Heritage Heroes: Artisanal Soy Sauce Makers in Singapore

Soybeans, flour, salt and water. The ingredients for soy sauce sound simple enough, but they all come together to form a sum much larger than its parts. Originally invented in China over 2,000 years ago as a way to stretch salt—then an expensive commodity—soy sauce has since spread all across the world, becoming the backbone of many Asian cuisines. Well made, soy sauce offers much more than mere saltiness. There is umami, mild sweetness, and depth of flavour thanks to a painstaking process of fermentation and aging.

In many cases though, industrially-produced soy sauce is made by hydrolysing soybeans in food-grade hydrochloric acid, which breaks down the proteins in the legume into flavour compounds like amino acids. The resulting product, while bearing a passing semblance to what soy sauce should be, is usually one-dimensional, lacking the depth of flavour and fragrance of a traditionally fermented and brewed soy sauce. To do that, soybeans are first steamed and allowed to cool, before being coated with wheat flour and aspergillus mold spores, which is also known in Japan as koji. The inoculated beans are then left on trays for a few days to let the mold grow. The mash is then mixed with a brine, and left to sit in a warm environment for anywhere upward of three months, sometimes even for years.

soy sauce singapore
A fermentation process turns four simple ingredients into delicious soy sauce

While sitting around, dozens of processes are happening to the pre-soy sauce mixture: starch from the flour breaks down, and becomes converted into sugars and alcohols; while the soy proteins break down into many different organic compounds—all of which add bits of complexity to the darkening brew.

In Singapore, the tradition of making soy sauce started with early Chinese immigrants, who brought recipes—many of them from a time when families would brew their own supply—from back home. Throughout the following decades, the number of traditional soy sauce makers dwindled. Only a small handful still remain of those who insist on doing things the old, slow, and perhaps most rewarding way.

Many of these are small businesses that have stuck to their guns, producing quality soy sauce that has earned them loyal customers who have stayed with them for years and decades; even though they produce such small quantities that they aren’t stocked in major supermarkets. Now, with the third generation leading the charge, these soy sauce makers are opening up to many possibilities.

soy sauce singapore
Vats of soy sauce fermenting under the sun at Nanyang Sauce's factory

New Frontiers

The first thing I notice at Nanyang Sauce's boutique are the labels on their traditional range of soy sauce bottles—they say "Golden Swan Brand", complete with the image of a, well, golden swan. Ken Koh, the third generation owner of the sauce company explains, "The company was actually named Nanyang Sauce from the start. It's just that a lot of people were illiterate in the past, so all these sauce makers, or in fact most manufacturers of any product, would put pictures on their labels. So people identified the brands by these pictures. There was a light bulb one, you probably know Tiger brand, and ours is a swan."

Like many others of his generation, Koh entered the family business after a stint or education in an unrelated field. For him, it was 14 years running a corporate team- building business. "I knew that it was a matter of time before I entered the family trade. To prepare myself, I did something in a different field so that I would have more exposure, and experience the challenges of starting up, of managing a team and cashflow. I've made friends in the business world, and feel like I'm now in a slightly better position to rejuvenate the brand," shares the enterprising 34-year-old.

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The earthen vats that hold soy sauce get better with age, much like a chef's wok

Part of Koh's efforts to modernise and market the brand include coming up with new packaging for the sauces, as well as setting up a boutique at 288 East Coast Road—their first brick-and-mortar retail outlet, designed to resemble a "hipster provision shop". There, they hold sauce appreciation workshops, where guests get to taste the varying grades, and styles of soy sauce. At the top of the line is their light and dark virgin brew (头抽) soy sauce, which has been aged 12 months to produce a strongly aromatic and intensely savoury condiment.

Besides time, the other secret to producing a good bottle of soy sauce, Koh tells me, are the earthen vats where the sauce is aged in. They've dubbed these containers "dragon vats", as each one comes embellished with the mythical beast. "Many of these vats have been around since my grandfather started the business in 1959. They've got a 'memory', and become more seasoned with each batch, so the sauce they produce becomes better as time passes. It's a bit like how Chinese chefs value their old woks so much because the woks become more seasoned with each use," shares Koh. At Nanyang Sauce's factory grounds, the vats sit under the tropical sun, fermenting at temperatures upwards of 40°C.

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Dickson Woo of Kwong Woh Hing checking on the ceramic vats of fermented soy beans

More Than Just Soy Sauce

Across the island at Defu Lane, a similar sight greets our eyes at the grounds of Kwong Woh Hing Sauce Factory, a soy sauce producer that’s been around since 1947. Rows of traditional ceramic vats sit alongside giant steel tanks, all fermenting under the sun. Entering the factory, the first thing that hits you is the smell of soy sauce. Carried on the wind, the scent fermenting soybeans is eye-wateringly savoury. All the soy sauce here is aged for a minimum of a year, although that period can go up to a number that Simon Woo, the second generation owner of Kwong Woh Hing, is tight- lipped about. Like many family-run businesses, the recipe and process for making their produce remain a secret, although Woo shares that the most important step is the fermentation of the beans. It's key to the soul of the sauce. "Even if two people use the exact same recipe for making soy sauce, the final taste will be different because the environment, and nature of the [fermentation] culture will be different," he adds.

Having been in the business for decades, the 53-year- old Woo is also witness to the changing taste of consumers. He reveals, "In the past, because people were less affluent, they used less soy sauce, so it had to be more salty. Now tastes have changed, and we focus more on the aroma and flavour of the sauce." Kwong Woh Hing launched its premium line of light and dark soy sauces about 18 years ago, and has seen many long-time customers moving from regular to premium.

Besides soy sauce, Kwong Woh Hing has also branched out. Woo’s taken to fermenting his own healthy drinking vinegars, and also makes condiments like sambal and plum sauce. Of particular note is their range of "Signature Delicacies" pre-made pastes that can be used to prepare everything from black pepper crab to char siew, all of which took Woo, who's a consummate cook, over a year to formulate.

The names of the sauces play on hawker stalls which take their name from the locations of their original stalls, resulting in a (fictional) "Hougang Char Siew" sauce. It's the brainchild of Woo's son, Dickson, who worked with students from Republic Polytechnic to conceptualise and design the packaging. "We wanted to create something that would appeal to a younger audience, yet still retain a sense of nostalgia, which is why we went with illustrations on the packaging," says the younger Woo, who entered the family business three years ago at the age of 27. Having studied digital media and animation, it's clear that the younger Woo has an eye for trends, and fresh perspectives on the traditional business. Currently, he's largely involved with the marketing and branding of Kwong Woh Hing.

While the soy sauce used to be only sold directly from the factory, and to other businesses; they have since also moved online, and onto the shelves of COMO Dempsey. "We cannot produce enough to be stocked in the major supermarkets—a small company like us, we only have heritage to offer," the younger Woo declares.

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Coating the soy beans in wheat flour at Kwong On Cheong

Against All Odds

Like many traditional businesses, Kwong On Cheong has had to adapt to the rising tide of progress in Singapore: ever-increasing land prices and cost of operations, and a shortage of manpower. For the 79-year-old soy sauce company, this meant moving to Malaysia in order to preserve the traditional ways of making soy sauce. "If you want to brew soy sauce the traditional way, you need space. At the volume that we were producing, we were forced to move to Johor Bahru in 2014, so that we would have enough land," says Benjamin Song, third generation owner of the company.

While relocating the factory to Singapore's immediate neighbour might mean lower operating costs on the surface, the move was fraught with challenges. Shares the 32-year-old Song, "we entered Malaysia without much knowledge of the place. I went in myself, sussed out the factory, laid out the floor plans, got the license. I basically did everything on my own as my dad—who was running the business up till the point when I entered—wanted me to head the move as he didn't want me to rely on him." With the move, Song had too much to worry about, including security, utilities, and even potential floods. Then, he had the details: whether the factory was suitable for food processing, paperwork, and getting familiar with the administrative procedures of the local government.

For Song, making soy sauce was always an eventuality, as he echoes a familiar sentiment: "I wanted to get experience in the outside world, so I studied economics and finance, and started working in a related field." Five years ago, he left a career in the finance industry to join the family business, which started with Song's grandfather in 1939. Like both Nanyang Sauce and Kwong Woh Hing, Song’s sauces are not retailed in large supermarkets, and instead have relied on a steady stream of loyal regulars— both consumers and businesses—who purchase their sauces. He lets on that they “haven't done much marketing or publicity because [they] want to let the brand grow organically", although they too, are beginning to move into online retail.

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Kwong On Cheong's light soy sauce supreme, made with reference to Japanese-style soy sauce

Kwong On Cheong’s most recent innovation is something called Light Soy Sauce Supreme, which they’ve begun retailing online on RedMart. Song admits, "With the soy sauce, there's only so much we can do as it's a basic household necessity. But this was made with reference to Japanese-style soy sauce. It suits Chinese cuisine, but I feel like it's one of the few, if not only, local soy sauce that can complement sushi because it doesn't have that lingering saltiness."

Sauces from Nanyang Sauce, Kwong Woh Hing, and Kwong On Cheong can be purchased from their respective websites.