Soy salt is crispy, frothy, mild, savory, and suavely unassuming. Meaty and bready and sea-weedy and saucy at the same time. Soy salt: a salt that walks through a room, like an Asian James Bond (Chow Yun Fat?) approaching the craps table, a man with tigershark eyes moving through the sea’s striated jungle shadows.
You are standing on the deck of a small but sturdy ship, gazing into the blue-green waters below, thinking about touching your toes to the cool brine that ripples and glistens in the fresh morning light. But just below, fast, flashing, the sharks swim. You look at your honey-bunny in the purple velour lounge seat by the cabin door, sipping Bloody Mary from the salt-crusted lip of a aquamarine plastic tumbler, smiling at the sun, listening to Jimmy Buffet. What is there in this moment to pluck at the ukulele of love and death and food and destruction? I look at eating as a way to bridge such dichotomies, a way to embrace your mid-morning glazed craving for a donut as you hum softy sunning in the sun, at the same time existentially thrilling to the teeth-gnashing and liquid mystery below.
When I first tasted soy salt made by the Kamebishi Company, located in the rural town of Hiketa, Kagawa Prefecture, in Japan, I quickly decided that soy salt was not a salt at all. It was more like a foodstuff. Fields of soy, savannas of cattle, whacked up vegetables on a charcoal grill. Randomness. The flavor is as intense and pungent as it is intractable and mild, much like a wine that has been given its time to age. I put it on eggs. Good. I put it on toast. Makes Marmite obsolete (almost). Put it on mixed greens salad. Perfect.
Soy salt is a totally new concept and creation–yet some how it sits squarely among the rare elemental ways to season fish, meat, vegetable, pasta–maybe just about anything. I’m not sure whether it is the texture or the flavor, or whether it is the innovativeness or the tradition behind it that compels. Fatty, blue fin tuna grilled on applewood and drizzled with a Calvados reduction, then finished with soy salt… Turnips, carrots, parsnips, and wilted broccoli rabe infused with a lemon and maple dressing and finished with soy salt… Filet mignon rubbed with foie gras and shallots, then flash-seared on a Himalayan salt plate and topped with soy salt…
To give a brief explanation of soy salt, and why Kamebishi soy salt costs more than you might want it to (dang it): Kamebishi soy salt is reportedly the only company today in Japan that continues to use the time and labor intensive, 250 year-old koji preparation technique, called mushiro-koji. All other brewers, large and small, have switched to more modern or highly automated methods to convert the soy beans to allow for fermentation. The mushiro-koji method of soy processing layering koji mold-applied soy and wheat on layers of mats made from bamboo and rice straw. This is then placed in a temperature and humidity controlled room, where all handling is performed by experienced artisans.
In addition to the mushiro-koji method, Kamebishi relies largely on domestic organic (and non GMO) ingredients. The fermentation process takes place in 100 years old cedar vats, and takes three full years!
There is another notable aspect of the production of Kamebishi’s shoyu. Kamebishi uses a portion of its own two year old shoyu in the fermentation process of each batch. In most breweries spring water alone is the liquid used in the brewing process. This re-use of already aged shoyu enhances and brings additional complexity to flavors. The resulting shoyu is extremely flavorful, with 14.5% salt content.
But typical of the miraculous, many have tried to make such a salt in the past, but have failed. However, all efforts to make a more flake-like salt crystal have failed. Granular soy salt crystals are harsh and biting, and lack the body and mouthfeel that allow for the pleasure of richly fermented soy’s deepest and most beguiling flavors.
The soy salt made by Kamebishi is produced by drying fermented shoyu using “the most modern drying equipment resulting in well shaped uniform salt crystals.” This explanation, typical of the Japanese, leaves you with your hands in your pockets. There is nothing to grasp because their modesty is adamantine and pure. There is nothing left but to wonder in an idle morning moment, mull over whether the warbling strains of routine are not better exchanged for a plunge into the refreshing, dangerous waters of eating something totally new.