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Soy Sauce for Beginners, Sushi Meshi, and Maki Sushi #FoodieReads

I'll admit it: I bought Soy Sauce for Beginners by Kirstin Chen* because I liked the cover. Well, that and I do love soy sauce. I had no idea what to expect from this novel. But, as we enter our twenty-first week of being sheltered in place, I'm less and less picky about what I'm reading.

On the Page

I enjoyed this book for two reasons. One: Chen clearly paints a portrait of how messy life can be. And two: It made me want to track down some artisanal soy sauce and do a tasting as the Lin's do for their prospective clients. Maybe one day...

Gretchen Lin is our protagonist who has left a cheating husband in San Francisco and gone home to work in her family's artisanal soy sauce company. Her mother, an alcoholic, is undergoing dialysis for kidney failure; her father is ready to retire, but battling with his brother about the future of their family's company; and Gretchen is emotionally adrift. As I said, it's messy.

This isn't about friendships or romance, though there is plenty of that in this. It's not even really about a family business or conflicts within families. I suppose you could characterize this as a second coming of age story, one in which you are finally comfortable in your own skin and making decisions for yourself instead of trying to please anyone else - parents, partners, etc. And Chen is a deft writer whose books I will definitely continue to read.

I found the parts about soy sauce production and tasting fascinating. I realized how little I know about an ingredient that is a constant in my house and on my table! 

From the get-go, Gretchen draws you in to a love affair with soy sauce. "These are some of my favorite smells: toasting bagel, freshly cut figs, the bergamot in good Earl Grey tea, a jar of whole soybeans slowly turning beneath a tropical sun. You’d expect the latter to smell salty, meaty, flaccid—like what you’d smell if you unscrewed the red cap of the bottle on a table in your neighborhood Chinese restaurant and stuck your nose in as far as it would go. But real, fermenting soybeans smell nothing like sauce in a plastic bottle. Tangy and pungent, like rising bread or wet earth, these soybeans smell of history, of life, of tiny, patient movements, unseen by the naked eye" (pg. 1).

"'Real soy sauce is as complex as a fine wine—fruity, earthy, floral also can, lah.' Uncle Robert pointed out the lively acidity of the light soy sauce in comparison to the rich, mellow sweetness of the dark one. Light soy, he explained, was used for seasoning and dipping; dark soy was used for cooking because its flavors developed under heat" (pg. 15).

There is a lot of food in the novel because, Gretchen explains, "My father took my hand, his grip firm and reassuring as always. “Because Chinese families believe all problems can be solved over food" (pg. 152). 

And further, eating comes before all else! "I took the bottle from her hands and turned it to display the writing printed on the rice paper. 'Xian chi zai tan,' or 'Eat first, talk later,' had been my grandmother’s catch phrase, delivered sternly when business discussions threatened to upstage a meal at her dining table" (pg. 205). Maybe that's true of all Asian families. I remember my grandmother foisting dish after dish on us at family gatherings, especially if there was any kind of conflict going on with the siblings. Most of the time, the grandkids were exempt from those discussions and we just sat around eating Filipino favorites.

On the Plate

As I mentioned there is a lot of food in this book. Gretchen describes one family feast: "Before long our entire table was covered in food: an earthenware ramekin of pearly-pink prawns bathed in garlic butter; translucent, paper-thin slices of cured ham fanned out on the plate; tortilla espanola with nuggets of potato and sweet onion; candy-stripe beets studded with goat cheese and almond slivers; slow-cooked short ribs almost silky in their tenderness; thick chorizo stew" (pg. 94).

I will be looking up "Zhong Yuan Jie, or the Hungry Ghost Festival. On the seventh month of the lunar calendar, they say the gates of Hell fly open, freeing the souls of the departed to wander the Earth for the next thirty days. To nourish these starving spirits, the Chinese set out whole suckling pigs, braised ducks, mandarin oranges, and other delicacies" (pg. 163). That sounds like a worthy celebration.

And I will be making this soup soon..."When he made my favorite bak kut teh, a fragrant, spicy soup with tender pork spare ribs and fat shitake mushrooms, he always had me sample the stock. He taught me to make a big slurping sound as I sipped to avoid burning my tongue. He taught me to discern the warmth of cinnamon, the tang of orange peel, and the mellow licorice of star anise. Most importantly, Ba taught me to appreciate the way a dash of Lin’s light soy sauce brightened each of these flavors while pulling them together into a single, harmonious whole" (pg. 190).

But for this post, without any artisanal soy sauce to taste, I decided to share a dinner that just puts soy sauce on the table as is, without cooking it and without adding it to a dish. It just sits on the table as we dip our sushi into it. This was actually something I made earlier in the summer but never posted.

We don't go out to eat very often. We have our favorite sushi place and our favorite Italian place. And that's about it. Both are owned by friends, so I like to support them when I can. However, most of the time, we cook at home. When I had a hankering for sushi, earlier in this pandemic, I decided to make maki sushi.

"What's maki sushi?" you ask. It's just a sushi roll - rolled sushi with dried nori (seaweed) on the outside and fillings on the inside. It can be filled with raw fish, cooked fish, or vegetables. I had sashimi-grade ahi tuna, halibut, avocados, roasted pepper, sesame carrots, and green onions.

Sushi Meshi
Rice for Sushi

Ingredients serves 8
  • 4 C short grain rice (sushi rice)
  • 4 C water
  • 6” dashi konbu
  • Also needed: paper fans, wooden spoons, and a non-aluminum pan
Awase Zu (vinegar mixture for sushi meshi)
  • 1/3 C Japanese vinegar (or white vinegar)
  • 5 T sugar
  • 1 T salt

Awase Zu
Heat ingredients until salt and sugar are dissolved. Cool and fold into hot rice being careful not to mash the rice grains. Fan and cool immediately. Rice is now ready to make sush (makizushi, chirashi, nigari, or inari Zushi)

Wash rice and soak in water 2 hours or longer.

Put water and konbu (wiped with a damp cloth) in a saucepan and bring to a boil. After 3 minutes remove konbu and add drained rice. Mix well, cover, and bring to a boil. Turn heat very low and steam 20 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes after turning off heat.

Put rice in a large pan (not aluminum- an enameled broiler pan works well) and fold in the Awase Zu. Fan until the rice is coated and glossy.

Maki Sushi
Rolled Sushi

Years ago, when I co-taught a rice class, I learned that culturally the Japanese use odd numbers for sushi ingredients because of the good superstitions associated with odd numbers. In contrast, even numbers do not have good associations. “Two” means “to divide” (or “to part, separate”), “four” is associated with death, and “six” as in the phrase “rokudenashi”, means “good-for-nothing.” At wedding ceremonies, people offer gifts of 10,000 yen, 30,000 yen, and fifty thousand yen. No one gives a gift of 20,000 or 40,000 yen. Similarly, at funerals the condolence payments are all in odd numbers. This may reflect the influence of Yin-Yang thought from China, in which odd numbers are “Yang”. Hospital sickrooms and parking lots avoid the number “four” (which is homophonous with “death”).

  • assorted sashimi grade fish (I used ahi and halibut), thinly sliced
  • thinly sliced vegetables, cooked and raw (I used fresh avocado, fresh cucumbers, raw green onions, roasted red peppers, sauteed carrots)
  • a batch of sushi meshi
  • Also needed: sushi rolling mat, pickled ginger for serving, soy sauce for serving, wasabi for serving

Place a sushi rolling mat on a work surface and top with a sheet of nori. Scoop 3/4 C rice on the sheet and press rice to the edge of the nori. 

Arrange a small amount of fillings in a row about 1-1/2" from bottom edge of nori sheet. Roll up rice mixture over filling, using the bamboo mat to lift and compress the mixture while rolling until you  have a uniform cylinder. Place the roll, seam-side down, onto a cutting board. With a sharp knife, slice the rolls into eight pieces.

Serve with soy sauce, wasabi, and ginger slices, if desired.

I'll be the first to admit that it's not as good as our favorite sushi restaurant, but it wasn't bad either. It certainly answered a craving we were having at the time.

*This blog currently has a partnership with in their affiliate program, which gives me a small percentage of sales if you buy a product through a link on my blog. It doesn't cost you anything more, but it helps support my culinary adventures in a small way. If you are uncomfortable with this, feel free to go directly to and search for the item of your choice.

Click to see what everyone else read in August 2020: here.


  1. Your review and recipe are both fascinating to read. The Netflix series “Salt Fat Acid Heat” with Samin Nosrat had a visit to an artisanal soy sauce factory in Japan, so I was a little familiar with your topic.


    Be well... mae at


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