Friday, February 5, 2016

We'll Shoyu Authentic Japanese Soy Sauce!

One of the main components to many Eastern dishes is the use of soy sauce (called shoyu in Japanese). Normally, generic soy sauce is easy to find due to the mass production of it. But what about the high quality ones that are created not solely based on the amount that can be pumped out of vats quickly but rather the quality and time put into making it? This is where the Japanese brand Yamaroku Shoyu (or Yamaroku for short) comes into the picture to fill that void. In this article, we will go over who Yamaroku is, a glimpse of how authentic Japanese soy sauce is made, the importance of the "kioke" barrel and a closer look at each soy sauce from Yamaroku's line.

Who is Yamaroku?

Yamaroku is a family owned and operated company under the leadership of Yasuo Yamamoto, the 5th generation owner. Yamaroku has been around since the historic times in Japan as early as the Meiji era (1868-1912) with the founding by the first generation head known as Rokurobe. The name Yamaroku is apparently derived from a story related to him. Rokurobe in his time was living at the foot of a mountain, yama in Japanese, to which people referred to him as "Rokurobe at the foot of the mountain". This was then shortened to the now established Yamaroku title. In fact, the symbol of Yamaroku depicts the story very well after hearing about it. The upper radical is in the shape of a mountain (remember it's yama) and right below it is the kanji for the number six ( 六 ) pronounced as roku. 

Yamaroku Entrance

Yamaroku is located on an island called Shidoshima (小豆島), which lays between the main islands of Honshu and Shikoku. You can check their exact location by looking at the below map.

Location of Yamaroku (west from Osaka & Tokyo)

Shodoshima, translated as "island of small beans", is known for cultivating mikan (mandarin oranges), the Japanese plum called sumomo, olives, soumen (fine white noodles) and, of course, soy sauce. It is also good to note that Shodoshima gained recognition for being the first place in Japan to have success in cultivating olives. Being located far away from the bustling major cities, you can expect to see some great scenery from nature from the sea to the lush greenery and even a beautiful sunset. Check out some of those straight from Shodoshima itself:

See images of their menu! (in Japanese only)

Yamaroku also runs an actual open cafe on the premise in which they offer some unique sweets such as vanilla ice cream topped with soy sauce (more on this later!), yakimochi (grilled rice cakes) basted with soy sauce and Japanese custard with soy sauce (also an iced version!). They are open every day of the year from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with some special limited edition goods on weekends and national holidays.

An Authentic Japanese Soy Sauce

Kioke barrels more than 70 years old!

In general, soy sauce is widely and readily available on store shelves at many groceries here in America. Although the maker of the soy sauce you find may be a Japanese company, they are not necessarily the genuine Japanese soy sauce from ages past. If compared side by side, there will be a significant difference in taste. What makes this difference is in the way the soy sauce is made. Yamaroku sticks to the traditional way of brewing that was popularly used  up until the end of the Edo period (1603-1868). The key tool in making this ancient soy sauce is through the use of the large wooden barrels called kioke (木桶 pronounced key-okay).

Moromi-chan; Yamaroku's cute mascot
for mesh of unrefined soy beans
Back in olden times, the basic seasonings of Japanese meals consisted of soy sauce, miso, vinegar, mirin and sake. All of these were brewed in kioke as a means for fermentation. To make the soy sauce, soy beans, wheat and salt water are put together in the kioke with a fermentation agent called koji. Koji is a naturally occurring mold developed from rice or soy beans usually for fermentation and has had a part in developing Japanese cuisine for centuries.  When the salt water is added to the mixture, it kills the bacteria and koji inside the kioke while the bacteria that's been in the warehouse for hundreds of years takes care of the rest.   As the bacteria are doing their thing, a human would help assist by climbing up to the top of the kioke's opening and start stirring away. It is very laborious work, but as Yamamoto-san says "It isn't [him] that makes the soy sauce, it is the bacteria that does it. [He] just helps out". To see more of this process, check out the videos below:

The Kioke Crafstmen Rival Project

Close up of kioke barrel
So if making the traditional soy sauces is of better quality, why are they not advertised as such? For one thing, the common soy sauces you normally see at the super market are not produced using these same methods. Most likely, the goal for the bigger manufacturers are "quantity over quality", and then they start pumping out as much as they can. With the traditional soy sauces, like the ones Yamaroku produces, they put effort into producing top of the line quality which includes aging them accordingly. Unfortunately, the traditional method has declined dramatically to only 1% of the total soy sauce production in Japan. The total number of kioke that Yamaroku has totals to about 62 barrels. According to Yamamoto-san, the barrels that they currently use have been made more than 70 years ago with only a good 50 years or so left before it cannot be used anymore.

Keeping tradition alive by building new kioke
In order to keep this almost extinct tradition alive, more kioke barrels will be required than what they currently have. With this in mind, Yamamoto-san decided to take up the craft of creating kioke from scratch. He traveled to Sakai in Osaka to become an apprentice to Fujii Kioke, one of the remaining factories left that make the kioke. By September 20th 2013, the thought of "making new kioke on Shidoshima" became a reality. With this ability now in their hands, Yamaroku can now ensure that the traditional art of creating authentic soy sauces will not be lost and can be passed down to future generations. 

Check out this video below of how they build their kioke barrels from the ground up!

Yamaroku's Soy Sauces

After having tried the soy sauces that Yamaroku produces, we were more than convinced that these are on a completely different level than the common ones found in America. After working with Yamaroku directly to bring these over stateside, we are happy to say that these are now available for everyone in America to experience. Below are the types you can find at our online retail website The Gourmet Import Shop

4 Years Aged Soy Sauce "Tsuru Bishio"
Buy in 18 oz (left) or 5 oz (right) size now!

This aged soy sauce is Yamaroku's flagship product. The name of the product Tsuru Bishio, pronounced sue-roo be-she-oh, is made of the characters for crane (鶴) and sauce (醤). In Japan, cranes are regarded as auspicious birds and symbolize longetivity. Legends say that the song of the cranes are able to reach the heavens. Yamaroku wanted this soy sauce to be like those cranes in reaching the heavens and be known to everyone. It is brewed in the kioke barrels for 4 years with only 4 simple ingredients of soy beans, wheat, salt and water. Suggested use of this is with sushi, sashimi, tofu, grilled fish and as a secret ingredient for original dishes.

The flavor of Tsuru Bishio is best described as having a deep, full rounded flavor containing a balanced taste of umami. Umami is the savory taste out of the five basic tastes which can be found in foods such as soy sauce, cheese and other aged foods (the other tastes are sweet, sour, salty and bitter). If we were to do a very simple umami level comparison of common soy sauces with Tsuru Bishio by using a numerical value, normal dark soy sauces would be a 1.5, light soy sauces would be a 1.2, and Tsuru Bishio would be at an average of 2.3. The umami component from the soy beans comes out during the fermenting stages. Although umami is calculated through numerical values and scientific measurements, Yamaroku believes that reading the sensation of a person is important, and the unseen numerical calculation they use is seeing the smile and reaction of tastiness from people.

Tastes like caramel!
One interesting thing to point out about Tsuru Bishio is that you can put a drizzle on top of vanilla ice cream! What comes out of it is a flavor profile similar to that of caramel. This is also one of the small treats you can try at Yamaroku's cafe. Or if you can't make the trip out there, order Tsuru Bishio online from our store and try it out yourself at home!

Ponzu Sauce With Yuzu & Sudachi Fruit

Buy in 18 oz (left) or 5 oz (right) size now!

The official translated name of Yamaroku's ponzu sauce is "A Little Bit More Luxurious Ponzu". This is of course being the fact that this uses the soy sauce that Yamaroku brews in the kioke barrels. And unlike the majority of the ponzu out there that just use lemon, this one uses the actual yuzu and sudachi fruit from Japan with no chemicals or preservatives used. Suggested use with the ponzu sauce are boiled foods, shabu shabu (hot pot where thinly sliced meat and vegetables are boled together and served with a dipping sauce), Korean barbecue (or called yakiniku in Japan), salad, pickled dishes and gyoza (fried dumplings). We'll go over what ponzu, yuzu, and sudachi are in the next paragraphs.

Ponzu sauce in general is a citrus based sauce originating from Japan. However, the name is a loanword from the Dutch word pons. During the Edo period, Dutch merchant ships came through to Japan and introduced the Japanese to their distilled alcohol called pons (ポンス). To recreate the Dutch cocktail, the Japanese then used their own Japanese liquor shouchu. Not limited to just alcohol, the pons was then applied to the sourness of fruit juices which then morphed the name to ponsu (ポン酢) with 酢 meaning vinegar, hence where the sour comes into play.

Yuzu (1-1 aspect ratio)
yuzu fruit
Yuzu is a citrus based fruit that originates from East Asia with Japan getting theirs introduced from China. Yuzu is often described as a cross between having the taste of a sour mandarin or lemon and the looks or size of a grapefruit. It is a popular fruit used in many Japanese cuisine and even in snacks, drinks, sweets and pastries and even combined with pepper called yuzu kosho.

sudachi fruit
Sudachi is a citrus fruit native to Japan and is especially prominent in the Tokushima region of Japan, where the majority of this fruit is cultivated. It is the other well known citrus fruit in Japan next to the yuzu. Similar with the yuzu, sudachi is a bit sour and used in traditional Japanese cuisine and even soft drinks, ice cream and alcoholic beverages. Since the majority of sudachi is harvested in Tokushima (located in Shikoku), it is considered a delicacy in other parts of Japan where it is not easily found.

2 Years Aged Soy Sauce With Dashi "Kiku Tsuyu"

Buy in 18 oz (left) or 5 oz (right) size now!

Using the 2 years aged Kiku Bishio as the base for the soy sauce, Kiku Tsuyu, pronounced as key-coo sue-you, is notable for using prepared stock of bonito flakes and kelp to accent the soy sauce with Japanese flavor with no chemicals or preservatives used. Suggested usage are with soumen (fine white noodles), udon (thick wheat noodles), soba (buckwheat noodles), food cooked in boiling water, oden (winter dish with various ingredients like boiled eggs, processed fish cakes, daikon radish, etc. stewed in light soy flavored broth) and as sauce for tempura (battered and deep fried seafood or vegetables).

Use as a simple soup with cooked noodles.
Great for cold noodles during summer too!
The character of Kiku (菊) is the flower chrysanthemum and, like the cherry blossom, popularly is represented as a Japanese flower. Kiku can also be interpreted as being "ultimate" or "final". The Tusyu (つゆ) part of the name means a soup mixed with soy sauce. Dashi is the base for miso and/or broths of soups, and it is usually made by using bonito flakes and kelp, which is what this soy sauce is made with. So the title can be fully translated as "the ultimate soy sauce with soup stock".


Yamaroku may not be the biggest brand name (just yet), but in terms of keeping the spirit of Japanese cuisine alive by sticking to the traditional methods from days past, they cannot be surpassed. From their very long history of brewing soy sauce with the old fashioned method, it shows in the quality and taste of the product they have been crafting the same way for almost 2 centuries. Just as the name of Tsuru Bishio states, we want to help Yamaroku spread the name of their soy sauces so that everyone will know of it.

Rainy days, rainy nights, stir, stir, and stir..

Don't forget to check out our online retail website for more gourmet imported food items on our website The Gourmet Import Shop!

Click me to start shopping gourmet food!

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