A sauce of pride
Bottles of soy sauce, rows of fermented bean curd and other condiments are stacked neatly in the premises of Tai Ma Sauce Company in Kwun Tong. Most prominent on display, however, are large jars of fermented soya bean paste - or min si zeong in Cantonese - that owner Chau Wing-cheong takes pride in.
'I'm the third generation of this family business which my grandfather started on the mainland about 50 years ago. We've always used the most demanding and time-consuming method to make our products in our own factory - now located in Sheung Shui,' Chau says.
'Not many businesses make min si zeong like we do any more and it's not the most lucrative item. It takes more than a year to make our min si zeong, which has an intense aroma as it has received plenty of sunlight, which condenses the flavour. When added to dishes - and it goes well with many different ingredients especially fish heads and duck - it enhances and adds layers to the taste.'
Chau's min si zeong is considered by many connoisseurs to be the finest in Hong Kong. It's used mainly to marinate meat and seafood, or it's stir-fried with vegetables to remove the 'grassy' flavour. Available in original and spicy flavours, the fermented soya bean pastes are available in air-sealed bottles or from the large jars, from which the desired amount will be scooped into small plastic bags before being tied with a straw.
The enthusiastic Chau often offers cooking tips to customers, suggesting they mix his fermented soya bean paste with garlic, sugar and crushed preserved plums to marinate pork ribs before steaming them. The same ingredients also work in a duck stew with the addition of some ginger slices and replacing sugar with rock sugar. The result is a type of sweet and sour sauce with enhanced richness, the plum balancing the fattiness of the meat.
He also recommends spreading a thin layer of min si zeong over fish, such as mullet and grass carp, when steaming to tone down the fishy taste.
When it was first created more than 2,000 years ago in China, fermented soya bean paste, together with its by-product, soy sauce, was primarily a nutritious, tasty way of stretching salt - an expensive commodity back then. The use of it spread to other countries, developing into miso in Japan and doenjang in Korea. But no matter where it's used, it's prized for its rich, meaty umami flavour - the 'fifth taste', after the four basic tastes of sweet, salty, bitter and sour.
In Japan, miso can be made from other ingredients in addition to (or sometimes as a substitute for) soya beans. There are hundreds of regional differences, but Ken Chu Kam-chuen, senior head chef of Toba Nagoya Cuisine in Causeway Bay, says the condiment can be broken down into three main categories: shiro miso (white miso), shinshu miso (yellow miso) and aka miso (red miso).
'For white miso, the largest amount of agent such as rice or wheat is added to speed up fermentation, giving it its light colour. As it has a light taste, it's usually used to make seafood dishes such as black cod saikyo yaki,' the chef says.
'For yellow miso, a smaller amount of the agent is added and hence it takes a longer time to ferment. It has a darker colour than white miso and, in general, yellow miso is used to make miso soup.
'Red miso is made using 100 per cent soya beans without any other agents, so it takes at least two years to ferment and has a dark brown-red colour and the strongest taste.'
Toba specialises in the cuisine of Nagoya, the capital of Aichi prefecture, so the chefs take pride in serving a variety of dishes made with regionally-produced hatcho miso, which belongs to the red miso family.
'It consists of the purest essence of the soya bean, and has a very strong taste,' Chu says. 'While it goes well with meat, it's usually made into sauces or a soup base, instead of being used to marinate meat, as in Chinese cooking. It's too salty and overwhelming to marinate meat directly with hatcho miso.'
One of Tabo's signature dishes is Nagoya-style tebasaki - deep-fried hot and spicy chicken wings with spicy peppers, made of 15 ingredients and served with a sauce made by cooking hatcho miso with chicken stock, sugar and mirin.
'The chicken wings are deep-fried twice - once in oil at 170 degrees Celsius to cook it, then again in oil at 200 degrees to give them their crispness without drying it,' Chu says.
'Then we will spread layers of the sauce followed by the sprinkles of the spicy pepper, repeating this at least three times each on two sides.'
The chef makes hatcho miso into a soup base by mixing it into katsuobushi dashi (stock made with shaved dried, fermented bonito) to go with udon and oden (fish cakes, turnip, spongy dried tofu and other ingredients); and he also mixes the miso with mirin to make a sweet, intense sauce that he serves on top of juicy pork fillet, or which he spreads a layer of on a grilled fresh Japanese eggplant before baking it in the oven.
'When compared to Japan, where miso is the major ingredient in many dishes, people in Hong Kong do not crave the condiment. In Japan, the whole pork fillet would be dipped into the sauce, rather than just a drizzle, as we do in Hong Kong,' Chu says.
Korean cooking has its own way of using the peninsula's versions of fermented soya bean paste, of which there are many types, says Tiffany Fung Mei-yan, a half-Chinese, half-Korean cook and food columnist who learned to cook from her mother.
'Chinese min si zeong is mainly used to do the seasoning or to marinate. The way Koreans use doenjang is closer to the way the Japanese use miso. They both use it to make soup, although doenjang is different in a way as it has finely ground and coarsely ground versions,' she says.
Fung says doenjang is a staple that Koreans can't live without. 'We have rice and soup for all three meals of the day. Doenjang chigae, which uses the fermented soya bean paste as its base - along with tofu, onion, cucumber, dried fish and sometimes meat and seafood - is a common item for breakfast,' she says.
In addition to being used in soups, doenjang - and its close cousin, gochujang (fermented chilli and soya bean paste) - is mixed with other ingredients for meat dishes and as a dressing for vegetables, to create the intense flavours Korean cuisine is known for. Doenjang and gochujang are also the main ingredients used to make ssamjang, the thick 'wrapping sauce' served with barbecued meats that are wrapped in lettuce and perilla leaves, along with sliced raw garlic and chillis.
'Doenjang will also be mixed in a seafood platter or added to marinate mackerel before grilling, too. It should not be overcooked or it loses its unique scent,' Fung says.
'While cooking, doenjang will be added twice so as to maintain the fragrance - the first time at the beginning for the taste, as it becomes saltier when cooked, and a second time before serving to enhance the fragrance, which will be lost if it is cooked for too long.'
In addition to giving taste, aroma and texture, soya bean pastes are also important sources of nutrition.
Fung says: 'As it is made from soya beans, doenjang is packed with protein. In the past, poor families in Korea who did not have money for meat but could only afford cheaper food such as kimchi, relied heavily on doenjang for protein.'
'The higher the soya bean content, the more nutritious the miso,' Chu says.
'Hatcho miso is particularly good for health because it's pure soya bean, so its dietary fibre is several times higher than that of [other miso and] vegetables.'