A Short History of Kecap

On August 31, 1927, hundreds of people had been flocking to the grounds since the afternoon. By six o’clock, a dense crowd was waiting in front of the gate waiting for the opening of Pasar Malam, which coincided with the Dutch Queen, Wilhelmina’s birthday. The mayor, the sultan of Deli with a few tengkus, the heads of local government, the Chinese and Indigenous officials had arrived. Finally, the mayor declared Medan’s pasar malam was officially opened. And the children from the girls’ schools sang both in Dutch and in Malay (De Sumatra post, 01–09–1927):

Sri Ratoe Wilhelmina Di negeri Belanda Memerintahkan tanah Hindia Dengan sentosanja….

(Queen Wilhelmina in the land of Holland Governing the land of Indies with peace …)

Stands with bright lights shine through the night encircling the ground. People were crowded viewing various stands were on display, including Velodrome’s car booth with Dodge and Fiat cars. The highlight was stands with bright electric lights, a shining Osram advertisement of the Nederland Indies Gas company. Kwong Ban Leong company from Batavia had a stand with bright lights promoting its ketjap. This is rivalled by Medan’s own Weng Seng ketjap and Poo Thai Foo Seng Kie dispensary known for its anggur Cap Bulan. There is also a stand of stuffed animals from the Tjan Tjauw Kie company which attracts much attention, and a showroom of the Ultraphone. Various shows also attract the European and the indigenous people, two ronggengs, wayang kulit for the Javanese, wayang orang, open cinema, and a bangsawan.

Ketjap or kecap or Soysauce is the main ingredient of Chinese and Indonesian cuisine. And it means big business in Medan. The Dutch were also addicted to ketjap and other soy products. Ketjap is now part of the Dutch Indo food main ingredient, and its famous dish is Babi Ketjap.

Sinar Deli, 25 July 1933

Originally from China, called tao yu 豆油 or bean oil by Hokkien person, the tradition was introduced to almost everywhere in Indonesia. Dutchman P.A. Boorsma, who lived in Java in 1900s was captivated by soy food and tempeh, and as a naturalist (scientist), he conducted laboratory tests on the chemical composition of indigenous soybeans and their products. He published a report in 1900 describing the indigenous and Chinese preparations of soybean, including tempe kedeleh (soybean tempeh), Ketjap which he called Batavian soy (Bataviasche soja), Tao hoe en Tao koan (soft and hard tofu) and Tao-tjo en Tao-dji (fermented black soybeans). He missed tauge or beansprout, but that was unprocessed soy. (History of Fermented Black Soybeans (165 B. C. To 2011), By William Shurtleff, Akiko Aoyagi)

At the Pasar Malam in Medan, the two largest ketjap companies competed: Kwong Ban Long from Batavia promoted the Globe or Bolah Doenia brand, while Weng Seng from Medan had his Ketjap tjap Mata Hari. The same scene was repeated in 1928:

Stand-stand Tionghoa antaranja jang mentjolok mata ialah reclame stand kepoenjaannja Kwong Ban Long dan Lee Mun jang mengeloearkan ketjap tjap Bola Doenia dan Ajam. Ketjap Weng Seng poen pegang rol jang paling oetama sebab reclame lampoenja menoendjoekkan bahwa djika makan ajam panggang dengan ketjepnja, ta’ boleh tidak akan tilik lioer siapa jang merasainja. (Pertja Timoer, 10 Nov 1928).

Among the Chinese stands that stood out were Kwong Ban Long and Lee Mun, which produced ketjap brand Bola Doenia and Ajam. Ketjap Weng Seng also had an important role because the advertisement lamps show that if you eat grilled chicken with its soy sauce, you will certainly salivate.

There are also many versions of ketjap, including ketjap hitam. (De Sumatra Post, 08–05–1935)

In Aceh, the ketjap preparation is of great interest, based on black kedelee, in contrast to the white kedelee, which produces the salty ketjap according to the Chinese (fermentation) method. The black kedelee provides the sweet soy sauce, which is often popular in Java.

That was kecap manis as we know it today, originally from Java.

Unfortunately, kecap was so popular that it became a source of misdeed. In Surabaya, the factory was a cover to make illegal alcohol (Soerabaijasch handelsblad 09–10–1935). And the deceitful Chinese made fake kecap purely from salt, as reported in the paper:

Police discovered a batch of 93 kg of salt in a kedeh on Julianastraat Medan, which was smuggled from Aceh. In Aceh, it costed two guilders per 100 kg, while in Medan the price is fifteen guilders per kg. The fake soy sauce was made by just dissolving the salt and cooked to brown-colour, and the excessive salt was then removed. (De Sumatra Post 10–04–1941)

Real soy sauce is more expensive and require skills to ferment the soy into delicious sauce rather than pure salt. Many kecap companies emerged, in Java, mostly totok Chinese produced kecap as the Peranakan considered it as a dirty job (Sin Po 24–08–1929).

Nevertheless, the real ketjap is highly competitive. In Medan, Weng Seng, 永勝, a Chinese-owned company had been in the business for 40 years or since 1890s. Weng Seng was located in Topekongstraat (Jl.Topekong). Not that far from that company, at Pachtstraat (Jl. Kumango), there was another kecap company Lee Mun, with Tjap Ajam. Other companies also competed, including Japanese kecap called Sansey and San Yin Chan from Labuhan Deli.

Weng Seng was the largest kecap business in Medan. It also had other businesses in import and food products, and also selling lottery. Weng seng’s advertisement in Deli Courant is not for his ketjap, but the lottery.

The parts of this lot were sold by the famous soy sauce factory Weng Seng in this city. 1st prize of the 10,000 guilders has fallen to a Chinese in Arnhemia. (De Sumatra Post, 27–09–1935)

The competition of Ketjap was high, and it became the issue in the board of trade in Medan:

Manufacturers complained about the heavy competition from the soy sauce factories. The board is now investigating to what extent the soy sauce, soy and taotjo quota can be used to protect the local industry. (De Sumatra Post, 13–03–1934)

These kecap companies seem to disappear after 1950s. In 1948, Chu Sam Yak and Chu Sok Sam, Teochew businessmen from Medan, started a Chinese wine called Anggur Tjap Orang Toea. Later, they ventured into making batteries, with the ABC battery in Medan. Moving its base to Jakarta, they created the world-famous kecap manis ABC in 1975.

While there are many ketjap in Indonesia, not all kecap tastes the same; each had its own secret traditional recipe. The famous one in Medan was Ketjap Hati Angsa in 1960s that started at Jl.Meranti. Another oldies was from a company called Sinar Langkat, Cap Panah. Nevertheless the unique branding from Medan was still the same as 1920s.

As kecap was added to any food to add flavour, a person can be called kecap for overstating his story, and ngecap was a term used to describe gossiping or adding tales to stories.

Sinar Deli, 2 May 1930

Soil Scientist, interest in Colonial history.