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Adventures with soy sauce

/ 09:45 PM January 28, 2014

My first morning in any foreign country is usually spent trying out the local breakfast and going over the local newspaper. Before visiting any of the recommended tourist spots, I head to the local market or the grocery closest to my hotel to get a sense of prices and learn a few useful words for fruit, vegetables, bottled water, and chichiria to help me navigate restaurant menus later. One can learn a lot about a new place and people by sampling their food.

If you dissect adobo by its ingredients, you will usually have: chicken, pork, garlic, vinegar, soy sauce, salt, pepper and bay leaf. While adobo is generally thought to have Spanish roots because of the garlic, we have to explore the possibility that it was already on the menu in pre-Spanish times because marinating meat in vinegar was necessary not just for taste but also to preserve it in an age without refrigeration. Early Spanish explorers were served this dish in the islands and they rightly described it as adobo or adobar and did not get the local name, which has since been lost to Philippine culinary history. Early Spanish visitors also wrote that many communities they came in contact with were Muslim, so when did pork come into the mix? The soy sauce is definitely the Chinese or Asian factor in the mix, which makes adobo worth further historical inquiry.

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I gave adobo a second look after having to cook it in Sophia University in Tokyo, which has been my home for over a year now. I had to scan the supermarket’s pork section and decide whether to use liempo, ribs, or cubes. I had the choice of imported pork or meat from different parts of Japan, including the famous kurobuta type from black pigs.

Chicken was easily found in different cuts, though getting a whole dressed bird for Singapore chicken was difficult and required visiting a real market, not a supermarket. Finding bay leaf, garlic and pepper was easy. I chose fine sea salt and apple vinegar over the other options on the shelves. The real challenge was soy sauce because I was unprepared for the galaxy of choices. In Manila we have Silver Swan, Marca Piña, Coconut, and Kikkoman as the popular brands. Seeing the familiar Kikkoman logo and the distinctive bottle with the red cap made me feel at home. I could have just taken the familiar, but there were other choices in the Kikkoman section that were hard to pass up.

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Ten years ago, Carol Hau of Kyoto University recommended the “premium” Kikkoman that is not usually exported and is best for table use. It has a bottle with a gold cap to distinguish it from the familiar and salty type with the red cap that is often used for cooking in the Philippines. Some years back, Manila groceries introduced the “genen” or “teien” Kikkoman soy sauce with less sodium. The bottle has a green cap.

Until I had to cook adobo in Tokyo I did not think beyond the color of the bottle caps. Then I was confronted with the choice between the Kikkoman I had known since childhood and its competitor, Yamasa. Soy sauce is toyo for the Pinoy, just the black salty seasoning we can sometimes lace with kalamansi. But in Japan there is toyo for cooking, toyo for seasoning, toyo for table use, toyo for sashimi, toyo for sushi,  with clam flavor, etc. If one can be an expert on wines, there must be special branch of knowledge for soy sauce.

Like wine, diamonds and tuna, there are different grades to soy sauce. “Hyojun” is standard soy that is different from: “Ikkyuu” first grade, “Tokkyuu” special grade, “Tokusen” extra select, “Chuotokusen” ultra select, “Yuuki” organic, “Nama” unpasteurized or raw, or “Marudaizu” made of whole soybeans, not dregs. I did not realize that while the label says “soy” sauce, wheat is part of the process—so people who are allergic to wheat can, with some effort, find soy sauce without wheat.

Although I had been visiting Japan almost annually for the past 10 years, I had not learned to speak Nihongo because in an academic setting you can get along with English. At Sophia University there was no office space in the Asian Studies department so I was given a room in the Spanish department. Thus, during lunch I practice Spanish with the professors to the detriment of Nihongo. However, in the past year I learned to read and write Katakana and Hiragana, enabling me to read street signs and menus. I can now distinguish shampoo from conditioner, but most of the time I read the words but don’t know what they mean. Kanji, or the Chinese characters used in Japanese, I will leave for another lifetime.

Knowing that there is more to the “Koikuchi shoyu” or dark, all-purpose soy sauce that comprises about 80 percent of the market was a life-changing experience. I didn’t know that there was “Shiro shoyu” or white toyo which, despite its color, has a stronger taste. White soy does not discolor food and is used to dip sashimi from white fish. It doesn’t brown adobo either. Then there is “Usukichi,” a light, slightly sweet soy sauce used in the Kansai area. “Tamari shoyu” is a saltier dark sauce for sashimi dip or teriyaki. “Saishikomi” is twice brewed and stronger than Tamari.

How can you understand a country with 7,100 islands and 15,000 adobo recipes, or a country with different types and grades of soy sauce? Understanding a new culture through food is definitely more enjoyable than reading obscure academic-journal articles and books.

(Comments are welcome at [email protected])

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TAGS: adobo, Ambeth R. Ocampo, History, Looking Back, opinion, Soy sauce
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