Last year, Japanese food manufacturer Kikkoman, the largest producer of soy sauce in the world, entered the Indian market. As one of the biggest emerging markets for global businesses and a key driver of growth in Asia, India is an attractive opportunity for an FMCG giant like Kikkoman.
While Kikkoman has a heritage going back hundreds of years, the current corporate entity was formed through the merger of eight families in 1917. The company went international about 60 years ago when it entered the American market. Kikkoman’s performance in the United States is one of its great success stories. It unseated the top soy sauce brand there, and now commands over 60 percent of the soy sauce market. But will Kikkoman be able to replicate that success in India?
Osamu Mogi, Director and Senior Executive Corporate Officer, Kikkoman and scion of the family — who heads the international operations division — spoke exclusively to TravelDine from Tokyo. He sounded optimistic about Kikkoman’s prospects in India. “India’s large and increasing population means a big opportunity for Kikkoman. Although it’s not so easy for us to penetrate the Indian market with a new product like Kikkoman soy sauce, our research in the last few years has led us to believe that the potential acceptability of Kikkoman soy sauce in India is indeed high. So, we thought this was the right time to enter the market,” he says.
Kikkoman researched the Indian market extensively before dipping its toes in. It found that Indian-style Chinese food was quite popular in Indian households, even though the market for the condiments used in Indian-Chinese dishes was still very small (but increasing). “We thought we should enter the market while it is still small, and then try and expand that market. If the market size was too large with established brands, it would be difficult for us to enter,” explains Mogi-san.
Kikkoman’s initial plan is to concentrate on the HORECA sector as a starting point to cultivate the Indian market. Working with hundreds of chef ambassadors — they call them ‘Friends of Kikkoman’ — it hopes to swing opinion in Kikkoman’s favour. According to Mogi-san, several major restaurant chains in India have already made a complete switch to Kikkoman soy sauce. The ultimate goal, of course, is to cultivate the India household market and place Kikkoman soy sauce as a standard ingredient in every Indian home kitchen. ‘Harry’ Hakuei Kosato, who represents Kikkoman in India, says, “We believe in building new connections, not only with chefs, but with the wider community. Being on the ground, I have seen the immense positivity with which we have been received by India.”
But what is so special about Kikkoman soy sauce? To find out for myself, I set out two small bowls, one of regular Indian soy sauce and another of Kikkoman. While the taste of the regular soy sauce can only be described as ‘crude’ — I realised that, up until that point, I had only consumed soy sauce in food, not on its own — Kikkoman was aromatic, bursting with umami and quite tasty on its own. The reason behind this is the slow manufacturing process. While synthetic soy sauce can be produced in a matter of days, Kikkoman takes between six months and a year. So, despite being produced in massive quantities — Kikkoman soy sauce sells in over 100 countries — it remains an artisanal product. It is produced using ‘honjozo’, a traditional brewing method stipulated by Japanese law. It’s a natural process which cannot be rushed and has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Only four ingredients go into the making of Kikkoman soy sauce — soybeans, wheat, water and salt.
The process appears deceptively simple. Soybeans are steamed and the wheat is roasted before being mixed with a starter and stored in a high-moisture environment for a few days. The result is called shoyu koji. This is then mixed with salt water and transferred to tanks for fermentation and maturation. The mixture, called moromi, is fermented and aged in tanks for months. The soy sauce is then pressed out. This raw soy sauce is left in the clarifying tunnel for about three days, resulting in oil floating to the surface and sediment settling on the bottom. Only the clarified portion in the middle is extracted as Kikkoman soy sauce.
The soy sauce thus produced has a rich yet mellow flavour, appetising aroma, and Kikkoman’s distinctive bright reddish-brown colour. Unsurprisingly, over 300 aromatic compounds have been identified in Kikkoman soy sauce.
For India, Kikkoman is banking on its soy sauce finding culinary use beyond Chinese and pan-Asian cuisines, as a flavour enhancer in a variety of dishes, including Indian food. According to Kikkoman, Indian chefs have embraced the soy sauce with gusto, using it in a variety of dishes, including butter chicken and samosa, not to mention desserts and cocktails!
“These early adapters in India join millions of chefs and restaurants around the world who understand the value of adding Kikkoman to their dishes to make them more delicious. The endorsement of India’s top chefs has brought us credibility in the Indian market and we hope that will help speed up our penetration in the market. We rely on our ambassador chefs to educate consumers on the difference between Kikkoman and other brands. In the future, we could ask them to collaborate with Kikkoman’s R&D team to develop new soy sauce-based condiments specially for Indian market,” says Mogi-san.
Kikkoman’s calls its chef engagement the ‘Honjozo Experience’ movement. It comprises developing talent and fostering exchanges among chefs through events; educating everyone on the use of soy sauce through cooking sessions and contests; and learning about the contribution Kikkoman Soy Sauce can make by experimenting through R&D in food culture.
Eventually, when demand is high enough, Kikkoman plans to shift production to India, besides launching products specifically for the Indian market. Since I spoke to Mogi-san, Kikkoman has launched a purpose-designed product for the Indian market: Kikkoman Oyster Flavoured Sauce. The result of two years of intensive development, it is 100 percent vegetarian!
With a strong belief in its product, the only major challenge Kikkoman anticipates is that it would probably take longer to establish itself in India, because not many Indian consumer know the difference between Kikkoman’s naturally brewed soy sauce and chemically produced soy sauce. “So we have to educate the Indian consumer about the difference between these two kinds of soy sauce, which definitely takes time. The encouraging fact is that India’s top chefs have already accepted Kikkoman soy sauce’s taste over generally available Indian soy sauce,” says Mogi-san.
Besides engaging with chefs, Kikkoman India has developed and promoted over 100 multi-cuisine recipes through its website and social media. “But first we need Indian people to identify our brand name. Otherwise they won’t watch our Instagram or Facebook. Therefore, the establishment of our brand in India is our first priority,” says Mogi-san.
Signing off on a positive note, Mogi-san adds, “We are very pleased with the positive response in India since our launch in February 2021. Based on 350 years of history of growing the business, we will be here for 100 years and the next 100 years and beyond. It’s all about making sure we build a solid business foundation step by step.”
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