Imperial Shoyu: The World's Most Exclusive Soy Sauce
Fred Ferretti - May 2001
The history of Kikkoman and its famous soy sauce is shrouded in the mists of Asian culinary and cultural history. Fred Ferretti journeys to Noda, where it all began.
Once upon a time, in a far-off land, there were two families named Mogi and Takanashi who created a very special sauce. It was so good that the Emperor commissioned a special version just for his family. In return for their time-honored traditional methods, he built them a castle in which the imperial sauce would henceforth be made. And they called it Goyogura.
An idyllic setting
This diminutive castle, a replica from the Edo period (1600-1680), sits on a river embarkment bounded by immense firs and cherry trees. Its white masonry walls, under a green terracotta tiled roof, rest on a sloping foundation of carefully laid stones, called ishigaki. There are no windows, only a series of vertical slits—reminders of feudal times when sharpshooters defended against attack with bow and arrow. Surrounded by a moat, it is reached by crossing and arched bridge of bright red wood.
Gliding in the moat is a family of white swans, given to Kikkoman, prominent brewer of soy sauces, by the Emperor of Japan. To Kikkoman, the swans are an imperial gesture of continuing gratitude for producing the special soy sauce, the ultimate shoyu, for the Emperor's family.
Goyogura is located in the small city of Noda, in the northwest area of Chiba Prefecture, about 20 miles from downtown Tokyo. Situated between the Edo and the Tone rivers, Noda once served as an important port during the Tokugawa era (1603 to 1867), when it first became known for its soy sauce production. The central area is still a hub of industry, home to numerous soy sauce factories and related facilities, including the huge Kikkoman industrial complex. And even though Goyogura now sits at the edge of this complex, it retains a certain serenity.
Today, Goyogura is more than an active fermentation house; it is also a culinary shrine and museum. According to Yuzaburo Mogi, president and chief executive officer of Kikkoman, Goyogura has two purposes: "Of course to make soy sauce for the emperor, but also as a museum to preserve the traditional, historical way of making soy sauce."
So, along with the 10 giant stave vats that are currently used to ferment the imperial mash, the castle houses an array of relics from the past—historical records of soy manufacturing and shipping along the Edo River. There are kakioke, open cylindrical buckets, and kaibo, long wooden oar-shaped spoons once used to cure and process soy sauce in small batches. There are bin and kompurabin, old ceramic jugs once used to ship soy to Europe, via Dutch traders, in the 17th century. Large broadsheets, called banzuke-hyo, yellowed with age, their calligraphy recording the names of most soy sauce manufacturers of the 1840's, are also on display.
Ancient Chinese secret
Soy sauce has a long history as a condiment and seasoning, having originated over 3,000 years ago in China as a by-product of food fermentation. To preserve their food supply for winter storage, the Chinese would pack meat and fish in salt, extracting the liquid, which was found to be highly flavorful, for use in savory stocks and seasonings. Eventually, as Buddhism and its vegetarian doctrine began to be widely practiced, they turned to grains and soybeans to produce a meatless seasoning.
This concept was introduced to Japan during the Heian period (794 to 1185) by a Zen priest who, while studying in China, came across the highly flavorful sauce and, upon returning to Japan, began developing his own version. During the next two periods, the Kamakura (1185 to 1333) and Muromachi (1336 to 1568), soy sauce production blossomed into a full-fledged industry.
The soy sauce produced in this early stage of manufacture was based on soybean paste, or miso, and was often thick and sweet, forerunner of tamari soys. The Japanese referred to these soys as moromi, meaning unrefined and intense, and the name that is now applied to the traditional soybean/wheat mash used in making modern soys.
By the end of the Edo period, soy sauce was an indispensable component of Japanese cuisine. Manufacturers abounded throughout the country's central island of Honshu, producing sauces from wheat, barley, and even rice. Among the first was the Iida family, which set up production in the small city of Noda so as to be close to Tokyo, then known as Edo. Noda would soon be home to Hyozaemon Takanashi and, later Shichizaemon Mogi, who joined other local families in organizing the Noda Soy Sauce Association. In 1917, more than 250 years after their ancestors began soy sauce production, the Mogis and Takanashis incorporated as Noya Shoyu Company, predecessor of the Kikkoman Corporation, which was originally renamed in 1980.
What's in a name?
While Kikkoman has become synonymous with superior soy sauce, its name means much more than that. In fact, it seems to have been deliberately chosen by the founding families as a sort of talisman. In Japanese folklore, the tortoise (kikko), which lives for 10,000 (man) years, represents good fortune and longevity. The hexagonal logo that adorns its bottle is also symbolic, the shape representing a tortoise shell, within which is inscribed the Chinese character for man.
Unlike other manufactures, Kikkoman (and its predecessors, the Takanashi and Mogi families) always made soy sauce from soy beans and wheat, honoring the unbroken tradition that earned them the privilege of being official suppliers to the Shogun in Tokyo. Goyogura—literally, the place where special things for the Japanese Imperial Family are made and stored—was built in 1939. Since then, it has continued to produce the imperial soy sauce, which shares its name, Goyogura Shoyu.
Today, Kikkoman is the largest manufacturer of soy sauce in the world. In addition to the sprawling main production center in Noda inhabited by Goyogura, there are two other facilities in Japan as well as operations in the United States, the Netherlands, Singapore, and Taiwan, with China soon to follow. It has more then 3,000 employees and sells its products in almost 100 countries. Its standard soy sauces, which are fermented quickly in huge steel tanks, then steamed and bottled, are made mostly with wheat from Canada and soybeans from the United States.
Not in Goyogura. Only wheat from Japan's Tochigi Prefecture, 60 miles north of Noda, and soybeans from Toyoma Prefecture, facing the Sea of Japan, 350 miles to the northwest, can be used for the imperial mash. Says Mogi, the latest in a long lineage to preside over Goyogura: "Only raw materials from Japan must be used, only those grown naturally. The cost is not a consideration."
In making the imperial sauce, the soybeans are steamed to softness and drained of excess moisture before being mashed with the wheat, which is first roasted and crushed into a fine powder. Next, a starter, or Kikkoman-developed "seed" (actually spores of Aspergillus oryzae), is added, and the mix is spread onto wooden trays and placed in the koji, or culturing room, where is becomes dry mash. Temperature and moisture levels are constantly monitored to maintain a mean of 82°F.
The koji mash is then mixed with a salt and water solution and shoveled into the giant wood vats, which are painted a vivid orange-red, the traditional Shinto color that has always differentiated the Emperor's sauce from any other. (Often, according to Migo, Shinto shrines request imperial soy sauce as gifts, and these are invariably granted.) At this stage, the mash, called moromi, remains in these cedar vats, bubbling and fermenting for one full year, maturing with the help of added yeasts. Although no soy is fermented in July and August, the 10 vats are fed in succession to produce one fermented batch for each of the other 10 months, with each vat producing enough soy sauce to fill 5,000 bottles.
After a full year of fermentation, small lots of the moromi mash are transferred into nylon sleeves, which in turn are forced through wooden presses, where the liquid is strained off, then heated and pasteurized to stabilize the color and aroma. Only then is it bottled as Goyogura.
Belying their regal contents, the bottles are not especially grand. Their bright red and yellow labels bear a subtle etching of Goyogura. Likewise the ochre box that houses it, decorated with a rendering of the castle and its name in graceful calligraphy.
While Goyogura may look like any other soy sauce, its taste is far more intense. Today, in increasingly democratic Japan, it can even be sold in a few selected shops by imperial permission. So, for the informed gastronome, it's possible to sauce one's sashimi as Emperor Akihito must.