If butter is the lifeblood to French cooking, it is certainly not a stretch to say that soy sauce is the same to Penang cuisine. Like salt, it is ever-present in every dish that brings forth exclamations of delight and the toe-curling sensations of culinary pleasure that follow thereafter. Unlike salt, however, it is more than merely salty – it is flavourful, an explosion of umami. After all, there are whole entire dishes dedicated to showcasing its distinct flavour. Think Cantonese stir-fried noodles, dark-soy braised meats and eggs, and heady, herbal broths dark with the flavour and fragrance of it.
Such is, inherently, the flavour of the north. Rich, deep, caramelly flavours that seek to draw one in, bite after delicious bite.
It is this flavour in particular that lends Penang its special place in the hearts of foodies and food-travellers the world over. And while most modern day supermarkets carry Asian-cuisine ingredients so as to cater to those living abroad, the results are just not completely identical. It never is, to the chagrin of those seeking to replicate just one taste of home.
The good news is, it’s likely not a shortage of culinary prowess that foils one’s plans in recreating the authentic Penang flavour in one’s own kitchen. The bad news is, finding the traditionally-fermented soy-sauce with which to recreate said taste, is likely going to take a lot of back-and-forth travel. The problem with globalisation is simply this: demand versus supply, and time-honoured traditions versus modernised techniques. There’s certainly an argument to be made for both, but we won’t make it here.
What’s truly important to note is simply this: that Penang food, due to ingredients that may not be sourcable anywhere else on the globe, retains an authenticity that brings travellers back in droves annually. It’s particularly heartening for this northern Malaysian state, especially since it relies so heavily on tourism, and food tourism at that. There’s not quite any other establishment in the world that can dish out a plate of Char Koay Teow the way Penang hawkers do, after all.
It may sound ridiculous, absurd even, but the soy sauce one gets in Penang is quite unlike the soy sauce one gets elsewhere. The premise through which this claim is substantiated is simple: soy sauce makers in Penang utilise age-old techniques passed from father to son, relying heavily on the merits of fair weather, while navigating through the difficulties of rougher, rainier days.
The result is soy sauce that is ripe with flavour, so wonderfully and intensely savoury. And albeit this method yields in smaller quantities, given the constraints of such labour-intensive work, some would say it is well worth it the efforts.
Traditionally, soy sauce, whether light or dark, is made by cooking soybeans and wheat together into a mash, essentially forming the basis of the mixture that, when combined with the appropriate seed mold, is then left to mature over a few days. It is after this initial period that the mash is combined with salt and water in fermentation tanks; and it is in these tanks that the mixture will ferment over several months under the watchful, warm eye of the bright Northern sun. Throughout this time, the masters themselves employ methods tried and tested through generations of successful soy-sauce-making, to determine the appropriate salinity of the mash in each tank.
A single error could cost the entire batch – certainly cargo far too precious to be lost.
It is during this period of fermentation, that nourish! were fortunate enough to score a visit into one of Penang’s top soy sauce producers. The fragrance that greets us is, in every sense of the word, umami through and through.
We are told by the master that olden-day soy sauce makers utilised simple, home-made devices with which to check on their fermenting mixes. Such devices, when coupled with the necessary know-how, make up the tools of their trade. The necessary foresight to shield the fermentation tanks from harsher elements when warmer days gave way to monsoon rains. Pebbles in a bottle, weighed to precision to simulate what is essentially the hydrometer afforded of our technology and age. Knowledge. Devices. A necessary balance of both.
It’s a fascinating sight, the glass bottle bobbing in the dark, fragrant liquid in fermenting tanks. We’re told by the master that the salinity of the mixture is correct, when a marked part of the bottle rests just above the surface of the water. We’re then shown by the master’s son, just how one might determine the same using an actual modern-day hydrometer. The stark contrast between the devices of then, and now, do not go by unnoticed. After all, it is through the sheer genius of the before, that we are granted insight into the wonders of the now.
Still, going about the old route of months’-long fermentation is a painstakingly time-consuming task. That’s why so many soy sauce producers of the day have taken to science, so as to produce enough in order to satiate the demands of the masses. It’s most certainly a fair enough route, and one that produces adequately-flavoured soy sauce which, for most, is good enough.
There are some, however, who demand excellence, and this is where traditionally-fermented soy comes into play. And of course, while there are indeed many excellent grades of soy sauce available in the market, it’s often noted that the best of these, where Malaysia is concerned, at least, is most commonly found in Penang. Rooted in tradition and bound by distinction, the soy sauce produced in Penang is known to be particularly fragrant.
This, naturally, lends itself to the cuisine of Penang. The flavours are stronger, packing heavier punches where the subtle sweet-and-saltiness of soy is needed – and make no mistake; in the complexities of Penang cuisine, it is often needed. After all, it is the glue that binds together those flavours, resulting in the distinct, delicious dishes that we have come to know, and to love.
And for one ingredient to play so important a role in the cuisine of a people? Well, surely, it has to be nothing less than a favoured culinary child. In Penang, soy sauce is most definitely it.
HOW TO MAKE A CONDIMENT OF AGES
Spin it how you will, but soy sauce has been a condiment of the world for thousands of years now. Its cultivation is a long process, one preceded by plenty of preparation. Foresight and knowledge are both necessary for the curator of good, traditionally-fermented soy-sauce. The masters spend years, even a lifetime, learning and honing the skills required to ensure a fruitful harvest of sauce, when the fermentation period is over. And while the diagrams that follow are simple enough to comprehend, it remains a point to note that such mastery requires years and years to attain.
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