David Soh was already hooked on soya sauce when he visited a factory owned by a friend’s father, but he’d never considered making it himself.
“I love soya sauce, in fact the whole family also loves it,” he says. Having watched the process from start to finish at the factory, Soh immediately thought: “Hey, I can do this.”
He then learned that several major manufacturers put preservatives, colouring or artificial flavouring in their soya sauce, and decided he wanted to make a healthier version for his family.
He used his home kitchen to produce small batches. The beans were boiled in a pressure cooker, and his output was limited by the number of pots he owned. He put fermentation tanks in the space around the compound of his double-storey house compound in Old Klang Road, about 20 kilometres from the centre of Kuala Lumpur.
What began as a hobby 10 years ago has now morphed into a business, ML Food. Soh – a former accountant – started out with one ceramic fermentation tank, but strong demand for his home-brewed sauces has seen him add more fibre tanks.
He also had to move his operations to a larger space in nearby Kampung Chempaka. Although a slightly larger operation – he’s helped by his wife Alicia Chong and one employee – it’s still uncomparable to commercial producers for the mass market.
The production process begins with washing and then boiling the beans. After the beans are cooked, the cooking liquid is saved for further fermentation. High in protein, this liquid adds great flavour to the soya sauce.
“After cooling, flour is added to the beans to dry them, and this also adds carbohydrates to the sauce. The soya beans are placed on trays to start the fermentation process,” Soh says.
After four to five days, the soya beans are ready to go into large vats filled with brine or salt water for longer fermentation.
“Then we leave it! You don’t even have to touch it,” says Soh.
These sauces are kept for at least three months – and sometimes up to a year – in their respective tanks, where nature does the hard work of fermentation.
Once all the extraction is done, the soya beans are given to organic farmers to use as compost so nothing is wasted.
Investing in ingredients
Soh is critical of the major soya sauce manufacturers, who he says have compromised on quality and safety in order to cut costs.
“They use the hydrolysis method which only takes about 48 hours before you can extract the sauce,” he says.
This technique uses hydrochloric acid to extract the sauce at high pressure.
But, food authorities have expressed concern that this process produces a contaminant called 3-MCPD that is carcinogenic.
In 2016, a joint committee consisting of the World Health Organization and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization pointed out that 3-MCPD could be carcinogenic if consumed beyond safe levels.
However, earlier this year, the European Food Safety Authority significantly raised its safe levels for consumption of 3-MCPD. It warned that there was still a health concern among younger age groups.
For those put off by the idea of consuming 3-MCPD, going natural seems to be the obvious option.
Like other artisanal food producers, ML Food can’t compete with large brands on price. Mass produced brands are priced at RM4 to RM5 (SG$1.30 to SG$1.60) a bottle, while ML Food’s sauces are RM7 to RM12 (SG$2.30 to SG$4).
As well as being less efficient, ML Foods uses high-quality ingredients that add significantly to the overall cost. For example, Soh sources non-genetically modified soya beans from China that cost nearly twice as much as GMO legumes. He also produces a few hundred bottles of organic soya sauce a month.
Soh used to run weekly production cycles but had to stop due to fluctuating demand from consumers and restaurants. He produces on average 3,000 to 5,000 bottles of soya sauce a month, but the figure can vary from 6,000 to 2,000 bottles.
The operation presently runs at a loss because it lacks the necessary scale. With a lean team, ML Food does little marketing and instead relies on word of mouth or artisanal food bazaars to sell its products.
Soh does not use a family recipe. He describes his production process as “logical” for the creation of sauce that tastes of soya beans.
“Soya sauces are not meant to be salty!” he insists, saying that market perception has wrongly influenced the true nature of this condiment.
Quality comes with passion and investment, he says, “It is a question of quality and how much the consumer wants to pay for this, there is no such thing as nice and cheap.”
Soh adds that the misconception of soya sauce as a “cheap” product does not help artisanal producers.
But Soh is not discouraged. He feels ML Food is gaining more traction in organic shops and eateries, and more recently high-end restaurants.
He has started supplying to posh restaurants near Kuala Lumpur’s city centre. He says that brings him slightly lower margins but it gives the company a steady income.
‘The good stuff’
Soh has been studying soya sauce production for more than 10 years. He describes himself as a “connoisseur” and his knowledge on the subject is impressive.
He gets particularly excited when talking about the “first” sauce extract from each batch. Likening it to extra virgin olive oil, Soh says this is “the good stuff” and he sells it at a slight premium because of its quality.
“It’s very thick. And slightly slimy and oily, and very nice,” he says.
He does up to five extracts from their vats and not any more. Soh claims that other manufacturers stretch the extraction process to seven times to save money but resort to adding artificial flavours to the end product.
ML Food does not dilute its product nor use any preservatives or artificial flavouring, which over time will cause sauces to turn bad.
Soh produces a range of sauces, starting with a supreme thick soya sauce, considered to be “old” or in Chinese is called lauchou sauce.
This comes from soya beans that are fermented for more than two years and is ideal for stews and stir-fries.
Other mainstays are “younger” sauces from beans fermented for more than three months.
Due to its shorter fermentation period, the sauce has a stronger bean aroma with an “umami” taste, best used for vegetable stir-fries and steamed fish dishes.
For now, Soh pushes on with his small operation. His youngest daughter also helps out with marketing at food bazaars and organic markets.
They hope that the awareness about healthy eating will spread so they can share the benefits of their naturally fermented sauces. They also work on several charity projects as a way to give back to the community.
ML Food has a lot on its plate, and with a small team, the work can get overwhelming.
But for Soh, the joy is in the process. Now “retired” from his office job, he says he is happy to devote his energy to creating delicious, healthy sauces.