There is barely a person in Taiwan who has never heard of Xiluo soy sauce. Though small, Yun¬lin’s Xi-luo Township has not only produced a century-long name in soy sauce, but also helped preserve the ancient techniques by which the sauce has historically been made.
Today, a uniquely local flavor has fermented in Xi¬luo, and local farmers have gotten in on the act, working to revive cultivation of black soybeans as well, so that from seed to sauce it’s all produced in Xiluo.
Spanning the Zhuo¬shui River between Yun¬lin and Chang¬hua Counties is the brilliant-red Xi¬luo Bridge. Started under Japanese rule and completed with American funding, at the time of its opening in 1953 this 1.9-kilo¬meter-long Warren truss bridge was the world’s second-longest bridge, ranking only behind San Fran¬cisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
When the Xiluo Bridge was threatened with demolition several years ago, local groups including the Lou¬young Cultural & Education Foundation rushed to its defense, wanting it preserved as a landmark. But just as famous as the bridge is another product of Xi¬luo, something families across Taiwan use virtually every day: soy sauce.
Building a name
What really made the connection between Xi¬luo and soy sauce in the public mind was the century-old brand that calls the township home, Wuan ¬Chuang Soy Sauce, and its second-generation boss ¬Zhuang Zhao¬dian.
By 1909, ¬Zhuang’s father ¬Zhuang Qing¬lin’s soy sauce had already given Xi¬luo somewhat of a name. In the 1930s, on the cusp of World War II, the Japanese government began placing restrictions on everyday items in its colony, Taiwan, in preparation for war. Soy sauce was among the items on that list. And so the elder ¬Zhuang went in on a joint venture with the Japanese government, named To¬rao ¬Shoyu Ka¬bu¬shiki Kai¬sha (Tiger’s Tail Soy Sauce Co., Ltd.), with ¬Zhuang having a 51% stake. After WWII and the subsequent departure from Taiwan of the defeated Japanese, ¬Zhuang took full control of the company, renaming it ¬Zhuang Yi Zeng.
However, despite dominating the market in Xi¬luo, ¬Zhuang Zhao¬dian was still unsatisfied. In the 1960s, with government encouragement, light industry began to take off across Taiwan. Seeing an opportunity, ¬Zhuang took his sauce to Taiwan’s first national trade fair, having previously attended a smaller fair in 1951 at which he debuted the company’s slogan, “Local Soy Sauce Made in Xi¬luo.” This slogan proved to be surprisingly effective, and as competitors sprang up, Xi¬luo soy sauce began to gain a reputation across Taiwan.
Louise He, chairwoman of the Lou¬young Cultural & Education Foundation, says that thanks to Xi¬luo’s proximity to the Zhuo¬shui River, it enjoys plentiful irrigation, while the warm climate provides a stable environment for fermenting the soy sauce. This is why big companies and small household operations alike set up shop there.
It isn’t just the environment that has made soy sauce such a big local industry. As the chairman of Wuan ¬Chuang Soy Sauce, ¬Zhuang Ying¬yao, explains, when Taiwan’s economy was taking off in the 1960s and 1970s, Xi¬luo was still primarily an agricultural town with few ¬opportunities for work outside of farming or government, and soy sauce provided one of the few ways to make good money.
As a result, this small town of barely 50 square kilometers and 50,000 people became home to more than 40 soy sauce factories at its peak, and still more than a dozen today.
Of the many factories that sprang up, several have a connection to Wuan ¬Chuang, which this year is celebrating its 107th anniversary and is now under the leadership of the third generation of ¬Zhuangs, ¬Zhuang Ying¬yao and ¬Zhuang Ying¬zhi.
Chairman ¬Zhuang Ying¬yao runs the Tai¬pei head office, while his younger brother ¬Zhuang Ying¬zhi is responsible for the factories, including the Xi¬luo tourist factory. With one in charge up north and one down south, it’s a rare thing to be able to talk to the two together. Back in the tourist factory, the company’s original base, the brothers recall their childhoods spent there, growing up around the familiar accoutrements of soy sauce production.
When the elder of the two was in senior high, their father’s career was just taking off, and so despite still being in school, ¬Zhuang Ying¬yao started getting involved. In his eyes, their father was a business genius. Heading to Tai¬pei for trade shows was a brave move by ¬Zhuang Zhao¬dian, who wasn’t content to settle for the market as it stood. The standard 440-milliliter clear glass bottles were also pioneered by ¬Zhuang, and while nowadays practically every company is concerned with brand building, in the 1930s ¬Zhuang had already commissioned a calligrapher to create a unique identity, one still in use today.
A familiar flavor
While Wuan Chuang has the history, a more recent arrival, Yu-Ding-¬Shing, has made a name with its old-fashioned flavor, cooked over a wood fire.
Fifty-year-old Xie Yudu is the second generation of his family to run Yu-Ding-¬Shing. When factories were popping up all around Xi¬luo, Xie’s father began studying the traditional methods of soy sauce production. When he passed away in 1980, Xie Yudu stepped up.
When he was younger, Xie would lend a hand under his father’s instruction, but it was only after taking on the leadership role that he discovered how difficult running a business could be. Producing soy sauce in particular is a complicated process, requiring steaming, fermentation, washing, cooking, and more. A moment’s inattention can result in failure.
The first half of the production process decides half the flavor of the resulting sauce, while the other half comes from the length of time it is fermented, from six months to a year. Xie explains that once the fermenting black beans are washed, they need to sit for two or three hours before they become active again, and from there they are put through one of the three brewing processes—dry, half-wet, or wet vat—with differing levels of salt mixed in before being set to brew. To ensure the quality of the final product, each month Xie checks up on the process, and then at the end of the year, the sauce is cooked over a wood fire again, putting the finishing touch on it.
Yu-Ding-¬Shing’s traditional process has attracted quite some attention in the media in recent years, with writers Liu Ka-¬shiang and Wang Hao-yi visiting for a television program, and even Japan’s NHK making the trip for a Taiwan episode of their program Travels in World Cuisine. With all this attention, Xie had to start a retail operation in addition to the originally small-scale production operation. Now their traditional methods have become a favorite among consumers, but Xie’s focus remains on the sauce, with its time-tested flavor.
With the roots of the soy sauce industry going deep in the Xi¬luo community, some locals have begun taking it to another level, promoting a revival of black bean farming in the area to ensure the sauce produced is truly 100% local.
Every weekend, the Flora Expo Park in Tai¬pei is host to a national farmers’ market, with farmers and farmers’ associations from around the island setting up shop to sell the products of months of hard work.
Cai Cai¬xing has taken part in this market for four or five years. At the small stall he staffs alongside his son, who just finished his military service, they sell a range of homemade products, including black beans, black bean tea, and black bean vinegars. Five years ago, at the age of 47, Cai made the decision to go into farming, having previously worked in irrigation equipment, and before that in selling automotive products and customising cars. Having lived most of his life in Xi¬luo, soy sauce had long been a favorite of his, and after seeing a news report, he learned that most of the black beans used in Taiwan’s soy sauce were in fact not even from Taiwan. It was then that he set his heart on growing black beans and helping Xi¬luo become not only a soy sauce town, but also a black bean one.
Today, Cai and other farmers together farm some 70 hectares of black beans, a far cry from five years prior, when most of the township was content to observe from the sidelines.
In the past, black beans were time and labor intensive and produced little income, and with government subsidies available for leaving fields fallow, many farmers decided they’d rather take the subsidies. To get more locals on board with his plan, Cai not only offered to pay a higher rent for the land, but also hired them to handle weeding and help out, drawing them into an area they previously had little interest in.
As well as helping create profits for those farmers, Cai himself benefited from their expertise. With no background in farming, he sought their advice and that of the Tai¬nan District Agricultural Research and Extension Station to develop a unique farming approach. Generally black beans are watered two or three days after sowing, but Cai chose to draw this out to eight days.
After the beans are sown, Cai explains, the soil is dry, and so to survive the plants reach down into the earth for water. The further down their roots reach, the stronger the grip they have on the earth, making them more resistant to typhoons and northeasterly monsoon winds. Then, when irrigated, the dense root system eagerly sucks up the water; “This way, it’s like our black beans are drinking with a hundred straws instead of just one,” says Cai.
Cai’s special approach to irrigation is also used when the beans begin to flower and their pods mature, resulting in particularly rich harvests of his Tai¬nan No. 5 variety of bean, which yields some 2800‡3000 kilograms of beans per hectare. On top of that, where others’ crops need 30‡35 days to be ready for harvest, Cai’s ripen close to a week sooner.
Cai’s special approach is helped along by the local geo¬graphy. Xi¬luo sits some 60 km north of the Tropic of Cancer, so the weather is less oppressively hot than further south, but still sunny, while the powerful winter northeasterlies are much weaker. Meanwhile, the neighboring Zhuo¬shui River provides an abundance of water. Overall, Xi¬luo quite literally has excellent fengshui.
In addition to processing these local beans into black bean teas and vinegars, Cai also works with several Xi¬luo soy sauce brands to facilitate the creation of 100% Xi¬luo sauces. “Only with this kind of combination of local product and local culture can we really be sure there’s a long road ahead for the industry,” says the greying Cai confidently.