Gretchen Lin, adrift at the age of thirty, leaves her floundering marriage in San Francisco to move back to her childhood home in Singapore and immediately finds herself face-to-face with the twin headaches she’s avoided her entire adult life: her mother’s drinking problem and the machinations of her father’s artisanal soy sauce business.
Surrounded by family, Gretchen struggles with the tension between personal ambition and filial duty, but still finds time to explore a new romance with the son of a client, an attractive man of few words. When an old American friend comes to town, the two of them are pulled into the controversy surrounding Gretchen’s cousin, the only male grandchild and the heir apparent to Lin’s Soy Sauce. In the midst of increasing pressure from her father to remain permanently in Singapore—and pressure from her mother to do just the opposite—Gretchen must decide whether she will return to her marriage and her graduate studies at the San Francisco Conservatory, or sacrifice everything and join her family’s crusade to spread artisanal soy sauce to the world.
Soy Sauce for Beginners reveals the triumphs and sacrifices that shape one woman’s search for a place to call home, and the unexpected art and tradition behind the brewing of a much-used but unsung condiment. The result is a foodie love story that will give readers a hearty appreciation for family loyalty and fresh starts.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)|
About the Author
KIRSTIN CHEN was born and raised in Singapore. A former Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing, she currently resides in San Francisco.
Read an Excerpt
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.
Everything I know about soy sauce I learned from my father and my uncle and my late grandfather. We are a family who can talk endlessly about soybeans and all of their intricacies. But that morning at the family soy sauce factory, I was in no mood to chat. The only thing on my mind was the ninety-degree heat. Heat rose from the ground through my thin-soled flats; it filled my nostrils, mouth, and ears. Sweat bloomed under my arms, in the creases of my elbows, in the pockets behind my knees. Even in the shade, beneath the factory’s red-striped awning, the air felt thick enough to drink. Flanked by my father and my uncle, I shifted my weight from one swollen foot to another and wished the clients would hurry up and get here.
In the last three months, I’d turned thirty, gotten separated from my husband, and prepared to take a hiatus from San Francisco, my home of fifteen years. Now it was August. I’d been back in Singapore and living in my parents’ house for the past week. At my father’s urging, I’d agreed to temp at the factory, taking on mundane administrative tasks that had little to do with soy sauce. Even though I’d held this new job for exactly four days, my inexperience hadn’t stopped my father from insisting I attend this meeting.
Forming a visor with the flat of my hand, I squinted at the logo embedded in the center of the compound gate: thick brushstrokes that formed the Chinese character for my family name. Since the founding of Lin’s Soy Sauce by my grandfather fifty years earlier, the factory had grown into a gated campus with three squat concrete buildings surrounding a central courtyard. The architecture was spare and utilitarian, almost ascetic, as though any kind of ornamentation would distract from the task of creating soy sauce. My father, my uncle, and I were standing on the steps of the building that housed the office staff, and each time the glass door swung open, a wave of air conditioning rushed out, providing temporary relief from the heat.
If my father noticed my discomfort, he chose to ignore it. He checked his old-fashioned flip phone for missed calls. He removed his glasses and began to polish them on the edge of his shirt. Stripped of their familiar shield, Ba’s eyes looked puffy and helpless. When he caught me watching, he smiled. Tiny lines radiated outward from his temples as if etched into his skin with a fine-toothed comb. It was a simple smile, involuntary — the kind of smile you flashed at a toddler wearing a funny hat — and in spite of myself, I smiled back.
On my other side, my uncle pulled an already limp handkerchief from his pocket and swiped it across the back of his neck. Where Ba was wiry and compact, Uncle Robert was tall and wide by Singaporean standards, with an ample belly perched precariously atop his belt. He grinned at me. “Hot, right?” he asked cheerfully. He reached over and squeezed my father’s bicep. “Gretchen is A-mah-ri-can now,” he said, elongating the word and chuckling. “Can no longer tahan the heat.”
Singaporeans take perverse pride in the local climate, where temperatures rise to the high eighties year round and never dip below seventy-five degrees. Our tiny island sits off the southernmost tip of the Malaysian peninsula in Southeast Asia, just one degree shy of the equator. In polite conversation, we’ll tell you we have two seasons: hot-and-wet and hot-and-dry. In less polite conversation, we’ll reveal there are three: hot, very hot, and very fucking hot. During my time in the Bay Area, I learned to keep my mouth shut when my American friends complained of the humidity. Standing there on the front steps with my silk blouse pasted to my back, I thought of crisp San Francisco fall days, of warm sunlight on cold skin.
I was about to launch into a new round of protests when a long, dark car glided through the gate and pulled into a spot. Two men stepped out. The older was short with slicked-back white hair atop a head that seemed too large for his slight body. The younger was slim but broad shouldered and taller than his companion, though the height discrepancy could have been due in part to his hair, which he wore gelled up in a subtle fauxhawk. I’d noticed this hairstyle on other young Singaporean men, and before that on fashion-forward members of the San Francisco gay community, and I found it too contrived to be stylish. Aside from his hair, the younger man’s most distinguishing feature was a pair of glossy black spectacles, slim around the lenses and broad at the temples, which so complemented his face they seemed to be part of him, as inextricable as a nose or an ear.
Since returning home, I’d renounced all but the most basic forms of grooming. Now, I tried not to think about my scraggly shoulder-length strands, or the bags under my eyes, or the way my lips remained cracked beneath layers of ChapStick.
Ba and Uncle Robert had already briefed me on the visitors. Kendro Santoso ran a chain of upscale Pan-Asian restaurants all over Southeast Asia — Jakarta, where he was based, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, and, now, Singapore. The latest Spice Alley was slated to open at the Shangri-La Hotel within the year. Mr. Santoso was taking a tour of the plant before he decided whether to sign an exclusive wholesale contract with Lin’s Soy Sauce. My father and uncle thought it would be interesting for me to participate, and naturally, I disagreed.
As a child, I’d loved coming to the factory with my father on Saturday mornings. I’d spent many a family dinner listening to the grown-ups debate the virtues of cedar- versus oak-barrel aging. At thirteen, I’d even spent the June school holidays working on the bottling line, as my cousin Cal had before me. But that grueling job only strengthened my resolve never to enter the family trade. That was the last time I’d worked at Lin’s. I’d learned nothing since. I knew little about what my father and uncle actually did. But Ba dismissed my concerns. He assured me that none of my assignments were urgent; the other admins would manage just fine without me.
Mr. Santoso came toward Uncle Robert with his hand extended. He apologized for being late even though he was right on time; then, he introduced his son, his youngest. He was called James.
“And this is Gretchen, my daughter,” said my father. “Just home from America.”
I clamped my arms to my sides in an attempt to hide the sweat stains.
“She’s very bright,” Uncle Robert added, as if describing a puppy or a small child. He leaned in close like he was sharing a secret. “Graduated from Stanford.” He didn’t mention that I was on leave from the San Francisco Conservatory, and I wasn’t surprised.
“James went to New York University for his MBA,” Mr. Santoso said. “On the other coast.” He gave a shouting laugh like this was the punch line of a joke. If he was wondering about Cal, Uncle Robert’s absent son, he was too polite to ask.
Relieved, my uncle and father laughed, too. The son grinned indulgently at his father. He had an easy air about him, endemic to the kind of guy who glided through life — the kind of guy who had a well-bred, fine-boned, Chinese girlfriend waiting for him to propose, which made me wonder if I looked as tired and haggard as I felt, like the kind of girl whose American husband had left her for his twenty-one-year-old undergraduate research assistant, a detail I had withheld from classmates, friends, and especially family.
“Let’s begin,” Uncle Robert said, holding the door open and beckoning us into the air-conditioned lobby.
As we moved down a corridor lined with framed black-and-white photographs, I paused at my favorite, which showed my grandfather with a full head of silver hair and the lopsided grin that had been passed through my father to me. In the picture, Ahkong was bending over to scoop a handful of fermented bean mush from a large clay jar. Once he’d given me a taste straight from his hand, and my mouth still watered when I remembered the sharp acidity of that single bite.
Up ahead, my uncle was explaining the history of Lin’s Soy Sauce to our guests, a story that was recounted in my family at least once a year, more so now that my cousins’ children were old enough to understand. Although I knew all the details by heart, I always paid attention, watching the children’s faces, wishing they could have heard it first hand from Ahkong.
My grandfather — Lin Ming Tek to his employees, Ahkong to us grandkids — began his career at Yellow River, the Hong Kong soy sauce giant responsible for the mass-produced stuff that all us Lins learned at a young age to abhor. After Ahkong rose quickly through the ranks and became head of the Singapore division, the president of Yellow River flew him to Hong Kong and treated him to a celebratory dinner at the best restaurant in town — a restaurant finer than anything on the sleepy island of Singapore. Here, at this fine restaurant, Ahkong had his first taste of real soy sauce, poured by a waistcoat-clad waiter into a porcelain dish small enough to sit in the palm of his hand. Shimmering and lively with a smooth, dry finish, this sauce was a sparkling stream to Yellow River’s murky, stagnant, pond-water brew.
Despite his recent promotion, and with it, the guarantee of a comfortable life, Ahkong made up his mind to open his own factory, one that would produce naturally fermented soy sauce, made from the highest-quality ingredients.
Accomplishing this goal meant mastering an entirely new production method — one that was quickly becoming obsolete. The companies that produced the majority of soy sauces had all taken the same short cuts, using chemicals to speed up fermentation and increasing salt content to mask inferior ingredients. Only a few factories continued to practice the ancient technique of naturally aging soybeans in century-old barrels. This process yielded the delicate, multifaceted golden broth that had long enhanced the flavors of Asian cuisine, and now Ahkong was determined to bring this treasure to Singapore. As part of his education, he apprenticed with the Chiba Soy Sauce Factory, a premier artisanal soy sauce maker located on the island of Shodoshima, in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea. There he learned traditional Japanese techniques that he would apply to his own special brand of Chinese soy sauce.
My uncle’s condensed version skipped ahead several years to my grandfather’s long list of successes and accolades. He made it sound simple, like getting discovered by a Hollywood director in a supermarket parking lot. But I knew the truth.
Before she’d passed away, my grandmother had confided her side of the story. Amah’s version stressed her dismay at discovering that her husband had quit his lucrative job and was planning to leave Singapore and his family for six months to pursue some obscure, romantic dream.
“This was the fifties, mind you,” Amah would say in Chinese, knowing those numbers meant nothing to us grandkids. Undeterred, she continued. “The country was in chaos, what with the race riots, and the Communists and the Nationalists and the pro-British Chinese — no, we weren’t even a country yet.” Here, she caught herself and shook her head. “Singapore wasn’t the way it was today. I know you little melons will find this hard to believe, but the whole island was a mess. Absolutely filthy — squatters everywhere, chickens and pigs running loose.”
She was right; I couldn’t imagine my spotless, perfectly manicured city overrun by rambunctious farm animals. Cal, perhaps ten or eleven, glanced up from his comic book and then resumed reading. His younger siblings Lily and Rose pretended to listen while they carried on their own private conversation by exchanging looks. Only I, too accustomed to playing on my own to join the girls, too juvenile to be of interest to Cal, was truly intrigued.
According to Amah, Ahkong had worked every day of his life to give his family a good, stable home, and now he was throwing it all away — and to go to Japan, of all places. “Less than a decade after the war. What would people think!”
She pleaded with him to stay — she even threatened to leave him — but my grandfather was stubborn. He demanded, then debated, then begged Amah to let him go. While she considered her decision, he neither ate nor slept, but sat forlornly at his desk, teaching himself Japanese.
“What could I do?” Amah asked, her outrage tempered by time. “He had already quit his job. His moping was driving us crazy. I told him if he didn’t return in exactly six months, he would never hold his sons again.”
Upon seeing my wide eyes and dropped jaw, Amah stroked my hair and reassured me that this had been an empty threat. “Of course, I could never have done that to our boys.”
My grandmother wasn’t the only one who questioned Ahkong’s sanity. His former colleagues told him there was no money to be made in this fancy sauce. Customers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, and they certainly wouldn’t fork over the extra cash.
But the more my grandfather learned, the more determined he grew.
Now, Uncle Robert paused to make sure he still had our guests’ full attention. “Once people saw how a single teaspoon can bring out the fragrance of scallion and ginger and garlic, or how a light coating can amplify the smokiness of tender roast meat,“ — here, he bunched up his fingertips and brought them to his lips — “how could they turn away?”
Our guests nodded solemnly. My father’s eyes twinkled at me from behind his glasses, and I wished he would stop trying to engage me. I appreciated the effort, really, I did, but I was dealing with the time difference, the weather, the pain that slashed through me when I thought of all I’d left behind. Slapping a grin across my face, nodding my head to demonstrate interest — these acts required energy I did not have.
Besides, Ba needed to relax. He was technically retired: my mother’s worsening health had pushed him to let his younger brother take over as Lin’s president. This past week, however, with Cal still away, my father had come in to work every day after shuttling Ma to and from dialysis treatments. She’d been a professor of German literature at the National University of Singapore before kidney failure had forced her to resign. She was not interested in soy sauce.
Uncle Robert was telling the Santosos that it was only a matter of time before soy sauce overtook ketchup and mustard to become the number one condiment in America.
“It’s definitely possible,” Mr. Santoso said. “The Americans do love Asian food. When I was a student in Michigan, you couldn’t order fish that wasn’t deep fried. Now there’s sushi in every supermarket. Isn’t that right, Son? Isn’t that something?”
“It’s something all right,” the son said. He spoke with an American accent — typical rich kid who’d grown up in private, international schools.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book is realistic and romantic on so many levels. We watch Gretchen go from a weak, fickle-minded trainwreck to a strong force to be reckoned with, but not without watching her countless failures. Life is not always smooth, and we experience the truth of this through her divorce, her desire to flee all important aspects of life, her energy expelled on making the same mistakes over and over. She is a prime example of living and learning, even if it happens halfway across the world. She learns to holdfast and prioriize those aspects of her life that are forever permanent: family and herself.
Soy Sauce for Beginners by Kirstin Chen, a former Steinbeck fellow in creative writing, follows the reintroduction of Gretchen to her family’s soy sauce business in Singapore. Set directly after Gretchen has left both San Francisco and her failed marriage, the novel emphasizes her relationships with her parents and Chinese friends as she begins to work for her (deceased) grandfather’s company. Tackling issues as diverse as familial obligation, cross- ethnic interactions, and growing up (emotionally more than literally) made Soy Sauce very relatable for me as a graduating college student living in diverse Northern California. Reading the back cover may give the impression that this is a strictly women’s fiction novel but the situation of moving back into your family home, especially in today’s younger generation with the economy and high unemployment, is a real concern for every 20-30 something year old. The book as a whole was wonderful however there were minor points of distress. Mainly that Gretchen was highly unlikeable which made it hard to cheer for her. Aside from her obvious character flaws she gains a sense of family pride and grounding by the end of her venture into the soy sauce business which redeemed her. The strain between tradition and progress, or as a character will call it “the battle between art and commerce, tradition and innovation”, is at the heart of the family business’ current dilemma. As Gretchen’s generation increases their company involvement certain foundational issues of tradition are challenged. Like any immigration-esque story (or emigration really), Gretchen herself feels the same inner conflicts between heritage and an independent life in America. Her best friend Frankie is her mirror image, moving from America to China for a fresh start. The combination of friends and culture clashes adds a new level to the typical home again story line which also added interest for myself as an American (non immigrant) reader. Continued tension between American and Chinese peoples at first worried me: I didn't want to read something where Americans were portrayed in a negative light, no matter who the narrator was. The American husband is a cheat, Gretchen feels she must leave the States to process her situation. But then Frankie comes along and is delightfully lost- the blonde, caucasian Gretchen with better manners. Each woman embodies the flip side of the situation. Either you left home and need to go back or you left and it was the best decision for you. Despite Gretchen’s general unlikeability I connected with her. She isn't unrealistically optimistic or perky, she doesn’t have the best work ethic or inspire everyone with her talents. She’s an actual person who is growing up and figuring out what it means to find your path in life. That she is able to do this while simultaneously handling a wandering husband, her ailing mother, and adjusting to Chinese life again is impressive. Soy sauce, as Chen has mentioned in a past interview, relates so many Asian cultures but it’s also in nearly every American kitchen pantry as well. Artisan brands have gained momentum in the last few years and international products thrive in the American market; Chen subtly capitalizes on this trend.The details about the traditional fermentation process and modern chemical methods added a sense of family history to her character. These are facts that Chen researched heavily but presents in a casual way- Gretchen grew up with the soy sauce king of Singapore and this was her childhood education. You can’t separate yourself from your family no matter how far away you move. In all, a great book with a sentimental message.