The main types of soy sauce are those from China and Japan, but Malaysia, Indonesia , and other Asian countries have their own uniquely flavored soy sauces too.
Here’s a brief guide to the varieties. All of these are generally available in specialty Asian grocery stores.
Chinese Soy Sauce
Lauchou and shengchou
There are two main types of Chinese soy sauce: light (shengchou) and dark (lauchou). Light soy sauce is thin and light brown (the light does not refer to salt content). It’s commonly used for dipping or in everyday cooking. Dark soy sauce is more viscous and darker brown. Flavored with bead molasses (similar to light molasses), it is used for braises or other dishes where deep flavor and color are desired.
“Chinese-style soy sauces unlock their potential when heated, releasing flavor and aroma, and blending with the ingredients,” says Greg Haradiran, an associate brand manager with leading Chinese soy sauce manufacturer Lee Kum Kee.
Chef Tsai favors dark Chinese soy sauce for its color, deep flavor, and saltiness when he prepares a red roast duck or pork shoulder. He uses a small amount of the very pungent mushroom-flavored soy sauce in his mushroom consommé to give it “one more level of mushroominess.”
Japanese Soy Sauce
Japanese soy sauces, or shoyu, are typically sweeter than their Chinese counterparts because they contain more wheat (generally, Japanese soy sauces use a soybean-wheat ratio of 60-40, while the soybean-wheat ratio for Chinese soy sauces is 70-30). “Japanese soy sauces have more delicate, refined, and generally less overpowering flavors,” says Haradiran. There are five main types of shoyu:
Koikuchi (dark): The most commonly used soy sauce in Japanese cooking, made with roughly equal proportions of soybeans and wheat.
Usukuchi (light): Saltier and lighter than koikuchi, an all-purpose soy sauce used for dishes where the dark color of regular shoyu would make them look unappetizing.
Tamari: Typically darker and richer-tasting than koikuchi, made with soybeans and little or no wheat.
Shiro (literally, “white”): Mostly wheat, little soybeans, used to add flavor without altering the color of a dish.
Saishikomi: Twice-brewed, very dark and very flavorful, used with sushi and sashimi.
Saishikomi, koikuchi, usukuchi, tamari, shiro
Shoyu is further categorized by grade according to how it is produced (the highest contains 100 percent naturally fermented product) and quality; honzen shoyu is premium shoyu favored by high-end Japanese kaiseki restaurants. Most home cooks could use any of these types interchangeably—except saishikomi, because it’s thicker and more intensely flavored than the others—adjusting for taste as needed.
Other Soy Sauces
Chinese mushroom soy sauce (made with straw mushrooms) is a good way to enhance flavor in vegetarian cooking. Indonesian kecap manis is a sweet, dark, and thick soy sauce made with palm sugar and star anise (kecap asin is a thick and salty version). In Malaysian cooking, kicap lemak tastes like a less sweet version of Indonesian kecap manis, while kicap cair is very similar to the thick and salty Indonesian kecap asin. Hawaiian shoyu contains wheat, soybeans, caramel coloring, and sugar, and is used by island locals on everything from scrambled eggs to saimin.