Soy sauce can be sweet or salty and dark or light

ASK THE CHEF

February 03, 2002|By Jim Coleman and Candace Hagan | Jim Coleman and Candace Hagan,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Q. When cooking, does it matter which type of soy sauce is used?

A. Soy sauce, a crucial ingredient in Oriental cooking, is made from a mixture of boiled soybeans and roasted wheat or barley that has fermented for six to 24 months. After the fermentation is complete, the raw liquid is drained off.

As to which kind of soy sauce is used when, we'll give you some guidelines, but we all know there are exceptions to every rule. The first big difference in soy sauces is between the Japanese and Chinese varieties. The rule is that Japanese soy sauce will be sweeter and the Chinese saltier. (If you choose to use Chinese soy sauce in a recipe, be careful not to put too much salt in!) A similar relationship exists between dark and light soy sauces. Dark sauces are usually sweeter, while the light is salty.

Once you understand this, it's really a matter of taste as to which soy sauce you use. As an everyday soy sauce, my choice is Kikkoman because it is a nice mixture between sweet and salty flavors (and it's made in that faraway, exotic land called Wisconsin). Try it, and then experiment with other varieties. The more you sample, the more you'll find that just as there is no such thing as plain wine, plain soy sauce doesn't exist, either.

Q. I love Cajun food, and I have some questions regarding gumbo. Are there certain meats or seafood that make gumbo authentic? Also, when I make a dark roux, I always burn my flour. What am I doing wrong?

A. As far as your question about which meats and seafood make gumbo authentic, you must know that them's fightin' words down South. While most gumbos have seafood, especially in New Orleans, not all of them do, and there are different variations of this dish all the way from Mississippi to Texas. Some use sausage, others chicken, and still others combine anything that's handy and throw it in the pot. The only thing that true gumbo has to have is the ingredient that got the dish its name. Gumbo comes from the African word for okra, ochinnggombo.

Gumbo calls for a good, dark roux. Now, most recipes suggest heating oil until very hot in a thick cast-iron pan. Then you are supposed to add the flour slowly, cooking and stirring it until it darkens. Not only is this hard to do because it burns easily (as you know), but it can also be dangerous because it bubbles and pops. We used to call that "Cajun napalm" back in Texas.

Here is a great trick that we normally charge people for, so after we tell you, don't tell anyone. Put the flour on a cookie sheet and place it in a 400-degree oven until the flour gets nice and brown. Then, prepare your roux as you normally would, and watch how easy it is to make without burning.

Jim Coleman is executive chef at the Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia, a cookbook author and host of television and radio cooking shows. Candace Hagan is a food writer and cookbook author.

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