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Grim's Grub: An unexpected use of a sauce you already have

Read about the history of soy sauce.

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Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Depending on where you are on the Earth, there are likely foods in any region that were single-handedly vital to supporting the survival of the residents of that area.

In the case of China, soybeans are often considered to have filled such a place.

A cheap source of proteins for those who could rarely afford meat and a product with long-term storage potential, soybeans have many qualities that made them important to the point that Chinese legend says Chinese Emperor Shennong declared them sacred in 2853 B.C., along with rice, wheat, barley and millet.

Its importance was similarly recognized in other countries, including Japan and the Koreas, where each country produced similar products from the beans through fermentation, the one of particular interest here being the sauce.

The sauce was likely first produced in China, though not all at once. First, China had something called "jan," a name for various pickled or fermented raw materials that could include vegetables, seaweed, meat, fish or grains. Soy sauce started as a byproduct of jan made from rice, wheat and soybeans.

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Japan imported this type of jan under the name "hishio," but it was sort of a soupy, miso-like product and not entirely a sauce. In Japan, they began making a miso paste using methods also imported from China when a monk named Kakushin attempted to teach miso production to a village.

He noticed the liquid draining off the miso had an intense, pleasant flavor, and thus was born just one of the modern styles of soy sauce.

Similar products, made by slightly different processes, developed from then in China and Korea. To the average American, however, the difference would likely be negligible.

In many kitchens, soy sauce is probably the only soy product available. The appeal is obvious. It's a salty, piquant seasoning that can really kick up the flavor in many dishes. It contains natural sodium glutamate as well, which means it can create the famous "umami" flavor profile.

This makes soy sauce more versatile, because umami, rather than being its own flavor, boosts the intense flavors found in other foods, such as making beef more beefy and chocolate more chocolaty with a touch of saltiness if used correctly.

Eventually the United States also got into soy sauce production. In 1765, an East India Trading Company sailor, Samuel Bowen, acquired soybeans with the help of sailor James Flint, the first Englishman legally permitted to learn Chinese. Bowen gave seeds to Henry Yonge, of Georgia, who grew a massive crop near Savannah.

The crop was primarily grown for forage; however, Bowen also made soy sauce for sale in England.

Years later, Illinois became a massive soybean producer when Dr. Benjamin Franklin Edwards received a bag of beans while traveling in San Francisco.

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A disaster ridden Japanese ship had come to port, and though the ship was sinking they were not allowed to immediately come to shore without either clearance from a doctor or after a long quarantine. Though just passing through, Edwards was asked to check the sailors and found them healthy. They gifted him the beans as thanks.

Edwards brought the beans home to Illinois and gave them to someone as a novelty to plant. Some of the beans found in Illinois today can be traced genetically back to that incident.

The United States did not pick up on soybeans as a popular food source for many years. During both world wars their production did grow, but it didn't last. Henry Ford spurred a surprising growth in industrial soy uses, including the creation of synthetic silk fibers and use of soybean oils in machinery.

Soybeans, like other legumes, even served to save the country from the Dust Bowl, as their nitrogen fixating abilities helped to add nutrition to previously barren topsoil.

Still, the United States didn't embrace soybeans as much of a food product until the 1960s and 1970s. In spite of that, soybeans rank second only to corn in U.S. agricultural products.

Beefy Burger with Soy Sauce

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Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 2 tablespoons full flavor soy sauce
  • 1/4 of a small onion, chopped very fine
  • Slices cheddar cheese (number depending on how big your burgers are)

Start a day early by mixing the finely chopped onion, ground beef and soy sauce by hand. Allow this to sit overnight so the flavors blend together for best results.
Cook the burger like normal, but hold off adding salt to the patties until you have tasted them. The soy sauce adds a salty flavor while also enhancing the beef flavor, making even poor quality ground beef taste more beefy. Add a slice of cheddar cheese or similar sharp cheese without an excess salt flavor.

Rich Chocolate Brownies

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Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

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  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 8 ounces chocolate syrup (can be found in a can)
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup chopped nuts (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce

Cream together the butter and sugar, then add the remaining ingredients. Pour the batter into a greased 9x9 pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes.

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Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com.

Related Topics: FOODHISTORY
Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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