Have you ever had that craving, sometimes late at night, for teriyaki chicken and fried rice? Or maybe you enjoy a little sushi or a good pad Thai once in a while.

All of these dishes are not reproducible without soy sauce. And what exactly is this dark and salty brew?

We all know that soy sauce has soy beans in it . . . somewhere. How possible would it be for our stranded Americans to fabricate something like soy sauce?


Soy sauce is considered the oldest condiment used in the world today. The Chinese have been using soy sauce for more than 2500 years. Cakes of soybean paste, sometimes mixed with wheat, are made and infected with a particular mold called Aspergillus and then left alone for three days as the mold breaks down the proteins of the beans.

When the cakes are ready, they are placed in barrels or tanks with salt. The process from this point is more a function of lactobacilli and yeast than anything else. These further break down the proteins and sugars.

After fermenting for several months, the brown liquid is siphoned off, leaving the soybean mash behind, and this salty liquid is used to flavor food.

Anciently, people wanted to preserve meat and fish. The proteins were kept in barrels with salt. But contrary to the process of drying as salt cod, or salt preserving as with lox, the fish in the barrels was completely broken down to a liquid state.

The Romans had much the same process, and the product they made from this preserved fish was called liquimen or murri. A fish with high fat content such as anchovies or mackerel would be placed, whole, in barrels layered with salt. As the lactobacilli worked within the fish, the flesh was actually broken down completely, except for a thick sludge in the bottom of the barrel. Liquimen was much prized by the Romans on a whole variety of products.

Since the dawn of time, the Chinese used this process, then draining off the liquid fish or meat sauce, and using it for a condiment. Then, in the fifth century, when the Buddhist religion became more popular, they searched for a way to continue to have this flavoring without using meat. That was when they developed the bean and wheat paste, first left to mold, and then fermented as one would have done with the meat or fish. So soy sauce is a vegetarian innovation that has stuck with us for more than one and a half millennia.

At the end of the Roman era, the market for liquimen dropped off, as it was an expensive process. One of the major producers in Spain continued for quite some time, as the people in the area developed a taste for murri, and so kept making it. It can even be found today in one tiny village on the Spanish Atlantic coast.

Other Possible Sauces

There are other sauces referenced in old cookbooks, or other writings. These would include murri and Worcestershire sauce, and some of the fish sauces used in the Far East.

Charles Perry, the long time food critic for the Los Angeles Times, has spent a lot of time translating Arabic cookbooks. Many recipes in these call for murri, a salty, fermented condiment. It has not been made in the Arab world since the 14th or 15th century, so it was unavailable to him. In order to faithfully reproduce some of these recipes, he set out to make murri.

According to his research, the Arabic world used barley paste. It was patted into little cakes, placed under fig leaves for four months, and then mixed with water and strained.

The office staff at the Times, where Perry conducted his experimentation, were highly interested in the process. Because it had been fermenting there for such a long time, and had developed its own coat of fluffy mold, the staff named one of the cakes “Whiskers.”

And what did it taste like? According to Perry, it was exactly like cheap soy sauce. Not the kind that is mostly soy beans, and fermented in tanks for months, but that on the shelf that is chemically changed in a quicker process, and therefore can be sold to the American public much more affordably. It is much easier to just go and buy cheap soy sauce and substitute it for the murri instead of making your own.

There are similar sauces in use in America and England at the time of the Ring of Fire that bear examination. One of these is Worcestershire sauce. This is also a dark liquid, fermented and used as a condiment. But it’s origins are kept secret by the patent holding company, Lea & Perrins. According to their website, a Lord of Worchester had been on some appointment from the crown in India in the 1830’s. When the opportunity came to return to England, he did so, but he continued to have a taste for some of the food he encountered there. He went to the chemist, or pharmacy in the shire, and set them to reproducing this sauce, and the result is what we now know as Worcestershire sauce.

The ingredients listed for this concoction by the Heinz company include vinegar, sugar, salt, anchovies, tamarind, onions, garlic, spices, and flavoring. It isn’t really much like soy sauce, and can’t be used as a replacement for our intrepid time travelers, especially if it didn’t show up in England until the 1830’s.

Some Americans are aware of other fish sauces, especially those from Indonesia, known as nuoc mam. These are made in much the same way as some of the ancient fish sauces. Variations are introduced in the form of herbs or spices mixed with the salt in the first step of the process. They tend to have a very strong flavor, and need the consumer to become accustomed to the flavor. It is likely that the residents of Grantville, with few exceptions, know little of this kind of fish sauce.

Out of curiosity, I investigated flavors from Down Under to see if they are related to any of the sauces we have been discussing. These are Vegemite, Marmite, and so forth. As far as I can tell, these are yeast-based spreads, originally from the scrapings of old beer-barrels. They are considered health foods, being high in vitamin B from the yeast. There is a great debate as to the advantages and subtleties of flavors of these spreads, but as they are not soy based, or fish based, and are not well-known in America, they do not really fit into this discussion.

Grantville and the Ring of Fire

Other sauces have been of much concern so far. We have covered spaghetti sauce, Tabasco, mustard, ketchup, and even nuoc mam. But no one has looked into soy sauce. It is the basis for teriyaki and other barbeque sauces, even in West Virginia.

What does this mean in Grantville? I am not sure that we will have the possibility of putting together a manufacturing process for true soy sauce. Not only would the process be difficult and expensive, we have no surety that the residents of Europe will develop a taste for this strange little condiment.

But we have evidence that in places in the world in the 1630s people are eating fish sauces with great gusto. Some of these places are in Europe. It might be possible to sample various grain and fish sauces already available, and find the one or two that come closest in taste to our familiar soy sauce such as could have been found in any American grocery store before the Ring of Fire.

The other possibility would be to try the barley-based murri that Charles Perry wrote about in the Los Angeles Times. The Arabs, as far as we know, haven’t produced it since the 1480’s, but some experimentation may be very productive.

Europe at this time also has contact with many places on the globe, and it is possible that an innovative entrepreneur could sail to the far Spice Islands to the east, and come home with a ship full of soy sauce. But until then, some of these other substitutes will have to suffice.