Soy Sauce
Light and Dark [Shoyu (Japan); Soya sauce (UK)]

First made about 2500 years ago in China, this fermented soybean condiment has long been essential to the cuisines of East and Southeast Asia, and is now used worldwide in almost all cuisines.

For most cooks there are just two significant types, Light (Japanese or Chinese) and Dark (Chinese). As with beer, "Lite" is not the same as "Light", but probably indicates reduced salt. Also, for celiacs, some Tamari type sauces are made with no grain, thus gluten free. Additionally, you should know the difference between Naturally Brewed (generally considered safe) and Artificial (rather questionable) soy sauces.

In the photo, light is on the left, dark on the right. Of course to the specialist and epicure the world of soy sauces is a lot more complicated.

Naturally Brewed soy sauce is made from soy beans and usually some grain such as wheat, fermented with salt, yeast, mold and bacteria. It is generally considered safe, and being long fermented is free from the toxins and hormones some non-fermented soy products are suspected of.

Artificial soy sauce is made from hydrolized soy protein treated with hydrochloric acid and colored with caramel. In the US such "soy sauce" is generally sold in bottles with Chinese sounding names. Similar concoctions are sold through health food emporiums as "liquid aminos". Scientific investigation reveals these liquids often contain disturbing amounts of toxins and carcinogens.

General & International

  • Light Soy Sauce is a general term for what we in North America consider "normal" or Japanese style soy sauce, exemplified by "Kikkoman Soy Sauce" (no additional qualifiers except "Naturally Brewed"). Used in all Asian cuisines and worldwide it is usually made from a mix of soybeans and wheat, ranging from about half and half to heavy on the wheat. Other grains may sometimes be used.

  • Tamari was formerly made from the run-off from manufacturing miso (fermented bean paste) but today is more likely made pretty much like regular soy sauce except with less grain and more beans. Some versions use no grains and are "celiac safe".

  • Low Sodium Soy Sauce is a variation on light soy sauce. Many prefer this as a "dipping" soy sauce for sushi and the like. It's value in a low salt diet is zilch - it still has plenty of salt, but some salt has been removed after normal fermentation.


  • Chinese Light Soy Sauce (shangchau, jiang qing) is pretty similar to the standard Japanese soy sauce but usually with more soybeans and less wheat, which makes it less sweet and also somewhat darker in color. Japanese soy sauce can be substituted - Kikkoman über alles!

  • Dark Soy Sauce (laochou) is more used in Chinese cuisine as a coloring than a flavoring and is often in combination with light soy sauce. It is usually higher in soybeans and lower in wheat than light soy sauce, is thicker in consistency and almost invariably contains some sugar or molasses, but the sweetener should be at the bottom of the ingredient list. Pearl River Bridge is the brand I usually use.

  • Dark Sweet Soy Sauce is similar to dark soy sauce except that molasses has been moved up above both soybeans and wheat. You don't need to stock this because you can just mix some dark soy sauce with molasses.

  • Mushroom Flavored Dark Soy Sauce is dark soy sauce with "natural flavors and flavor enhancers". It may or may not be sweetened. I never find it very mushroomy so I'd rather use regular dark soy sauce and add some mushroom soaking liquid to the recipe.

  • Thick Soy Sauce is dark soy sauce that has been thickened with starch. It is used mainly for dipping.


Japan is the land of many regional variations and quality grades of just about everything, and soy sauce is no exception - but most aren't common in North America. Soy Sauce is so important in Japan that Japan has been called "a country with only one sauce".

  • Koikuchi is the type familiar to us as "Japanese soy sauce" and accounts for over 80% of production in Japan. It is made from roughly equal amounts of soybeans and wheat.

  • Tamari is still made by the traditional method as a byproduct of miso production in limited quantity. Most products labeled "tamari" are now made similar to other soy sauces and most contain some wheat,

  • Shiro (white) is made mostly of wheat with very little soybeans. It is sweeter than koikuchi and often used where the light color is important to presentation appearance.

  • Usukuchi is made with the addition of sweet liquid from fermented rice and is both saltier and lighter in color than koikuchi.

  • Saishikomi (twice brewed) uses koikuchi instead of brine in the fermentation process so is considerably stronger and darker.


Soy sauce is as important in Korea as it is in Japan. Korea has two main types, and a few minor ones.

  • Gan-Jang:   [Regular Soy Sauce]   This type was adopted from Japan around 1886 and has become the soy sauce used for most Korean cuisine. It is also called Whe-Gan-Jang (Japanese Gan-Jang).

  • Guk-Gan-Jang:   [Soy Sauce for Soup]   This is the original Korean soy sauce, made for over 1000 years as a byproduct of making Dwenjang, the Korean equivalent of Japanese Miso. It is quite a bit saltier, has a simpler, less sweet flavor, and a lighter color than regular soy sauce. It was originally made from soy only, but today most includes some wheat, as most Dwenjang now does. It is favored for soups to keep them a lighter color, but is also often used for Korean vegetable dishes (Namul) and Korean salads (Muchim). My local Korean markets here in Los Angeles carry Sempio brand in two varieties, faked up (yellow cap, 2015 US $4.49) and Naturally Brewed (black cap, 2015 US $6.69). The color is abut the same, but the naturally brewed has noticeably better flavor.   Subst: Korean cooking maven Maangchi suggests using Thai Fish Sauce to keep colors light if you don't have Soy Sauce for Soup (yes, they do use fish sauce in Korea).

  • Mat-Gan-Jang:   Various flavored soy sauces.


Taiwan, despite it's Chinese population, has gone pretty much over to the Japanese style soy sauce.


Filipino Toyo is quite similar to Japanese soy sauce, which can be used as a substitute.


  • Kecap Asin is similar to Chinese light soy sauce which can be used as a substitute. Kecap asin is not widely available in the US.

  • Kecap Manis has palm sugar as the top ingredient and is thick and very sweet. It is widely available in the US, particularly Heinz' ABC brand.

Malaysia & Singapore

  • Kicap Cair is similar to Indonesian Kecap Asin or Chinese light soy sauce.

  • Kicap Lemak is similar to Indonesian Kecap Manis but with a whole lot less sugar. Maybe cut Kecap Manis half and half with Chinese dark soy sauce as a substitute.
Health & Nutrition

Soy Sauce is high in salt. Low Sodium (Reduced Salt) Soy Sauce (salt is removed after manufacture) is still pretty high in salt, so useless to those trying to reduce blood pressure. Medical sources say reducing sodium has little effect until nearly all salt is eliminated from the diet. In my non-medical opinion this sounds like treating the symptoms, not the disease, by creating an imbalance so extreme it happens to counter symptoms of the real problem. As usual I point to demographics. Japan, a very high salt culture, has traditionally had 1/3 to 1/5 the heart disease rate in North America, but this is slowly changing as the Japanese adopt a more Western diet and sedentary lifestyle.

Because naturally brewed Soy Sauce is a long fermented product, it is free from the toxins and hormone-like substances some soy products have been suspected of, and is generally considered safe. Artificial soy sauces and "liquid aminos" however, made from soy protein and hydrochloric acid, are chemical swills often containing known toxins and carcinogens.

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