Talking About a Soy Sauce Revolution…

A gambit of domestic politics in Japanese-occupied Korea…

Elixir of the Koreans

It’s fascinating, the politics of food in our modern human age.  Take Ireland’s potato famine, a symbol of politics gone ruthless.  One school of thought among scholars is that crop disease and collapse was not the true cause of that catastrophe, but rather an “environmental trigger” brought to bear by the colonial class’s political and social policies to “reform” the population which was the real culprit (Nally, 2008).  Read as the British effort to manage and somehow perform some major housekeeping on Irish society (ibid).  I am struck by the similarities here to what the Japanese had in mind for the Koreans during their lengthy stay (but I guess occupation whether in Mozambique or India is bound to share some chromosomes…like an old friend used to say, “Same shit, different flies.”)

The history of soy sauce in Japanese-occupied Korea is a tale of a (now) ubiquitous condiment impacting cultural habits and driving an economy during a chaotic time in the world with Japan in between the wars––Sino-Japanese War and WWII.   As much as salt is crucial to cooking in much of the world, trendily garnering culinary stardom in all its pink and Maldon forms, soy sauce is indispensable to the Koreans.  We use it to marinade, to braise, to pickle, to ceviche, to salt…the list goes on.

Old ladies use it all the time

Traditionally, families in Korea made their own soy sauce at home by making a fermented mash of soybeans that would be formed into lumps or discs and then dried out in the sun before storing in a warm place to ferment.  These lumps would be immersed in a brine and fermented for months.  Then the resulting dark liquid would be boiled and allowed to mature for up to 3 months before use (Cwiertka, 2006). Then came the Japanese occupation of Korea and the manufacturing of synthetic soy sauce and its increased demand.

Yes, I said synthetic soy sauce:

Soybeans were first hydrolysed through heating with 18 per cent hydrochloric acid for eight to twelve hours, and then neutralised with sodium carbonate.  The resulting product was a clear dark-brown liquid usually mixed with caramel colouring [sic], corn syrup, salt and water before it could resemble the original (ibid).

(Er, Koreans were still producing and consuming this stuff through the ’90’s!)

So, the Japanese get the Koreans (and their own population) hooked on this Franken-soy, which in turn increases their factory production in tonnage and gets a vicious cycle going. You think this might have had a hand in Koreans moving away from their centuries-old tradition of making their own?

Get ready for savory

So here’s our family recipe for salmon* braised in (hopefully authentic) soy sauce.     *Note: you can substitute salmon for any hardy squash e.g. kabocha, acorn.

The ingredients

salmon, 4 small pieces

scallion, 1-2 chopped

garlic, 1-2 cloves crushed whole

soy sauce, about 1/3 cup

sesame oil, a goodly drizzle

honey, a teaspoon or so

red pepper powder or paste, a tablespoon (optional)

water, about 1/8-1/4 cup

The steps

1. In a small pot, combine all the braising ingredients.  If you want to increase the amounts of any of them, go ahead. Add the salmon pieces and scallion.

2. Bring to boil, lower to a simmer and lid it.  Simmer for about 15-20 minutes.

And not to be out done, I hear that the Japanese have come out with a soy sauce ice cream.

Related articles:

  • “That coming storm”: The Irish Poor Law, colonial biopolitics, and the Great Famine by David Nally
  • The soy sauce industry in Korea: Scrutinising the legacy of Japanese colonialism by Kataryzna J. Cwiertka
  • Soy sauce ice cream invented in Japan (

5 thoughts on “Talking About a Soy Sauce Revolution…

  1. Pingback: Talking About a Soy Sauce Revolution… | CookingPlanet

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  4. Pingback: Honey soy chicken | Yummy Lummy

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