A beloved Canadian soy sauce runs out

THERE IS ONE bottle of China Lily soy sauce left in Vilma Portillo’s kitchen and she is measuring it out—drop by drop. “We know we have to ration it so we’re only using very small amounts, like one drop at a time,” says Ms Portillo. “We’re about two fingers into our last bottle.” The last time there was a China Lily soy-sauce drought in northern British Columbia, in 2018, Ms Portillo’s husband, Cody Malbeuf, stopped eating rice for three months. He vowed never again to be caught short.

The sauce, made by Lee’s Food Products, a company in Ontario, has been a household staple in northern British Columbia for six decades. Mr Malbeuf is so besotted with the brand that he remembers the first time he saw a bottle of it when he was 11 years old at his aunt’s dinner table. He can measure how stressful his day has been by how much he douses his food in the sauce.

The shortage of China Lily turned into panic for Mr Malbeuf and others in late November when no bottles could be found on shelves in Prince George and nearby towns. Before Christmas, online advertisements prompted offers of ten times the normal asking price of C$3 ($2.35) to C$4.

One man auctioned off a supply of China Lily to his aunt, who planned to redistribute them as Christmas presents. On eBay, a pair of bottles can be found for C$50. When one of the grocery stores managed to bring in a shipment, Mr Malbeuf saw a photo of his beloved condiment on social media and demanded that his wife leave work to rush to the shop with him. Customers in the long queue were limited to one precious bottle each.


China Lily is viewed with particular affection among the province’s indigenous households. It is used liberally in indigenous fried bread, known as bannock, and with salmon. Shirley Nehass of the Tahltan Nation says she grew up with China Lily because it was the only kind of soy sauce anyone had ever seen.

To Ms Nehass, China Lily was the seasoning for every dish. Lise Luppens, who worked as a dietician in northern British Columbia, notes that many indigenous people include China Lily as a “traditional food” among dishes such as chow mein and curried bologna.

The sauce’s taste is distinctive, if not authentic. China Lily is noticeably sweet, thanks to the addition of sugar and caramel flavouring. Brian Chang, the owner of an Asian grocery store, says that although he carries 15 other types of soy sauce from Thailand, the Philippines, China and Japan, these are less popular than China Lily. “A lot of people up north like things sweet,” says Mr Chang. “Other soy sauces are not sweet and when they try other soy sauce it doesn’t taste the way they expect it to.”

In late November a rumour circulated that Lee’s Foods had shut down. That is untrue, says Colleen Levitt, who works at the company. She points out that demand is higher because people crave comfort food during a pandemic. “We’re making it as fast as we can,” she adds.

Mr Chang’s last shipment arrived two weeks ago and was sold out in a day of panic-buying. Since then, he has fielded about six calls a day from anxious customers eager for their next fix. He expects more black-market peddling of the sweet and salty sauce. Christopher Wong, president of Lee’s Foods, and the founder’s grandson, is grateful for his niche in British Columbia’s food chain. “Loyalty on that scale is unheard of in this day and age,” he says.

This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline "No source for soy"

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Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/the-americas/2021/01/02/a-beloved-canadian-soy-sauce-runs-out
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