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The multicultural history of soya sauce

The soya sauce in our kitchen cabinets is not a recent acquisition. This sauce is an important element in a long history of exchange between Asia and Europe. This is what Anne Gerritsen claims in her inaugural lecture for the Kikkoman Chair on Friday 12 December.

Not a recent phenomenon

Een Delftse imitatie van de Japanse porseleinen sojasausflesjes, van rond 1830. Foto: Museum Prinsenhof, Delft.
Een Delftse imitatie van de Japanse porseleinen sojasausflesjes, van rond 1830. Foto: Museum Prinsenhof, Delft.

The Kikkoman Chair was established to promote the study of the intercultural dynamics of the Asia-Europe exchange, in which Leiden University has a long tradition. Professor Anne Gerritsen is the first professor to occupy the Kikkoman Chair. In her inaugural lecture, she focuses on the well-known Asian soya sauce, a product that perfectly illustrates the fact that cultural exchange, in particular in the food culture, is not a recent phenomenon. 

18th century

Soya sauce was already being shipped to the Netherlands in the early 18th century. It was shipped on VOC ships in so-called ‘kelders’, crates with special compartments for safely shipping bottles. The salty sauce quickly became popular since shortly afterwards it began to appear in a number of cooking books. De volmaakte Hollandse keuken-meid (‘The perfect Dutch kitchen maid) from 1752 even includes a recipe for making your own soya sauce, even though according to Gerritsen, this was more of a recipe for a kind of meat gravy.

All layers of society

According to Gerritsen, the history of soya sauce clearly shows that cultural exchange does not always have to be academic or elitist. ‘As a rule, when we talk about exchange between Asia and Europe, we think of things such as porcelain and silk,’ says Gerritsen. ‘These remained luxury exotic products, which were mostly there to be admired. Soya sauce, on the other hand, quickly made its appearance on the tables of all layers of the population and it was considered to be a very ordinary product.’

Art object as a utensil

For Gerritsen, the culture of food is closely linked to material culture. For example, soya sauce was transported in small porcelain bottles, which were soon imitated in the Netherlands. Gerritsen: ‘These bottles were therefore partially art objects, but also just regular utensils. In this way, exotic foods contributed to the integration of other cultures and artistic expression.’

Nationalistic developments

Professor Anne Gerritsen
Professor Anne Gerritsen

According to Gerritsen, in our multicultural world, it is really important to see that the history of cultural exchange goes back a long way. ‘In the Netherlands and in England, where I spend a lot of time, I see dangerous nationalistic developments,’ she comments. ‘People think that they want to go back to a time in which migration and multiculturalism did not exist. But there has never been such a time. Cultural exchange is a deeply rooted tradition which has only made us richer and stronger. This is why this Chair is so important. The Netherlands has never been separate from the rest of the world, and it is not separate from it now.’

Shared Taste

A component of the Kikkoman Chair is the Shared Taste platform. This will be used to introduce the wider public to various aspects of the research project. The objective is to further investigate where material art coincides with the food culture.

Inaugural lecture

The inaugural lecture of Professor Anne Gerritsen takes place on Friday 12 December 2014, at 16.00 hrs in the Academy Building, Rapenburg 73 Leiden. 

(11 December 2014)

The Kikkoman Chair

The official name of the Chair is: ‘The Kikkoman Chair for the study of Asia-Europe intercultural dynamics, with special attention to material culture, art and human development’. This Chair is sponsored by the Kikkoman Foundation and the Association of Friends of Asian Art (Vereniging van Vrienden van de Aziatische Kunst).

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