in Chinese. A number of local plants still use a variety of the traditional process, often adding their own proprietary mix of ingredients to produce an original local product.

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Many top brands use the ‘wet fermentation’ process in which the main ingredients: beans, cereals and salt are processed into a liquid that is then fermented. This process leads to a very fragrant sauce that preserves the nutrients of the ingredients. It also has a much higher yield than the traditional process. However, it is considerably longer and can take up to 6 months.

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Industry structure

The current national soy sauce output is around 10 mln mt p.a. As many traditional Chinese food products, the soy sauce industry consists of a large number of very small manufacturers. China’s top producer is Haitian (Foshan, Guangdong), which is approximately good for 2% of the national output. Haitian is known for the fact that it has scaled the traditional solid fermentation process up to modern industrial proportions. This results in top quality soy sauce, but the output cannot be easily increased. Perhaps this is a good in thing in the long run. While China has not (yet) produced a Kikkoman, Chinese soy sauce has a much richer flavour than the generic Japanese product.

Top 10 soy sauce brands 2016

The following list has been compiled on the basis of the opinion of Chinese consumers. However, the most popular brand is also the top producer in volume.

Rank brand region
1 Haitian Guangdong
2 Lee Kum Kee Hong Kong
3 Chubang Guangdong
4 Jiajia Hunan
5 Amoy Shanghai
6 Master Guangdong
7 Shinho Shandong
8 Kikkoman Japan
9 Donggu Shandong
10 Totole Shanghai

Guangdong also here stands out as the top region with 3 companies; 4 if we also regard Hong Kong as de facto part of Guangdong. Shanghai and Shandong are the runners up with 2 each.

Derived products

A number of variations on soy sauce have appeared in recent years. An earlier variety is oyster sauce, which is soy sauce flavoured with ground oysters to give it a fishy flavour. Other flavours include mushroom and chilli. Some companies produce soy sauces for special applications like soy sauce for meat, soy sauce for mixing salads, or table top soy sauce for dipping cold cuts or dumplings.

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Eurasia Consult has detailed information about many top soy sauce producers

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.

Babao Porridge – food that enlightens

Babao Porridge (Babaozhou, Babaofan), a sweet rice porridge stuffed with dates, lotus seeds and other fruits, is an extremely interesting example of a traditional product revived by industrial production. The concept of babao is used in more traditional foods, e.g. zongzi, filled steamed rice cubes wrapped in leaves, which are introduced in a separate post of this blog.

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Present day Babao Porridge is derived from a southern type of porridge called Laba Porridge. La refers to the La month, the last month of the lunar calendar and ba (‘eight’) to the eighth day of that month. On the 8th day of the lunar 12th month people used to prepare a porridge using eight or more ingredients to celebrate the end of the year. Another story explains the custom as a Buddhist tradition.

Laba porridge was first cooked as a sacrifice for ancestors and gods during Laba Festival as a part of winter worship. In an agricultural society, the 12th month or layue (腊月) was a time when families consumed some of their stores from the harvest season. Cooking a porridge with rich and varied ingredients is a way to celebrate a prosperous harvest for the year, in hopes of a better one to follow.

Just like Christmas overtaking the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia, when Buddhism arrived in China, it stamped its own influence on this local tradition. For Buddhists, Laba Festival is also Buddha’s Enlightenment Day.

The legend says that Shakyamuni, after 6 years of seeking enlightenment by living frugally, once sat down under a tree, dead tired. A woman herding cows saw him and prepared a simple porridge for him using course cereals and wild fruits. Shakyamuni was so revived from eating a bowl of that porridge, that he immediately gained enlightenment. From that day on, Buddhist Temples prepared a similar type of porridge on the 8th of each 12th month.

With the increasing pace of life, modern Chinese are less and less willing to spend several hours a day in the kitchen. This includes less frequently prepared foods like Babao Porridge.

The basic production process is easy enough. The raw materials are mixed and cooked, cooled and then packed in cans, similar to those used to pack soft drinks. In this way, the porridge can be easily consumed as a convenient food, while travelling, as a snack during office work, etc. A plastic spoon is usually attached to the can, so the traveller does need to pack a metal spoon from the kitchen either.

Formulation

The most essential aspect of the production of Babao Porridge is the combination of emulsifiers and thickeners. Babao Porridge consists of a viscous liquid part and solid parts. Manufacturers need to formulate the product in such a way, that the solid parts are more or less evenly distributed over the liquid part upon opening of the can.

A number of Chinese manufacturers of emulsifiers and thickeners supply products specially formulated for Babao Porridge. Some sources propagate CMC as the most appropriate thickener for this application.

A combination of CMC and a low calorie high intensity sweetener to replace the sugar will not only provide an authentic mouthfeel, but also decrease the caloric value.

Industrial recipes for so called ‘low calorie Babao Porridge,’ proposed by manufacturers of ingredients use sticky rice as the macro-ingredient, where part of the rice can be replaced with pumpkin. Various combinations of fruits (dates are most popular) and nuts (including peanuts) are added. Frequently suggested micro-ingredients and additives: pumpkin powder, xylitol, oligoxylose, CMC, konjac powder, and EDTA.

As a result of all the recent food safety problems, Chinese consumers have become more aware of ingredients and started asking if one food really needs so different ingredients. A recent article (24/9/2014) criticises the use of xanthan in one brand of Babao Porridge. Xanthan is known in the porridge industry under the nickname zhoubao, literally: ‘porridge treasure’. The reporter believes it is a means to hide the lack of skills of the manufacturer to produce a proper porridge.

Top brands

The following brands are recognised as China’s top brands for Babao porridge

Yinlu   PorrYinlu

The Yinlu Food Group was established in Xiamen (Fujian) in 1985 as producer of canned food and beverages. It is still one of China’s top producers of protein drinks. It now operates production units in Shandong, Hubei, Anhui and Sichuan. Nestlé has recently acquired a controlling stake in Yinlu.

Wahaha   PorrWahaha

The Wahaha Group was established in Hangzhou (Zhejiang) in 1987 as a private company operated by a school, producing tonic for school children. The founder and CEO, Mr. Zong Qinghou, is currently one of China’s richest entrepreneurs. Wahaha has 150 subsidiaries in all regions of China, employing 30,000 people. It ranks among China’s top 500 companies in 2014 It is a relatively new player in this market, but has rapidly risen to this position. The range includes a babao porridge sweetened with xylitol. Wahaha has started a new campaign for its canned porridge range in January 2015, stressing that the company is being loyal to the Chinese tradition of porridge making. The following picture says that Wahaha’s Babao Porridge ‘tastes just like mother used to cook it’

WahahPorr

Qinqi   PorrQinqi

Based in Guangzhou (Guangdong), Qinqi was the first in China to launch Babao porridge in cans, which created the market for ready to drink Babao porridge. Although no longer the number one brand, Qinqi still bears the honorary name ‘porridge king’.

Qinqin   PorrQinqin

This brand is owned by the Xinxin Food Group, established in Yangzhou (Jiangsu) in 1991, by a local factory and a Taiwan investor. It produces a range of convenience foods, including Babao porridge.

Tongfu   PorrTongfu

The name of the producer, Tongfu Bowl Porridge Co., Ltd., betrays that it is dedicated to producing exactly that: porridge in (plastic) bowls. Tongfu was the first to introduce this type of packaging in China. It is considerably lighter than the canned version. It is located in Wuhu (Anhui)

Eurasia Consult knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.