Tanakaya Soy Sauce
By creatively brewing soy sauce according to traditional methods, Kazuo Tanaka is making an elegant new style of rich-tasting yet light-bodied artisanal soy sauce that can deliciously season all kinds of foods and cuisines.
The Tanakaya soy sauce brewery is located in Matsuyama, the largest city on Shikoku Island. Although Shikoku is the fourth largest of Japan’s over 6,800 islands and centrally positioned in the Seto Inland Sea region of the archipelago, it has always been a somewhat remote, sparsely populated, and relatively quiet, provincial part of the country. Blessed with a temperate climate, lush sun-drenched mountains in the north, wide farmland nourished by mineral-rich rivers in the west and east, and warm currents of pure ocean water encircling the island, Shikoku has mainly been an important food basket (or food net, in the case of marine products) for some of Japan’s best quality fruits, vegetables, grains, seafood, and seaweed. The island is especially famous for its citrus, wheat, sweet potatoes, katsuo (bonito tuna), tai (sea bream), hamachi (yellowtail), and all kinds of seaweed. Matsuyama, in turn, has long played the role of being the island’s principal market town, from where food is either shipped directly to the rest of the country or first turned into food products by the numerous small food makers working at its port of Mitsuhama.
Kazuo Tanaka is the current maker of Tanakaya Soy Sauce, and represents the third generation of the family business, which his grandfather started in 1905 when he took over the operations of an existing soy sauce brewery that was located on Mitsuhama’s high street. As the descendant of a successful merchant family, Kazuo grew up with an appreciation of the finer things in life—especially good food. He began making soy sauce as soon as he finished school forty years ago. Ten years later, when he took over the business from his father, Kazuo was determined to address the decline in quality and flavor of soy sauce that was occurring in the industry due to the use of poor quality, low-cost ingredients and time-saving production processes. Armed with brewing skills, a great palate, and a passion to renew Shikoku’s heritage of great-tasting food based on high quality ingredients, Kazuo began a quest to make, as he says, “the best soy sauce in Japan.”
A New Refined Style of Artisanal Soy Sauce
What Kazuo has succeeded in doing is to create a delicious and unique, new kind of soy sauce. Brewed naturally and according to traditional methods, Tanakaya’s “Premium” brand of soy sauce is an elegant, light-bodied, beautifully balanced, and pure tasting soy sauce. It has the rich red color of well-made artisanal soy sauce, which is evidence of the complexity and depth of flavor that is created by long, natural fermentation and aging. Yet its aroma is a light bouquet of fruity, earthy, toasty fragrances that mirror the subtle balance of flavors of its principal ingredients—soy beans, wheat, and the bacteria and yeasts that are present in the wooden barrels Kazuro uses for brewing. In its way Tanakaya’s “Premium” soy sauce is one of the most “Japanese” of soy sauces because of the way it brings out the best flavor of each of its ingredients and then harmonizes these in a style that is smoother, cleaner, and has a softer finish than most traditional soy sauces.
A Gentleman Chef and Food Artisan
Kazuo is an avid home cook, and he enjoys experimenting with flavor, combining unusual ingredients and testing his soy sauce on all kinds of foods during cooking and also finishing dishes at the table. His deep understanding of the flavor of his soy sauce and how it relates to different foods and cuisines are important factors behind the quality and flavor of Tanakaya soy sauce. His pleasure and skill in cooking also influences his approach to making soy sauce, which is very much a hands-on, creative process that targets achieving great flavor.
Like all great chefs, the ingredients Kazuo uses are impeccable. The soy beans and wheat are two of the best cultivars currently in use among Japan’s premium food makers. Both originated locally and their uncommon sweetness serves to balance the inherent saltiness of soy sauce. The soy beans are the Fukuyutaka variety, grown on Kyushu Island across the straits from Matsuyama. They were bred to take advantage of the hot, humid weather of southern Japan and be a full-flavored soy bean that is rich in creamy, sweet, umami-laden protein and low in oil. Kazuo only uses the uniformly large beans from the center of each pod, called the maru daizu, because they ferment more slowly and evenly. This helps to give his finished soy sauce its rich, fruity flavor. The wheat is one of Shikoku’s prized varieties called Chikugoizumi. It is a sweet, protein-rich spring wheat that is grown on a nearby farm. Kazuo mills the wheat only slightly before roasting it, maintaining a rough texture so that it will ferment in pace with the soy beans when they are mixed together.
The basic recipe that Kazuo follows for making Tanakaya soy sauce is the classical one developed and standardized by the end of the 1600s in Japan. It includes mixing together equal parts of steamed soy beans and roasted wheat, dusting this blend with koji-kin mold spores and germinating everything for three days in a temperature-controlled muro room (at a constant thirty degrees), moving the mash to wooden barrels filled with a salt water brine, and leaving what is now called the moromi to slowly ferment and age over a period of time that includes at least two summers. The final soy sauce liquid is then separated from the moromi and briefly heated at eighty-five degrees to stop the fermentation process and also enhance the aroma of the soy sauce and stabilize its flavor and condition.
Kazuo conducts this process with great care and attention. Even by artisanal food-making standards, Tanakaya is a small-batch soy sauce brewer. It only produces six barrels of soy sauce a year for a total volume of about 13,000 liters. This compares to 25,000 to 50,000 liters made per year by other artisanal brewers (and to between 30,000,000 and 260,000,000 liters made annually by the large commercial makers of soy sauce). In addition, his wooden barrels are relatively small at 2,400 liters per barrel versus a more common 3,600 to 5,400 liters, allowing him great control over the process. Initially Kazuo worked alone but now is joined by his brother-in-law and his son (Kazuo's nephew), who will one day take over the business.
Other key factors influencing the flavor of Tanakaya’s soy sauce are a couple of important differences in the way that Kazuo carries out the process. Both have to do with maximizing the flavor contribution of the soy beans. The first is a precise and sensitive method for preparing the beans. Before they are steamed, they are soaked overnight. The next day they are put in cold water in the steamer, which is then heated very slowly to saturate the beans with both heat and steam so that they cook slowly, richly, and somewhat differently. The soy beans at the top of the steamer come out creamy and rich-tasting; the soy beans at the bottom are sweeter, firmer, and slightly peppery.
The other important innovation is how the soy sauce is separated from the moromi. It is standard practice in the industry to press the moromi until the very last drop of soy sauce is squeezed out, leaving behind a desiccated cake of lees and sediment. Kazuo, instead, much more sensitively extracts the soy sauce from the moromi in two ways. For his “Premium” soy sauce he captures only a natural first drip of soy sauce from the barrel. This helps give it its light, pure flavor and balance. For his regular “Koikuchi” soy sauce, Kazuo presses the moromi but very gently and only to 80% of its volume. The goal of both methods is to keep any soy bean oil and lees and sediment out of the soy sauce because the former can become rancid during brewing and later in the bottle, while the latter can have off-flavors.
A Soy Sauce For All Seasonings
Both rich-tasting and light, the complexity of Tanakaya's "Premium" soy sauce derives as much from the balanced flavor of its high-quality ingredients as from the depth of its fermentation. Its beautifully mild and delicate aromas and flavors make it very much a finishing soy sauce—something to be added to foods and dishes at the table. Its style is a perfect match for classical Japanese cuisine and any other kind of light, natural, ingredient-oriented cooking like Italian, other Mediterranean, Cantonese, and healthy, fresh, seasonal farm-to-table cooking. Because of its light, balanced flavor, “Premium” soy sauce acts more like a seasoning than a flavoring. In other words, it brightens the flavors of other food and harmonizes flavors in a dish, while providing a gentle touch of enriching umami and adding a bit of complexity. It does not add a strong soy sauce flavor of its own or skew a dish to a Japanese or Asian flavor. Tofu, light fish sashimi, fresh and soft cheeses like ricotta and mozzarella, and fresh and lightly cooked vegetables all benefit from a splash of “Premium” soy sauce. The subtle acidity of “Premium” helps to make any food it is paired with taste more like itself, including fresh fruit, nuts, and cured meats. Lastly, it is a partner in cooking rather than a big note, and can easily be layered with other seasonings. It goes particularly well with a medium fruity olive oil and any kind of mildly tart citrus juice that might be used to season food.
Tanakaya’s other core soy sauce is its “Koikuchi” cooking soy sauce. It is slightly darker, richer, and saltier than the “Premium,” enabling it to stand up to cooking. Even then, it should mainly be added at the end to preserve the nuances of its flavor and complexity. It can also be used at the table when there is a desire for a stronger, more traditional soy sauce flavor.
Tanakaya makes a broad range of other soy sauce products, which is surprising for such a small artisanal brewery. This reflects Kazuo’s love of food, creative spirit, and desire to make soy sauce a versatile and truly global seasoning through a variety of derivative products that go well with different kinds of foods and cuisines. Some of these products were developed in collaboration with local chefs who specialize in Italian and French cooking. Many of the products are blended seasonings, and most should be used as finishing sauces and condiments. All are particularly useful for light, natural, seasonal cooking and eating.
A particularly delicious sauce is Tanakaya’s ponzu. Ponzu is a traditional mix of soy sauce, dashi stock, and some kind of citrus juice to create a refreshing and flavorful trifecta of the three key seasonings of salt, acid, and umami. Kazuo makes two types of ponzu. One is a classic "Yuzu Ponzu," which combines Tanakaya’s koikuchi soy sauce with juice from Shikoku Island’s exotically fragrant and flavorful yuzu citrus, which are considered the best in Japan. The second type is a completely unique “Lime Ponzu,” using the juice of limes grown around Matsuyama, which are known for their unusually pure resinous fragrance and taste—almost like lavender. The “Lime Ponzu” was awarded Best New Product by Matsuyama’s Chamber of Commerce in 2016.
Other products include:
- The full range of standard soy sauce products in Tanakaya’s inimitable style, including:
- Usukuchi—a soy sauce that is lighter in color than koikuchi soy sauce yet much saltier, which essentially is a fermented liquid salt that helps preserve the color, aroma, and flavor of the ingredients in a dish,
- Saishikomi—a deeply rich sweet soy sauce that has been fermented twice and aged for three years and can be used for rich fatty sashimi and sushi as well as a substitute for a high quality, aged balsamic vinegar,
- Dashi-joyu—a mix of dashi fish stock and soy sauce for everyday cooking and eating, and
- Mentsuyu—a dipping sauce for hot and cold noodle dishes.
- A sweet and a spicy BBQ sauce.
- A garlic sauce and a tomato sauce.
Tanakaya also makes three types of miso based on the same principles of high quality ingredients, creative process, and light, mild, balanced flavor. A key means of achieving this is by using a type of barley, called hadaka mugi, instead of wheat to make the miso. Variations in taste and use between the three types of miso are created by differences in the salt content, proportions of the ingredients, and fermentation times. Like Tanakaya's soy sauce, its miso can be used with all kinds of foods and cuisines.
- Mugi Miso - A rich, salty miso that is a mix of soy beans and barley in a 1:2.5 ratio and a salt content of 10%, which has been fermented for four months. It can be used for any kind of cooking, and is both a delicious and helpful agent when used in making bread.
- Mugi Koji Miso - A creamier, softer miso that is a mix of soy beans and barley in a 1:4 ratio and a salt content of 8.5%, which has been fermented for a shorter two months. It has an enticing and irresistible salty-sweet balance, making it delicious in both cooking and used fresh as a dip or condiment. (For a dip, use it straight up or mixed with some mayonnaise, Greek yoghurt, or citrus juice.) Barley miso, called beni-koji miso, has a strong affinity with olive oil, as does soy sauce, and works well in Italian dishes like tomato sauce, caponata, fish stew, etc. Its light, salty-sweet balance also makes it an excellent glaze mixed with sake and mirin for salmon, roast pork, and chicken.
- Kome Miso - A rich, slightly edgy-tasting miso made of equal parts soy beans, barley, and rice that has been fermented for three months. It should be used when a sharper aroma and flavor is needed in cooking or as a condiment. A little bit spread on toasted almonds is especially delicious.
Story & Photos: Tom Schiller
Tanakaya Co., Ltd. 田中屋
3-1-33 Matsuyama City
Ehime Prefecture 791-8061
Tel: +81 (089) 952 2252
The Tanakaya soy sauce brewery is an elegant 100-year-old building located on the old main street of the Mitsuhama historic district of Matsuyama City. Kazuo recently renovated the building in a sensitive and practical manner, using recycled ancient kawara roof tiles. In 2016 he received an award from the city for this project.
The shop at Tanakaya is open Monday through Friday from 9:00 to 17:00. You can taste as well as buy products there. Tanakaya's products are also available online through the company's website and from the following other outlets:
- Mitsukoshi Department Store, Matsuyama City
- Fuji supermarkets across Ehime prefecture
- Online retailers Amazon Japan, Rakuten, and Oisix
The Mitsuhama area of Matsuyama City is the city's port and was also its main business district from the Edo era (1603-1868) up to World War II when the center of Matsuyama was mainly a feudal castle town. In those days, Mitsuhama was a lively area of sake brewers, soy sauce makers (at one time there were eight operating there), and other food companies who took advantage of the port to both obtain supplies and ship out their finished products to the rest of Japan. Because Mitsuhama escaped being destroyed by bombing during World War II due to winds, clouds, and miscalculations by U.S. Air Force pilots, it is an interesting warren of narrow streets filled with an array of commercial architecture from the Edo, Meiji (1868-1912), Taisho (1912-1926), and Showa eras (1926-1989). The area is coming back to life again due to the preservation efforts of the city and local merchants and also the activities of artists and crafts people, who have been moving to the area in recent years. Attracted by Mitsuhama's eclectic charm and old style of city life, they are opening studios, galleries, shops, and restaurants. A particularly enjoyable way to start a day at Mitsuhama is to visit its morning fish market.
The Taiya restaurant serves traditional dishes using the local specialty of fresh tai sea bream. It also offers Japanese sweets, coffee and tea, and fresh fruit desserts. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Yoshikawa Gallery across from the Taiya restaurant was once a workshop for making traditional Japanese sweet confections. While it is no longer in business, the third generation owner has turned it into a delightful museum.
Historically, Matsuyama was the feudal seat of the lords of Iyo province and consisted of a large castle complex that sprawled across the top of the mountain at the center of the town. It, in turn, was surrounded by defensive circles of walls, moats, and the homes of samurai warriors. Although Matsuyama was heavily bombed during the World War II, it retains its provincial aristocratic air through the survival of several important structures including the castle. Matsuyama Castle is one of the small number of castles to have survived both the end of the feudal era in 1868 and bombing during World War II. It is also one of the grandest and most beautiful castles in Japan, and has several unique architectural features as well as extensive and lovely grounds. At the base of the hill is Bansui-So, an extravagant neoclassical French villa built in 1922 by Count Hisamatsu Sadakoto, the 15th lord of Iyo. Today it is an annex of the Art Museum of Ehime Prefecture. On the other side of the castle is Dogo Onsen, which is one of the oldest hot springs in Japan. At the center is Dogo Onsen Honkan, a grand public bath built in 1894 that is open daily from 6:00 to 23:00.
Matsuyama has good hotels, lots of restaurants, and a small convenient airport, making it a great gateway for exploring the western half of Shikoku Island. In addition, the city is roughly situated at the center of Ehime prefecture, which is known as the citrus kingdom of Japan because much of the country's best citrus fruit is grown there, especially mikan (mandarins). The prefecture's many delicious and unique varieties of citrus, as well as a wide range of related food and other products, can be found everywhere in the city.
The western half of Shikoku Island combines dramatic mountains, terraced citrus orchards and rice fields, flat farmland, and long stretches of unspoiled coastline with a string of charming country towns and villages, castle ruins, and ancient Buddhist temples that are part of the island's extensive pilgrimage route. One of the area's most delightful destinations is the mountainside village of Uchiko, which is less than an hour's drive from Matsuyama. It has an exceptionally well-preserved historic district, called the Yokaichi and Gokoku Old Town, that is comprised of unique and flamboyant homes and businesses from the Edo and Meiji eras when Uchiko was Japan's leading producer of vegetable wax used for candles, cosmetics, and a range of other products. The rest of Uchiko, at the bottom of the hill near the train station, is equally interesting, being a living town that is filled with similarly exuberant old merchant architecture as well as many craft food makers, shops, inns, and restaurants. Several very helpful English-language brochures about Uchiko can be downloaded from this website: www.we-love-uchiko.jp/pamphlet-en/