The Sugar and Oil-free Japanese Sauce Everyone Loves
This small change in thinking has made healthy cooking so much easier for me
A light and healthy sauce to use in all my dishes, without sacrificing flavor
Modern Japanese food is no stranger to thick, creamy sauces, but traditional Japanese cuisine actually relied heavily on a sauce that had no sugar, fats, or oil. This might sound like a health nut’s hack, but you’ve probably heard of it and used it before: soy sauce.
Standard soy sauce is made from soybeans, roasted wheat, culinary koji mold, and salt water. That’s it! This might seem like a bland combination, but what makes soy sauce so rich in flavor is the fermentation process which often spans several months, which helps it develop a deep umami flavor. When ready, this mixture is pressed to release the liquid we know as soy sauce.
I was wrong about what actually made food taste flavorful
It’s funny, because although soy sauce is technically called a “sauce” it took me a really long time to accept it as one.
I thought a sauce could not be a true and good sauce if it was sugar and oil-free.
When I thought about sauces, I used to think of it as something creamy, sweet, oily, and thick. Even the word itself — “sauce” — sounded like it had a viscous quality, a smooth s-sound to open and close the word. In this sense it was very clear to me that certain condiments were sauces: ketchup, ranch, hollandaise, gravy, aioli, and BBQ sauce. But soy sauce? I wasn’t so sure.
I was taught that humans are genetically predisposed to love fats and sugars, high-calorie ingredients, and that this is what triggers our brain to signal something as delicious. While this is true, this narrative made me believe that the reverse also applied — that if something did not have fats or sugars, it would be dull and bland. I thought a sauce could not be a true and good sauce if it was sugar and oil-free.
It was not until I decided I would eat healthier, and took control over the way I flavored my own foods that I realized this was false thinking.
Flavorful food has never relied on fats and sugars
While many Japanese sauces today use oils and sugars, historically interesting flavors weren’t seen as requiring either of these ingredients. In a long-ago era where oils and sugars were not easily produced or attained, Japanese chefs and home cooks’ used soy sauce to flavor a lot of their food: on top of rice, with noodles, on sushi, with tofu, to cook vegetables, and to flavor fish.
Cooks also often paired soy sauce with fresh condiments such as wasabi, shiso leaves, or grated daikon radish to create something complex and flavorful for their dishes.
In fact, eventually soy sauce wasn’t limited to simple soy sauce, but was developed to incorporate other flavors such as dashi soy sauce (soy sauce based on dried bonito and kombu kelp broth), or ponzu sauce (soy sauce made with yuzu citrus juice).
Redefine what tasty looks like, and healthy will never be bland again
It was this small change in thinking about sauces and seasonings that did a lot in changing the way I approached preparing healthy, yet flavorful food.
I began experimenting with ways to expand the flavors of soy sauce, by pairing it with vegetable-based condiments like grated ginger or Japanese pickles. I focused more on dry-rub recipes that used spices for flavor, and I began to associate the word ‘sauce’ with not just creamy dressings and condiments, but with light dressings like soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, fresh salsas, and mustard.
While I love an occasional buttery dish, or sweet teriyaki sauce on my grilled fish, I no longer see oils and sugars as necessary to make my vegetables, proteins, or grains taste good. For amazing flavor can, and often is, derived from neither of these things.
So if you were like me, perhaps redefine what flavorful can taste and look like, for healthy food does not have to be bland or dry, and a heavy serving of fats or sugar is not necessary to prepare saucy, delicious food —it never has been!