Kwong Woh Hing: The World's Best Soy Sauce Might be Right in Our Own Backyard!


Urns of Soya Beans Fermenting in the Singapore Sun

The inspiration to visit a soy sauce factory first came about when I was watching the Korean drama, "Le Grand Chef". There was one particular scene where Sung Chan visited a Soya Sauce factory where rows of Soy Sauce Urns where silently fermenting away in the field.  It was then that I told myself that I have to visit such a place one day. It never ever crossed my mind that there was such a place just 5 mins from my home!

I first got wind of Kwong Woh Hing when I visited the Food Nazi.  The old uncle was telling me that we Singaporeans are foolish to think that food in Malaysia is better when the best food is really found in Singapore.  He then went on to tell me that the best Soya Sauces came from Singapore and they were better than the ones from Malaysia or even Japan. He mentioned one particular Soya Sauce factory in the Hougang area which made excellent Soya Sauce, but he wasn't sure if it was still in business.  So I assumed that like most traditional industries, the factory must have stopped functioning already.


However, I was challenged to look into this matter again when the Food Canon said in his blog post that the best Soy Sauce comes from Malaysia.  That got me to search again for the mysterious Soy Sauce factory that the Food Nazi talked about.  Thanks to our fans (esp Skywalkers Sg) in the Facebook Fanpage, I found myself standing amidst rows of antique urns where billions of aspergillus mold are silently turning soy proteins into liquid umami!


Vat used for steaming the soy beans

Soy Sauce is arguably the most commonly used condiment in the world but it's something we tend to take for granted. When was the last time you took a good whiff of the soy sauce in the little saucer in front of you? Did you dip the tip of your chopstick into the sauce to see if it is a full flavoured, naturally brewed Soy Sauce or a cheap one that just adds one dimensional saltiness and msg flavour?  Would you even know a good Soy Sauce if you tasted it?

So what makes a good Soy Sauce?

Well, a good Soy Sauce should have a complexity of aroma and  flavour which can only come about through the process of lengthy fermentation.   Nowadays a lot of the Soy Sauce in the market shorten the lengthy fermentation by using chemical boosters.  Some Soy Sauce don't even go through fermentation, but use chemical hydrolysis to treat the soya beans instead.  In this instance, hydrochloric acid is used to breakdown the soy proteins into amino acids, thereby shortening a process that would normally take a few months to just days.  So comparing a naturally fermented, aged Soy Sauce to a processed one is like comparing an aged Parmagiano Reggiano cheese to a slice of individually wrapped processed cheese.  One is made with time, the other subjects the soy beans/milk through a chemical time warp.


Mixing the Soya Beans, Wheat Flour and Mold

But today, I shall take you through the process of making naturally brewed Soy Sauce, a process that has been practiced for thousands of years.  The making of Soy Sauce starts with the steaming of the soya beans, after which wheat flour and aspergillus mold is added and left to germinate on racks for the a few days.

Once the aspergillus mold has started to grow, the beans are placed into urns and brine is added.  That's it.  Now we wait for the mold to do its magic.  A year later, the resulting liquor is your light soy sauce.  In order to make dark soy sauce, this liquor is placed in another urn and sunned for another 6 months where the colour gradually darkens and the liquor gets further concentrated.  Caramel is then added it becomes the familiar dark soy sauce that we drizzle over chicken rice.

If you have been buying Soy Sauce, you would have noticed that there are many grades available from each manufacturer. (Its the same here at Kwong Woh Hing)  In the Singapore market, there is usually a Premium/Superior Grade and a Standard Grade.  The difference really depends on each manufacturer.  But in general, a Premium Grade soy sauce means that there is less additives added to the resulting liquor at the end of the fermentation process.


Top (first month), Bottom (12 months later)

The purest form of Soy Sauce that you can get is the resulting liquor after the end of the fermentation process.  This liquor contains all the natural products of fermentation.  Just like Extra Virgin Olive Oil, this can be called Extra Virgin Soy Sauce and is the best grade Soy Sauce.  From here brine and other additives are added to make commercial grade Soy Sauce.  They also add more brine to the left over beans and go for a second fermentation which results in yet another (lesser) grade of Soy Sauce.
 
The period of fermentation is very important as wine connoisseurs will also tell you.  The longer the fermentation, the better the resulting product.  Most "Naturally Brewed" Soy Sauce would be fermented for a couple of months.  Nowadays, the period of fermentation can also be shortened with the use of chemical boosters. I am glad that the owners of Kwong Woh Hin have kept to traditional ways and are still fermenting their Soy Sauce in urns (Some dating back to 1943) under the Singapore sun for a whole year.  They tell me that if they stretched it to three years, the Soy Sauce is even better, but they can't do it due to land scarcity. I keep stressing "Singapore sun" because you do need a temperature of between 30 to 35 degrees for fermentation to take place.  So in temperate countries the urns have to be kept warm artificially.  However, in tropical Singapore, the soy beans can be left to ferment under the heat of natural sunlight all year round.

 
Salt Crystals forming on top of the Soy Sauce as it undergoes an additional 
6 months of fermentation to turn it into dark soy sauce


The grade of the Soy Sauce is also determined by what happens in the final processing.  The premium grade soy sauce which Kwong Woh Hing bottles is the first pressed liquor that is filtered with some rock sugar and preservative added to stop the fermentation process.  This artisanal Soy Sauce is available only at their factory.

I have conducted a few blind tests with my family and even got the Food Canon, Terry to compare it with the one he gets from Malaysia.  The premium light Soya Sauce has a distinct floral bouquet and an umami flavour that covers the palate. Compared it to the other commercial Soy Sauces that I picked up from the supermarket, the difference is quite distinct.  The cheap Soy Sauce still tastes good, but the taste is more one dimensional, since you are essentially tasting glutamate (MSG) and it also lacks a complex aroma.  Terry tasted the premium light Soy Sauce and agreed that it is indeed better than the one he gets from Malaysia.  I haven't done a comparison of the Dark Soy Sauce yet, but I can tell you that it went really well with the Chicken Rice that my mother-in-law made. 4.75/5


Premium grade Boutique Soya Sauce 
(Light Soy Sauce $8.80, Dark Soy Sauce $9.80)

To understand why a naturally brewed Soy Sauce tastes better than a chemically enhanced one, we need understand a little bit about soya beans and the process of fermentation.  Soy Beans are an exceptional source of proteins.  They are one of the very few plants products that contain all the essential amino acids that our bodies cannot manufacture.  That is the reason why Tofu and other soya bean products have been used for thousands of years in China as an alternative to meat.

Now, our bodies are wired to know what to eat, even though we may not realize it.  We have receptors on our tongues to detect amino acids of which glutamate is one.   So physiologically speaking, the reason we love MSG so much is because our bodies need protein and our tongues have receptors detect these glutamates.  But there are many other amino acids which our palate can detect and this is now at the the forefront of scientific research.  The concept of Kokumi has been proposed by Japanese scientists as yet another flavour enhancer that gives tasty food that "heartiness" or full mouth feel.  In order to experience Kokumi, the palate needs to detect another set of amino acids, viz histadine and glutathione.  Histadine is yet another essential amino acid that the body cannot manufacture but, as you guessed it, it is present in soya beans.  So a naturally fermented product would contain not only glutamates but a whole array of amino acids as compared to a product boosted with just glutamate.  One is like listening to an orchestra while this other is a solo violin recital.  In addition, during the process of fermentation, the aspergillus mold also breaks down the carbohydrates found in the wheat flour into sugars and then into alcohol.  These aromatic esters are easily detected when you smell a naturally brewed soy sauce which might not be as distinct in one that is made through accelerated chemical hydrolysis.

 
Various Sauce mixes

The leftover beans after the liquor has been extracted is not wasted.  This is made into bean paste which is a useful ingredient in many recipes.  Most people nowadays would probably know it as Miso, which is very popular in Japanese cuisine.  In Chinese cooking, bean paste is used in a wide variety of recipes from steamed fish to char siew to stewed pork belly.  It also forms the base for Hoisin sauce and the familiar sweet sesame sauce used for Yong Tau Foo and Chee Cheong Fun.  When you visit Kwong Woh Hing, do ring up a day earlier to order their Chee Cheong Fun  and then buy yourself a bottle of their Sesame sauce to eat it with.  Their Sesame sauce is made with natural Red Yeast instead of red food colouring and is very very good.  Their specially sourced  Chee Cheong Fun is also made with a higher ratio of rice flour and is smooth and tender with a natural rice flavour.   This is easily the best Chee Cheong Fun that I have eaten for ages! 4.75

Conclusion


Hard to believe that there are still antique urns of traditional Soy Sauce brewing in our very own backyards right? If you love to cook, there is little reason not to get hold of this Soy Sauce to see if it makes a difference to your dishes.  If you don't, they still make an excellent gift for friends or relatives who cook.  For me personally, this is probably the best discovery I have made so far in my five years of blogging!


Grandma inspecting the Urns at the old factory in Tai Seng

Kwong Woh Hing
5 Defu Lane 9
Singapore 539247
Open 9am to 5pm daily
Saturdays 9am to 3pm
Closed on Sundays
62889497
www.kwh.com.sg


Note: 
Kwong Woh Hing products are only available direct from their factory.  
The Sauces will be available during their roadshow on 30 June to 10 Jul 2011 at Takashimaya Square B2


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33 comments:

Janice, aka e_ting said...

This is really interesting, especially as I've just read a lot about traditional soy sauce makers in Hong Kong while researching a newspaper piece. what a great find. I must try and get my hands on some KWH soy in HK!

Also interesting that rock sugar is part of the process, as it's not added in HK/Canto styles nor the Fujian style (the major styles readily available in HK). Thanks for an awesome post!

edfoong said...

"premium" is really overused in our region, and people don't really know what it means until they read this blog entry. i like your interpretation of EVSS. maybe the soya sauce makers would make use of that to market their products. consumers would understand "Extra Virgin Soya Sauce" more than "Premium Soya Sauce" i think.

ieat said...

Hi Janice,

Yes we were talking about a bottle of artisanal soy sauce in HK costing $30! It would be very interesting to compare them side by side! Not sure how you are going to get KWH soy in HK. You might have to get them to ship a bottle to you!

ieat said...

@Edfoong, glad you like EVSS! Yes, for most manufacturers "premium" still doesn't come close to extra virgin soy sauce!

dillon said...

You taught me a helluva lot. Definitely a must try. Did you try their Kecap Manis style as well?
Dillon

ClearTear said...

Oh man, first of all, I must say the Packaging is so beautiful, nice designed label, i would thought such a traditional shop would not bother abt nice packaging.

Most of the soya sauce at supermarket have the same boring packaging, probably cheaper. So i kudos to a traditional factory to respect creative and bring their soya sauce to another level.

@ ieat, why do they only sell direct from their factory? So where they sell to? overseas? wholeseller?

ieat said...

They sell commercial products direct to restaurants and hawkers. But general public can buy directly from them at their factory.

Yukari Sakamoto said...

Sugoi! Very interesting Leslie sensei. Too bad they aren't selling in shops. Will have to try to get to Takashimaya. I hope they will also be selling their soy sauce too at the event.

Now to try the soy sauce with some of Shinji's sashimi!

Karmeleon said...

My friend's grandmama! Yeah, she passed us a set of sauces. I loved it.

Ping said...

Thanks for sharing your great find Les! :) I'll make sure I go visit the factory when I come home next year! My mum gave me 1 bottle each of light and dark made-in-Singapore soy sauce to bring here and I am so grateful for that because the made-in-china soy sauces that the Asian shops here sell are nowhere near what we have. Steffen fell in love with dark soy sauce (he calls it his 'Black Gold' and would eat it by the teaspoon if he could) since I introduced him to the bottle my mum gave us. :) So maybe after trying the KWH ones he'd want to bring a carton home! hee.

cactuskit said...

This is the post of the year for me, thks! : )

Kuan said...

Thks for finding this gem! I used to live at Upper Paya Lebar Road in Tai Seng area and my shophouse was literally just across the road from the this soya sauce factory. I often wondered where it has gone. Am thankful that they are still around and still making artisan soya sauce. The pic with the old lady inspecting the urns brings back warm memories on the good old days. Thks again ! Indeed your best blog thus far. Keep it up !

snake86 said...

My father swears by this soy sauce, he refuse to touch any other :) indeed best soy sauce around! this folks deserve a culture medallion or something lah

Anonymous said...

in malaysia, the best soy sauces available to the public are home made ones, comes in unlabelled bottles, and not available in shops. i also feel a good soy sauce should not be salty at all and can be drank straight

kampongboy said...

They do home delievery if you buy above $25. Just ordered a couple of bottles of Premium to try. Was always trying to find a better soya sauce without going over to Malaysia. Thanks Leslie for a wonderful discovery.

soundman said...

Interesting blog and thanks for covering this for us. I am sure such quality sauces will make a difference for any cook or chef. I have just brought back a bottle of Baby Brand pure sesame oil from Ghee Hiang, Penang. My friends who used it sweared by it, a vast difference in fragrance and taste. Another Extra Virgin Sesame Oil?

TJG said...

I really wish I could get a hold of some of that sauce. Unfortunately I don't think I'll be able to find it here in Sweden... Bummer!

Great post!

ieat said...

Thanks for all your comments! It is good to know that there is so much support for the Simon and Daisy at Kwong Woh Hing!

Carolyn Chan said...

And silly me thinking all soya sauces are the same - thanks so much for opening our eyes to this artisanal craft and so proud that it's Singaporean! Can't wait to get my hands on some. I don't cook too often with it but I can imagine being able to taste the difference with sushi and sashimi, which I love.

Siongster said...

There is a shop selling KWH sauce in HK. Don't have the details but you can call them to ask :D

jems said...

I saw this at their roadshow at Taka last year and gave it a miss as it's very pricey compared to other soy sauce~ Maybe I should give it a try now :P

J2Kfm said...

There are in fact several soy sauce factories in Ipoh (where I come from) that still make soy sauce this way; leaving them to ferment under the hot sun on those same large containers.
I used to conduct audit at these factories hence I could see the different ways of them making bottled soy sauce. Trust me, some places completely neglect the matter of hygiene and you would think twice to consume their soy sauce again!
There's also a HALAL (certified) Malay factory nearer to Kuala Kangsar/Sungai Siput that makes the halal version too.

ieat said...

Thanks for sharing J2Kfm. Thankfully, Kwong Woh Hing is HACCP certified. So when I visited the factory, I had to don the head gear and apron and there were areas I was not allowed to step into.

kampongboy said...

My premium soya sauce just arrived today. can't wait to try it out. Used it to favour my fried egg with miced pork (kai jiew muu saup). it was the best tasting one i had ever tried. did a taste test of the soya sauce with the most expensive brand i could find at ntuc (abt S$7+), even the kids found that the premium is more favorsome. tommorrow, i will cook chicken rice and try the dark soya sauce. already i am one happy man.

ieat said...

I am happy that you are happy.

christopher said...

They sell commercial products direct to cafes and hawkers. But general public can buy straight from them at their factory.

cactuskit said...

Got the chance to try the soy sauce, dark soy sauce and chee cheong fun sauce all at one go this evening at leslie's home. Definitely the best : ). Will be ordering very soon.

Anonymous said...

Hello @ieat,

Thanks for the interesting article.

I went to the company's website and saw other soya sauce products that makes me question how commited this company is to the tradional way of brewing soya sauce, esp in relation to using "additives" like rock sugar/sugar, glucose syrup, caramel (for coloring), MSG (!!).
I thought that traditional soya sauces are made by mixing soybeans, wheat and yeast and left fermented naturally. Hence, shouldn't these producers shun all modern additives that are being used to enable a much cheaper manufacturing process at the detriment of the real taste?

I think there are still some Japanese and Taiwanse soya sauce makers that strictly adhere to the traditional way of making soya sauce.

Would be interesting to hear your thoughts on this?

Anonymous said...

Went to check out their sauces at the Taka food fair. They sell the chee cheong fun there too. Bought some to try :D yes, both chee cheong fun & sauces!

rae said...

awwww a feature on my fav dark soy sauce! while it is my family's favourite, the point that we have to go down to the factory to buy does mean that we sometimes have to eat the better-than-average-but-not-as-nice dark ss, unless we happen to run into their roadshows. my mom has a soft spot for their licorice and lime syrup. my personal fav way to enjoy dark ss aside from dipping my chopstick in, is on a sunny side up with runny yolks and a portion of white rice.

amandob said...

Read this post last night, today first thing my uncle, gf, and I went to have a look. We were sold ASAP and grateful for your hard work and recommendations. A very noticeable difference in flavor. Back to America tomorrow, so thanks for helping make our last day in Singapore a memorable one!

ieat said...

Glad you like the soy sauce!

Anonymous said...

Wow! Thanks for this great post! I remembered by dad buying bottles of this sauce for my granny and now I know where they have gone to, yeah! Will compare this to my Kwong Cheong Thye which is also pretty good. Sabby

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