Who Makes Those Plastic Packets of Soy Sauce in Chinese Takeout?

Posted on 30 Oct 2016 22:10

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We tend to associate soy sauce with Chinese food first, and with Asian food second. When you order Chinese food, you usually get about 300 or so of those little packets of the black salty liquid. But, what type of bottled soy sauce do you have at home right now? The most likely answer for most of my readers is Kikkoman. It's Japanese soy sauce. Ironically, most of the common soy sauces we buy at the grocery store are Japanese.

Does Kikkoman make those little packets of soy sauce? Perish the thought.

See also Origin of the Word Soy.

Kikkoman hates those little packets. The reason Kikkoman and other makers of traditional soy sauce hate those plastic packets is because they do not contain real soy sauce. They are instead "chemical soy sauce," or soy sauce flavored water. The main ingredients are salt, water, hydrolized vegetable protein, caramel coloring, and sometimes corn syrup.

The biggest manufacturer of soy sauce packets used in American Chinese takeout restaurants is Kari-Out. Kari-Out, located in New Jersey, was founded in the late 1960's by Howard Epstein, who specialized in what he called 'small-unit packaging.' They also make packets of duck sauce and mustard sauce. If you have saved any Chinese-takeout packets, you'll most likely find they come from Kari-Out Co.

The ingredients in Kari-Out's packet soy sauce are listed as "water, salt, hydrolyzed soy and corn protein, caramel color, 01% sodium benzoate."

Chinese takeout soy sauce packet from Kari-Out Co.
Chinese takeout soy sauce packet from Kari-Out Co.

Epstein was the first to put soy sauce in such plastic packets, having started with freezer pops in similar cheap plastic. The Chinese restaurant industry did not at first accept his packets, but he caught a break when airlines began purchasing them for use in in-flight meals.

Another maker of the packets is La Choy. La Choy used to be the leading brand of bottled soy sauce in the United States before Kikkoman overtook them in sales. The second leading brand was Chun King. Although La Choy was originally started in 1922 by South Korean Dr. Ilhan New with partner Wally Smith, Chun King was founded by Jeno Paulucci, developer of Jeno's Pizza Rolls and frozen pizza, and Michelina's frozen Italian food products. Both of these brands eventually ended up in the hands of industrial food giant ConAgra Foods, but only La Choy survives.

Why are these products called soy sauce if they do not really resemble traditional soy sauce? Ask the USDA, along with the International Hydrolized Protein Council. The soy sauces that are not made by traditional slow fermentation processes go by various names such as the aforementioned chemical soy sauce, as well as non-brewed soy sauce, HVP soy sauce, and hydrolized soy sauce. They cost much less than their traditionally brewed counterparts, explaining why your Chinese restaurant throws handful after handful into your takeaway bag.

Chinese take out packets of soy sauce, duck sauce, and mustard sauce
Chinese take out packets of soy sauce, duck sauce, and mustard sauce

Kikkoman, who has long touted its "naturally brewed soy sauce…still made just as it was more than 300 years ago…slowly fermented and aged for full flavor like a fine wine" went to battle along with Japanese officials with the soy sauce fakers and asked the United Nation's Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international food regulation forum, to not allow the non-brewed soy sauces to be called soy sauce. Specifically, they submitted that soy sauce should be classified into four types: long-term brewed, short-term brewed, nonbrewed, and mixed. The International Hydrolyzed Food Council, a powerful trade group, and the USDA thought this to be discriminatory, saying that "These products have been manufactured here and around the world for decades and sold as soy sauce, and there have been no complaints from consumers." A U.S. delegate to the commission used a similar non-defence, saying "All we want is for the standard for soy sauces to be all-inclusive. We have people who make naturally brewed and the hydrolyzed. We just have to make sure the product is safe and compatible, that's all."

As of today, there is still no labeling distinction between brewed and non-brewed soy sauce.

There are many other examples of products with a strict standard of identity based on tradition. Cheese, for example, is such a product. So-called American cheese has been made for many decades, but it cannot be labeled as 'cheese.' Surely, the fact that a type of product is made and consumed is not enough to determine whether it meets a standard of identity.

Many Americans simply do not know the difference between the different types of soy sauce, having never directly compared them.

Regardless of how you feel about the labeling battle, you can never know how much better a naturally brewed soy sauce tastes until you compare it to the stuff that comes out of the packets. Soy sauce can last a long time in the fridge, and if you buy an authentic traditional brewed sauce, whether Chinese or Japanese (they have slight differences, usually in wheat content), you may soon find yourself telling your restaurant to please leave out the packets, many of which end up in landfills anyway. For traditional Chinese soy sauces, look for brands such as Pearl River Bridge, Lee Kum Kee, or Koon Chun.

*Note to readers: I recently purchased 2 bottles of Pearl River Bridge soy sauce, both a "light" (regular) and a dark one. The caps on both bottles were leaky, causing a mess when pouring. The caps could not be tightened. Until they get this problem fixed I'd recommend you go with Lee Kum Lee or Koon Chun.

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