A bowl of soy sauce.

Types of Soy Sauce

Soy sauce, the ubiquitous condiment revered across Asia, boasts a history as rich and complex as its taste. 

Its origins can be traced back over 2,000 years to China, where it emerged as a cornerstone of the cuisine. Trade then carried this liquid gold across the world, where it became deeply woven into the culinary tapestry of each region.

This breakdown of the unique soy sauces of China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines will explore their intricate brewing techniques, unique flavor profiles and the irreplaceable roles they play in defining each nation's cuisine.

Soy sauce with dumplings for dipping.

China: The Birthplace and Master of Soy Sauce

In the culinary realm of China, soy sauce reigns supreme, enriching dishes with its distinct blend of saltiness, sweetness and “xianwei.” Xianwei is the Mandarin word for what is popularly known as “umami,” or a savory flavor profile. Here, soy sauce is brewed in two primary forms: light (shēngchōu) and dark (lǎochōu).

Types of Chinese Soy Sauce

Shēngchōu: Chinese Light Soy Sauce

Shēngchōu is known for its vibrant amber color and intense saltiness, serving as the workhorse of Chinese kitchens. It is generally thinner and lighter in color than the familiar Japanese soy sauce. Light soy sauce is made from steamed soybeans and roasted wheat that are blended together, which is then spread on wooden trays and left to ferment for several days. Once fermented, the paste is pressed similarly to olive oil.

Premium light soy sauce is traditionally made from the first press of fermented soybeans. The beans are pressed several times, but the first harvest is the most potent, making premium light soy sauce higher quality than the later batches. Additional ingredients are added with each batch to help maintain flavor until complete. Once finished, water and salt are added to the spent fermented mixture, and a new type of yeast is blended in to start another fermentation. The soy sauce then sits for several months or even years until it has reached maturity. Some modern companies age their light soy sauce for only a few days, adding hydrochloric acid to speed up the fermentation process. These quick soy sauces are less flavorful but are much cheaper to buy.

Lǎochōu: Chinese Dark Soy Sauce

Lǎochōu comes from the end of the pressing, at the bottom of the fermentation barrel. It’s rich in sediment and is meant to be used sparingly in combination with light soy sauce to add depth of flavor and a deep color. Chinese dark soy sauce is thicker and sweeter than Chinese light soy sauce, as it often contains added molasses. It does contain slightly more sodium than light soy sauce, but its flavor is primarily dominated by sweetness and is therefore not as intensely salty.

More on Chinese Cuisine:An Introduction to Chinese Dumplings

How to Use Chinese Soy Sauce

When deciding between light soy sauce and dark soy sauce, it's essential to consider the intended flavor profile and appearance of the dish. Light soy sauce is ideal for dishes where a delicate, salty flavor is desired, such as stir-fries, soups and dipping sauces. On the other hand, dark soy sauce shines in dishes where a richer, more caramelized flavor and darker color are desired, such as braised meats, noodle dishes and marinades.

In some cases, both light and dark soy sauces may be used together to achieve a balanced flavor profile and color. This is particularly common in recipes that call for “hóngshāo,” or red-cooking, where meats are simmered in a mixture of light and dark soy sauces, along with other seasonings, to create a dish with a deep, savory-sweet flavor and a glossy, mahogany-colored sauce.

A spoon in a bowl of soy sauce.

Japan: Shoyu, A Testament to Precision and Elegance

Although originating in ancient China, the art of soy sauce was brought to Japan sometime in the 7th century, where it has then become one of the most valued ingredients of Japanese cuisine. Emphasizing meticulousness and a deep respect for tradition, Japanese soy sauce, known as shoyu, embodies a refined artistry. Similar to Chinese soy sauce, shoyu comes in two primary variations: koikuchi (dark) and usukuchi (light).

Types of Japanese Soy Sauce

Koikuchi Shoyu: Japanese Dark Soy Sauce

With its robust flavor and deep brown color, koikuchi shoyu serves as the quintessential choice for enhancing a dish. It is the most popular soy sauce variation that most consumers will pick in the grocery store, as brands such as Kikkoman have dominated the soy sauce market.

One of the key features of koikuchi soy sauce is its versatility. It is used in a wide range of dishes, from marinades and simmered dishes to dipping sauces and stir-fries. Its deep color and intense flavor add depth and complexity to dishes, becoming the most well-known example of the famed “umami” flavor. Whether drizzled over sushi and sashimi or incorporated into the savory broth of ramen, koikuchi soy sauce adds a salty, savory undertone to every dish.

Usukuchi shoyu: Japanese Light Soy Sauce

Usukuchi shoyu offers a lighter, more delicate flavor profile in contrast to Japanese dark soy sauce, making it well-suited for dishes where a milder taste is desired. Made from the same base ingredients as koikuchi soy sauce but with a shorter fermentation period and higher salt content, usukuchi soy sauce boasts a pale color and a gentle, yet complex taste.

One of the primary uses of usukuchi soy sauce is in dishes where color preservation is essential, such as delicate soups, clear broths and pickled vegetables. Its light color allows the natural colors of ingredients to shine through, while its subtle umami notes enhance the overall flavor of the dish without overpowering it.

How is Japanese Soy Sauce Made?

The magic of shoyu lies in the intricate brewing of soybeans, wheat, salt and a special mold — koji (Aspergillus oryzae). This fuzzy friend plays a crucial role in breaking down starches and proteins in soybeans, leading to the development of sugars and amino acids that are consumed by the yeast. The yeast, which is grown using steamed grains such as rice or wheat, converts these sugars into alcohol and organic acids, contributing to the flavor profile and acting as a natural preservative. This becomes the starter for the fermentation process, whereafter being formed into a mixture with the soybean and wheat paste. This mixture, known as “moromi,” is then transferred to tanks or barrels to continue fermenting. This may sound very similar to the Chinese soy sauce brewing methods, but each cuisine carries important differences such as fermentation time or additional ingredients that vastly change the final flavors of their soy sauces.

In some traditional soy sauce production methods, a small amount of distilled alcohol may be added to the moromi mixture during fermentation. This addition of alcohol, known as the “honjozo” method, can help enhance flavor extraction, improve shelf stability and achieve a more balanced flavor profile in the final soy sauce product. However, not all soy sauce producers use the honjozo method, and there are many soy sauces produced without added alcohol.

Different regions in Japan utilize specific koji strains, each with its own subtle influence on the final product. For instance, the shoyu produced in the Tohoku region is known for its sharper flavor profile, attributed to the use of a specific koji strain called "tame koji."

More on Japanese Cuisine:An Introduction to Common Types of Japanese Noodles

Korea: Ganjang, A Bold Fusion of Tradition and Innovation

In the dynamic realm of Korean cuisine, soy sauce takes on a bold and assertive persona, infusing dishes with a complexity of flavor that reflects the country's rich culinary heritage. Known as “ganjang,” Korean soy sauce encompasses two primary iterations: guk-ganjang (soup soy sauce) and jin-ganjang (fermented soy sauce).

Korean seafood dishes in ganjang sauce in metal and white bowls
Seafood dishes cooked using ganjang. Derivative work: Caspian blue (talk)Korean.cuisine-Ganjang_gejang_and_banchan-01.jpg: by LWY at flickr, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Types of Korean Soy Sauce

Guk-ganjang: Soup Soy Sauce

With its mild and salty profile, guk-ganjang forms the foundation of many traditional Korean soups, stews and braised dishes. It is also used as a seasoning agent in marinades, dipping sauces and stir-fries, where its soft umami flavor enhances the natural taste of ingredients and brings out their full potential. 

Although this soy sauce is lighter in color and saltier when compared to Japanese soy sauce, it’s used very similarly to usukuchi.


Jin-ganjang is a darker and richer soy sauce that boasts a more intense flavor profile. Known as "fermented soy sauce" in English, jin-ganjang is prized for its complex aroma and deep umami taste, making it a cornerstone of Korean seasoning.

The name "jin-ganjang" reflects its traditional fermentation process, which involves aging the soy sauce for an extended period in comparison to guk-ganjang to allow its flavors to mature and develop. This aging process imbues jin-ganjang with a robust and nuanced taste that elevates the flavors of any dish it touches.

Jin-ganjang's versatility is similar to guk-ganjang, although for different flavor profiles. Whether drizzled over sizzling bulgogi, mixed into a spicy gochujang sauce or used to season a hearty galbijjim, jin-ganjang adds depth and strong richness to every bite.

How is Korean Soy Sauce Made?

While Korean soy sauce shares some common ingredients with Japanese and Chinese soy sauces, the proportions and specific types of ingredients used can vary. Korean soy sauce typically contains a higher proportion of soybeans compared to Chinese soy sauce, resulting in a richer and more earthy flavor. Additionally, Korean soy sauce may use a higher proportion of salt compared to Japanese soy sauce, giving it a saltier taste.

Korean soy sauce is traditionally fermented through natural processes and relies on a critical ingredient: Meju.

Meju is made with cooked soybeans that are mashed and formed into blocks or patties, which are then inoculated with mold spores. If that sounds familiar, it is because it is — the mold spores used are, in fact, koji. Meju helps kick-start the fermentation process and contributes to the unique flavor profile of Korean soy sauce. After fermentation, Korean soy sauce may undergo additional aging and maturation to further develop its flavor and aroma. It is often aged in large clay pots or wooden barrels, allowing it to mellow and mature over time. This aging process contributes to the complexity and depth of flavor found in Korean soy sauce.

While traditional methods of soy sauce production continue to thrive in Korea, there is also a growing trend toward innovation and experimentation. Modern producers are exploring new techniques and ingredients to create soy sauces that cater to contemporary tastes and preferences. Some producers are incorporating organic and locally sourced ingredients, while others are experimenting with different fermentation methods or aging processes. The result is a diverse range of soy sauces that reflect the dynamism and creativity of modern Korean cuisine, while still honoring the traditions of the past.

The Philippines: Toyo, The Strongest Soy Sauce

Unsurprisingly, soy sauce plays a central role in the country's distinctive cuisine. Filipino soy sauce, called toyo, features a rich, savory profile with a hint of sweetness. This reflects the country's unique blend of indigenous and colonial influences. Unlike its counterparts, toyo boasts a bold flavor that matches the intensity of Filipino dishes, creating robust flavor combinations.

What is Filipino Soy Sauce?

Dark and luscious, Filipino soy sauce lends its distinctive character to iconic dishes like adobo (braised meat in soy sauce, vinegar, garlic and peppercorns). The addition of coconut sugar or molasses to toyo contributes a hint of sweetness, creating a perfect balance with the savory depth of the soy sauce. This soy sauce is thinner, saltier and slightly tangier than its other soy sauce counterparts. The interplay of sweet, salty, sour and savory flavors is a hallmark of Filipino cuisine, and toyo serves as the essential ingredient that ties these elements together.

The interplay of sweet, salty, sour and savory flavors is a hallmark of Filipino cuisine, and toyo serves as the essential ingredient that ties these elements together.

Although this Filipino soy sauce may sound similar to previously discussed soy sauces, it is missing a key ingredient: wheat. Traditionally, toyo is a wheat-free soy sauce, making it a great alternative for those with gluten sensitivities. 

Just as Kikkoman is the name-brand for Japanese soy sauce, Datu Puti is the Filipino household soy sauce. When making adobo, sinigang or even lumpia, Datu Puti is the brand most easily recognized for Filipino soy sauce.

Soy Sauce and Modernity: A Look Towards the Future

As the world continues to evolve, so too does the production and consumption of soy sauce. 

Modern production techniques have introduced new methods to accelerate the brewing process. Techniques like hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) can be used to create soy sauce in a matter of days. HVP is a concentrated form of protein that is broken down into amino acids, which contribute to the umami flavor of soy sauce.

While these methods offer increased efficiency and affordability, traditionalists argue that they lack the depth and complexity of flavor achieved through slow fermentation. Although some argue that these modernized brewing variations lessen the quality of the final produce, they also allow for an expansion of affordable accessibility to this iconic ingredient. Most soy sauce brands will offer both traditional and modernized brewing variations of their soy sauces, labeled as such on their bottles, allowing consumers to decide which they prefer to cook with.

Soy Sauce Sustainability

With increasing concerns about sustainability when choosing the right ingredients, soy sauce producers are exploring ways to minimize their environmental impact by using organic soybeans, reducing water consumption during production and implementing energy-efficient practices. Producers are experimenting with new ingredients, fermentation techniques and aging processes to create unique flavor profiles. These advancements cater to evolving consumer preferences and offer exciting possibilities for the future of soy sauce.

Learn More About Sustainability in ICE's Plant-Based Culinary Arts Program

From its humble origins in China to its diverse regional variations, soy sauce has become an integral part of countless cuisines and cultures. Although this guide discussed several variations of soy sauces, this is only a generalized introduction, as there are even more specialized types of soy sauces within each cuisine that go further in complexity and flavors.

Soy sauce has become a testament to human ingenuity, a symbol of cultural exchange and a delicious addition to countless dishes.

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