Katakami Soy Sauce
The small-batch, naturally-brewed soy sauce made by the Katakami family has a crisp and lusty flavor that reflects the history, terroir, and hearty food culture of Nara prefecture.
Located in Gose, a charming old merchant town nestled against the mountains of central Nara prefecture, Katakami Soy Sauce has been preserving the tradition of making naturally-brewed and locally-flavored soy sauce for nearly a century. As you step into the shop at the brewery one encounters bottles of soy sauce for sale perched on top of an old barrel in the midst of a captivating array of large anthropomorphic wooden barrels, enigmatic machinery, and secretive doors and staircases leading to other rooms. It is a magical place where the Katakami family expertly transforms the basic ingredients of soybeans, wheat, salt, and water into a local farmhouse style of soy sauce.
Selling soy sauce straight from the brewery door is how it traditionally has been done in Japan. For centuries, soy sauce brewing was a local business with each town and village having its own brewer. Freshness, quality, and a flavor profile that suited local foods and cooking styles were expected given that soy sauce is the most popular seasoning and condiment in the country. When you needed soy sauce you simply went to the local brewer and refilled your ceramic jug. The only difference today at Katakami’s is that you get your soy sauce in a glass bottle. Other than that the Katakami family makes their soy sauce in the old-fashioned way, using natural fermentation and brewing processes, flavor-enhancing cedar barrels, high-quality local ingredients, a long and carefully-tended aging period, and skilled and creative craftsmanship acquired over generations.
When the Katakami family started their business in 1931, they were a relative newcomer to Japan's centuries-old tradition of making naturally-brewed, small-town soy sauce. But at the time they were something of a maverick. They entered the business just as many of Japan's small, local brewers began to disappear due to the rise of commercial-made soy sauce to meet the demands of Japan’s rapidly growing urban population. In fact, 1931 was a turning point for the industry as it was the year in which large factories started to be built to make soy sauce using cement vats, stainless steel tanks, and fast chemical processes instead of wooden barrels, natural fermentation, and slow aging. In addition to degrading soy sauce's flavor, these changes led to the concentration of the industry among several large producers and the demise of many of the country’s small local brewers and the unique flavor profiles of the soy sauce they made.
Presumably, the Katakami family was inspired by the pride and traditions of the region. Nara prefecture was the birthplace of the Japanese state as well as the country’s grain-based food culture 2,600 years ago. It is also the home of a unique mountain cuisine based on rich flavors and hearty foods. Gose, which is located at the heart of this area, has a strong tradition of making high quality artisanal food and other products that, like soy sauce, take advantage of the town's famously pure and mineral-rich spring water. Sankogan, Japan’s oldest producer of herbal medicines, was founded at Gose in 1319. Yucho Shuzo, which started business in 1719, brews Kaze no Mori sake, an excitingly effervescent and bright style of sake that expresses the full range of fragrances and tastes of Nara's land, forests, and mountains.
One of Katakami's products is Kodai Hishio, a semi-solid fermented mash of black soybeans, barley, sorghum, and salt made based on a 1,600 year-old recipe. Originally, it served as a healthy, mineral- and protein-rich way to preserve and enjoy grain crops. Later it became a satisfyingly savory and nutritious substitute for meat following Japan's adoption of a Buddhist vegetarian diet. It was only after many centuries that water was added to the mixture and the fermented mash was pressed for its liquid that soy sauce was developed. Today Kodai Hishio's rich piquant flavor and chunky texture make it a delicious, as well as nutritional, snack to go along with sake or other aperitif, topping to light foods like tofu and soft cheeses, and dip for vegetables.
The Katakami brewery is a small operation. The family plus two other staff make only 27,000 liters of soy sauce a year. This enables them to focus on the quality and uniqueness of their products. In any event, the small team is not working alone. Koji mold, beneficial microbes in the barrels, yeast in the air, and the passage of time all help to enhance the flavors and increase the nutritional value of the soybeans and wheat during the magical fermentation process of soy sauce.
Cultivating Soy Sauce Koji
The first step in the process of making soy sauce is to create soy sauce koji, a crumbly dough-like mixture of soybeans and wheat that has been malted and will become the essential base of the soy sauce. At Katakami this starts in the late fall with 300 to 400 kilograms of soybeans being put into a giant steam kettle and steamed for 30 minutes until the beans become soft enough to crush but still firm enough to retain their shape. Katakami uses only locally-grown soybeans, which are intensely flavored and have an almost fruit-like sweetness due to the area's climate. The nearby farms receive some of the heaviest rainfall in Japan yet still enjoy ample sunshine during the growing season. Most important for the soybeans are the cool nights and moderate daily temperatures due to the elevation of the mountainous region. The soybeans are then mixed with roasted wheat and inoculated with koji-kin, or koji seed, the mold Aspergillus oryzae, which is often referred to as Japan's national mold given that it is used in nearly all of the country's fermented food products to trigger fermentation.
The koji is then brought to a room called the muro, the life-giving heart of soy sauce brewing where temperature and humidity are carefully controlled, and left to cultivate for exactly three days. During this time, the koji-kin contributes a slightly sweet taste to the culture in addition to stimulating fermentation. Latent lactic acid bacteria in the muro adds a bright acidity while also aiding fermentation.
Aging the Moromi
The matured koji is then mixed with water and salt to create a mash known as moromi and aged in barrels. The Katakami's barrels are made from the pleasantly fragrant and lustrously reddish-colored wood of cedar trees grown in the forests of nearby Mt. Yoshino. Also in the wood are flavorful microbes that have become ingrained through repeated use over decades. The local Gose spring water that is used is considered “strong” water, meaning it is enriched with minerals that aid fermentation and also give the moromi a crisp flavor. The sea salt comes from the town of Ako located along the coast of the Seto Inland Sea in neighboring Hyogo prefecture. Ako is one of Japan's oldest salt-making areas, and its enden, or clay-pan salt fields, were started during the time that Nara was Japan's capital in the 8th century. Ako salt is a completely natural sea salt that incorporates the bittern left at the end of the salt-making process. Full of magnesium and other minerals, the bittern further adds to the sharp flavor of Katakami's moromi as well as extends the anti-bacterial effects of the salt during fermentation.
The wooden barrels are left uncovered throughout fermentation and stirred regularly to aerate the moromi. This keeps the fermentation active and also intensifies the moromi's flavor by exposing it to flavorful yeasts in the air. Katakami's wooden barrels are somewhat smaller than most in the industry, holding about 2,700 liters of moromi versus a more common 3,600 to 5,400 liters. Their smaller size enables the Katakami family to better work the moromi and develop a deeper, more concentrated umami flavor. As fermentation is most active during the warm summer months, the aging of soy sauce is measured by summers not years. All of Katakamis products are aged through at least two summers, which is considered essential to the quality and flavor of a premium product.
After the moromi is fully aged, it is poured into cloth bags, which are pressed to extract the liquid soy sauce. The liquid soy sauce is then pasteurized. Even for traditionally and naturally-brewed soy sauce, pasteurization is standard because it enhances the aroma and flavor of the soy sauce, in addition to assuring the long life and stability of the final product. The Katakami's heat the raw soy sauce briefly, taking care not to destroy the valuable enzymes and other nutritional properties of the final product.
Rich Mountain Flavor
Katakami brews a range of soy sauces that have the same underlying taste profile—crisp and minerally, with a well-balanced saltiness and deep umami flavor. A light fruity aroma and hint of smokiness give the impression of a savory, well-aged liquor. Beautifully colored, Katakami soy sauce is an intense taste of place that captures the wildness and richness of the forests and mountains of Nara prefecture. They are perfectly suited for the hearty local cuisine, which features bitter mountain vegetables, pickled and salt-cured fish, wild duck and boar, and buckwheat soba noodles, and it is not surprising that Katakami soy sauce is found on the tables of many of the area's leading restaurants. Katakami soy sauce also goes very well with Western food and other rich cuisines because of its bright acidity and earthy richness.
Tennen Jozo Shoyu (Naturally Brewed Soy Sauce)
Katakami's flagship product is a koikuchi type soy sauce. It has a light fruity aroma, deep yet translucent red color, refreshing acidity, and rich umami flavor. It is an excellent medium-bodied soy sauce, and can be used as an all-purpose soy sauce for cooking and flavoring at the table. A slight smoky taste adds a bit of complexity.
Usukuchi Shoyu (Light Soy Sauce)
Katakami's Usukuchi Soy Sauce has the assertive saltiness and light color characteristic of usukuchi soy sauce but also a deep umami taste. This combination of light color and rich taste is difficult to achieve, and Katakami's usukuchi is an excellent way to season foods with salt and enrich their flavor while preserving their aroma and color.
Aodaizu Shoyu (Green Soybean Soy Sauce)
Made with green soybeans grown on a farm in Hokkaido especially for Katakami, this is their most balanced and complex soy sauce. Because green soybeans have more sugar and less oil than other soybeans, they balance the inherent acidity and richness of Katakami's soy sauce. Aodaizu Shoyu has an appetizingly earthy aroma, attractive mahogany color, and deep flavor that does not diminish even when diluted. It is great used as a dipping sauce and with all meat dishes—grilled, roasted, stews, and other long-braised dishes.
Ki-Joyu (Unpasteurized Soy Sauce)
Since it is not heated, Ki-Joyu expresses the purest and strongest flavor of Katakami's soy sauce, including a strong taste of the cedar barrels. Also, it is still actively fermenting, making it good for preserving and fermenting other foods, such as pickles. As the most liquor-like of Katakami's soy sauces, it is good in Western cooking for de-glazing pans and creating sauces and glazes. Keep refrigerated.
Kasaneshikomi-Joyu (Double Fermented Soy Sauce)
This specialty soy sauce is made by blending soy sauce koji with other soy sauce, instead of with a salt water brine, and then aged. Denser in color, flavor, and fragrance and sweeter than regular soy sauce, it is mainly used at the table for flavoring light foods such as sashimi, sushi, and chilled tofu and also rich oily foods. Mixed with butter or wasabi, it makes a great steak sauce.
Made only with soybeans, and lots of them, and also aged for the longest period of time of all of Katakami's products, this tamari is characterized by a rich earthy fragrance and dense umami. It has been made less thick than standard tamari so that it is easy to use as a dipping sauce as well as a flavoring for marinades, salad dressings, soups, and braised dishes.
Soy sauce is a universal seasoning, and its blend of salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami flavors in one liquid form makes cooking easy. To make things even easier, Katakami produces a number of blended soy sauces, including Awairodashi-Joyu, which combines usukuchi soy sauce with dashi stock to be used for soups and light simmered dishes, and Yaki-Mochi Shoyu, a soy sauce sweetened and thickened with sugar for marinades and glazes.
Story & Photos: Tom Schiller
Katakami Soy Sauce 片上醤油
329 Moriwaki, Gose City, Nara Prefecture 639-2318
Tel: +81 (0745) 66 0033
www.asm.ne.jp/~soy/ (Japanese only)
The shop is open Monday to Saturday from 9:00 to 17:00. As part of their commitment to making and promoting artisanal soy sauce, the Katakamis provide soy sauce making demonstrations and workshops during which each participant makes their own bottle of soy sauce to take home. Call in advance to find out when the next workshop is scheduled.
Gose can be reached by either the Kintetsu Gose train line or the Japan Rail Wakayama line. It is a delightful country town to visit. Located in the foothills of the Kongo-Katsuragi mountain range that separates Nara prefecture from the city of Osaka, Gose is a treasure trove of old merchant architecture while also continuing to be a vibrant community of a number of artisanal food and product makers. The Sankogan Museum of Pharmacy, sponsored by Japan's oldest pharmaceutical company, is particularly interesting given its well-presented exhibits about traditional Chinese and Japanese herbal medicines and delightful gardens. The town is also connected to hiking trails into the nearby mountains and cycling paths to the many tourist sites that are concentrated in the middle of Nara prefecture, including ancient Kofun burial tombs, Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, other historic towns, beautiful villages, and national parks.
Where to Buy
In addition to the Katakami brewery in Gose, Katakami soy sauce is available in shops across Nara prefecture. You can also buy several types of Katakami products at the Nara prefecture "antenna shop" in Tokyo, which offers a wide variety of local foodstuffs, sake, and crafts.
Nihombashi Muromachi 162 Bldg. 1&2 F, 1-6-2 Nihombashi Muromachi, Chūō-ku, Tokyo
Open 10:30—19:00 daily, including Sunday.
Tel: +81 (03) 3516 3931