Fermented flavour enhancers: soya sauce, miso, and fish sauce
Fermentation is all the rage at the moment. The funny thing is that fermentation is a centuries-old process that has secretly already crept into our diet, as many Asian and Indonesian dishes are flavoured with a fermented flavour enhancer. But where do all the different fermented flavour-enhancers come from and what do they all contain? In this blog we’ll explain it all.
Soya sauce: the fermented flavour enhancer
There are many different types of fermented flavour enhancers, each with their own specific character. Soya sauce is probably the most famous of these and we use it often. However, often just one type of soya sauce is used although there are many varieties. The difference between the sauces is defined by the production process.
To make soya sauce, a fungus called Aspergillus is added to roasted grain and cooked soya beans. This mixture is called ‘koji’. The fungus is given three days to grow before being combined with salt water. This mixture is then placed in large barrels and the bacteria Lactobacillus is added. Then the fermentation process starts, which can take anywhere from six months to several years. The longer the soya sauce ferments, the better the quality. Finally the soya sauce is passed through a sieve, pasteurised, and bottled.
The most commonly used types of soya sauce are:
- Koikuchi, the famous dark soya sauce (Kikkoman) which is used often. The colour of this soya sauce is dark, but the flavour is milder than that of the lighter variety. This soya sauce can be used for many different recipes from marinades to dipping sauces and stir-fries.
- Usukuchi is a light soya sauce that is thinner and has a more intense flavour than dark soya sauce. The light soya sauce is sweeter, as rice wine (mirin) is added, and also has a saltier flavour. This soya sauce is often used to season products without adding colour.
- Tamaria soya sauce more closely resembles the Chinese variety, as it contains more soya beans. As it is thicker, it is perfect to use in a dipping sauce.
Shiro is also known as white soya sauce. The percentage of grain used in its production is higher than the percentage of soya beans and this is the classic dipping sauce for sashimi. Dark soya sauce is avoided for this purpose, as its flavour is too strong and quickly overpowers the fish.
The above are all based on the very first soya sauce produced in China. This flavour enhancer is found in a light variant made entirely from fermented soya beans or in a dark variant similar to the Japanese Kikkoman but more viscous because of the extra sugars added. From Indonesia we know the Kecap Manis (sweet soya sauce) to which flavourings have been added.
Nam Pla: the fermented Thai fish sauce
Nam Pla is a fermented Thai sauce made from fermented fish and shrimp. Mixing the fish with salt prompts the start of the fermentation process. At a salt content of 10 to 30%, lactic acid bacteria will change the taste and consistency of the fish sauce. Due to the broadly applicable character of this sauce it is often used as a substitute for soya sauce or salt.
A period of two years is needed to prepare a good-quality Nam Pla. In the first two months the fish and shrimp (kapi) mixture changes into a paste. When this paste is stored for a longer period of time, the mixture will be further broken down. This thins out the mixture until it becomes a sauce.
After two years the sauce can be extracted from the barrel. The first liquid that comes from the barrel is the best-quality fish sauce. After seasoning and possibly ripening the sauce, the fish sauce is ready for use. After the first liquid has been extracted, the fish mixture is used again for a second extraction. This results in a lower-quality fish sauce. The original fermentation taste is pushed into the background by means of additional additives.
On the picture above you can see the most common types of fish sauce that are used in the kitchen.
Miso: fermented paste
A tasty Japanese paste that you can use in all sorts of ways. Miso is a traditional Japanese flavour enhancer made from fermented rice, barley, and/or soya beans with salt and a specific fungus that causes the mixture to ferment. Soya sauce is added to the most traditional variant of miso, which results in a thick paste. In Japan it is used for a variety of purposes in both traditional and modern dishes and to make sauces and marinades, as a spread, for pickling vegetables, or as a basis for a soup. Miso can be used in both warm and cold recipes. Miso contains a lot of protein, vitamins, and minerals and is highly valued in Japan for its large amount of nutrients.
Miso has a salty flavour that further depends on the different ingredients and the fermentation process. There are all kinds of variants of this fermented flavour enhancer available on the market. The different types of miso can be divided according to flavours: salty, sweet, earthy, fruity, and savoury. Another division is based on colour:
- white miso (shiro - made with rice)
- red miso (aka - made with barley)
- black miso (kuro - made with soya beans)
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On Gastronomixs you’ll find the various components in which fermented flavour enhancers are used and we can assure you that they are definitely worth a try! Not a member but want to view the components? Sign up now and try out Gastronomixs for free for two weeks!