Soy Sauce: A Primer on the Types, Functions and Flavors of the Quintessential Condiment

One thing that tends to shock newcomers to Asian cooking is the seemingly endless array of soy sauces on the shelves of the local Asian market. Which ones to buy? What are they all used for? Are they all different, or the same, or what?

And most often: Why are there so many?

And then, when a novice cook takes up, say, Chinese, cuisine, they are perplexed to find that they can’t just pick out one brand or one type of soy sauce and use it in every dish. This is not how Chinese cooks operate, and that is the first glimpse many Westerners get of the fact that yes, indeed, each of those soy sauces in the store are different, and they are used for different purposes in the kitchen.

This doesn’t end the confusion many feel upon looking at the soy sauce aisle: if anything, this realization often deepens the angst.

So, here I am, to try and ease the difficulty a bit for those who want to cook good Asian food, but aren’t sure what soy sauce or sauces to buy for what purpose.

Before I begin, let me tell you a bit about my own personal bias–I tend to cook primarily Chinese foods, so the soy sauces in my collection are weighted toward being Chinese in style and origin. I do have a couple of Japanese soy sauces for when I make Japanese or Korean foods, and I have one bottle of Thai black soy sauce, but the rest of the soy sauces in my kitchen are Chinese in origin. Since I know the most about Chinese foods, that is the perspective I am bringing to this discussion.

Which is fine, because it is the Chinese recipes which seem to be the most apt to require the cook to have multiple types of soy sauce on hand, and it has invariably been Chinese recipes that require more than one kind of soy sauce that has caused readers to ask, “Do I really have to have two different kinds of soy sauce for this?”

My answer has almost always been a qualified yes, because over the years and in my experimentation in cooking Chinese foods, I have found that the tradition of having multiple kinds of soy sauces for different flavor and color effects really does lead to more versatility in the kitchen.

Chinese Soy Sauces can generally be categorized into three types. Light or thin soy sauce, dark or thick soy sauce and thick soy sauce, or soy jam.

Light or thin soy sauce is most like the soy sauce that Americans think of when they think of soy sauce: Kikkoman’s. It is made by the fermentation of wheat and soybeans, and is salty, but not intensely so. It is dark brown, but when you swirl the liquid in the bottle, you can see that it is very thin–it has no “legs” meaning that it doesn’t cling to the side of the bottle when it swishes. It runs right back down. It is a good, general purpose sauce that is used to cook light-colored and flavored foods such as seafoods, chicken, some pork dishes and vegetables. It is used when a paler colored sauce is desired for a stir-fried or braised dish or to make a pale broth in a soup. It has a clean, salty with a slight tang,

Dark or thick soy sauce is made the same way that light soy sauce is made–as a fermentation of soybeans and wheat, but some caramel or molasses is added to the sauce when it is finished brewing. This results in a darker, more reddish color, and a sweeter, more complex flavor. The sugar in the mixture also gives dark soy sauce a lot of body–if you swirl it in its glass bottle, you will see it clings a great deal more to the sides than thin soy sauce, dripping down slowly and leaving “legs.” It is used primarily in stronger flavored preparations, sometimes on its own, and sometimes in combination with light soy sauce. It is part of what gives “red braised” dishes their deep brick-colored sauces, and is used to flavor beef, pork, duck and some chicken dishes.

Thick soy sauce, or soy jam is not the same thing as dark soy sauce. In my kitchen and when I teach classes, I call it “thick soy sauce” and the other “dark soy sauce” to differentiate between them, but many authors call them interchangably by the same name. Thick soy sauce has much more molasses in it than dark soy sauce, and is used primarily as a coloring agent in restaurants for fried rice. A scant half-teaspoon is all that is needed to color a full wok of fried rice a toasty brown color; to try and use liquid soy sauce to get the same effect would require so much that the rice would become so salty as to be inedible. Also, because of the high molasses content of thick soy sauce, it can be used to sweeten various dishes, especially ones that are braised. Thick soy sauce is always sold in jars; it is too thick to easily flow from a bottle.

Of course, there are Japanese soy sauces; Americans are most familiar with the Japanese style soy sauce, Kikkoman’s. To my taste, Japanese soy sauces, also known as shoyu, are cleaner in flavor than Chinese soy sauces. The Chinese versions all seem to have very complex fore- and aftertastes, while the Japanese shoyu is a much more pure flavor that to me tastes saltier. There are many different grades and kinds of Japanese shoyu; some are so fine that they are only used uncooked as dipping sauces, while others are quite rustic.

Tamari is a specialized Japanese shoyu that is made completely from fermented soybeans without the addition of wheat. It has an even purer flavor than shoyu with wheat, but doesn’t taste as salty to me. I always recommend that people who have gluten sensitivities or celiac disease use this for all soy sauce applications, though I myself use it very infrequently.

Thai black soy sauce is a very thick, dark sauce filled with additional molasses. It is somewhere in between Chinese dark soy sauce and thick soy sauce in texture, flavor and color, though to my taste it is sweeter than either of them. It is used in place of fish sauce by many Thai vegetarians, though I myself tend to prefer the flavor of fish sauce.

There are many other different kinds of soy sauces available to cooks. There are specialty flavored sauces such as “mushroom soy,” which is flavored with extracts from dried shiitake mushrooms, and “spice sauce” which is a dark soy sauce which has garlic and various spices such as star anise and pepper steeped in it. Then there are also the soy-sauce based condiments and sauces of Japan, like teriyaki, which is a mixture of shoyu, mirin (a sweet rice wine) and sugar, or ponzu, which is a mixture of shoyu, citrus juice (often lemon), rice vinegar and bonito flakes or stock. Though one can buy them in the market, I prefer to make these derivatives of shoyu on my own to my own taste.

My advice for buying soy sauces is this: buy the best you can afford and make certain that it is naturally brewed. The naturally brewed ones will say so prominently on their labels, and they have superior flavors, which translates to better cooking in your kitchen. If you are cooking Chinese food, go ahead and buy both thin and dark soy sauces, and thick soy sauce only if you intend to make fried rice and want it to look like the versions made in restaurants. (Homestyle fried rice is pale; few Chinese home cooks use the thick soy sauce as a coloring agent for their fried rice.) The different types of soy sauces don’t cost much and they really go far in bringing an authentic flavor to your cooking.

My last bit of advice is this: if you are cooking Chinese foods, use Chinese soy sauces, and if you are cooking Japanese foods, use Japanese soy sauces. I don’t mix the two; the flavors never come out right when I do. In fact, I can usually tell when I go to a pan-Asian restaurant, if the cook is Chinese or Japanese by the way their stir-fried foods taste. Japanese versions of Chinese dishes always taste distinctly Japanese, often, I believe, because of the use of Japanese soy sauce. It may just be me, but I can taste the difference between the two styles of soy sauce, though I have had enough Chinese-Americans agree with me on this that I think I am not the only “soy sauce geek” in the world!


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  1. I wish I could taste these differences. Today I had the audacity to post about a new (to me) Japanese dark shoyu. I will link to this. Merci.

    Comment by cookiecrumb — March 3, 2006 #

  2. Ahh, thank you for that explanation! I’ve been cooking your stir fry recipes with substitutions because I don’t have some ingredients, and the results have been very tasty but they don’t ‘sing’ the way a recipe does when all the ingredients are just right. I will have to experiment with the soy sauces.

    Comment by Beth — March 3, 2006 #

  3. Nice, a primer on Soy Sauces – I have about 10-15 different brands/types on hand. Funny, I usually will specify, DO NOT USE Kikkoman when making various marinades, or Warishita, or sauces – I use Yamasa, or Aloha Shoyu.

    Comment by Kirk — March 4, 2006 #

  4. Say, i’m chinese and living in singapore and i’ve never heard of “soy jam”… cld u post a picture pl?

    Comment by spots — March 4, 2006 #

  5. Cookiecrumb–sometimes I wish I -couldn’t- taste the differences, because then I wouldn’t be so picky and have so many ingredients laying about the place. But that wish only arises when I am cleaning out the pantry….

    Beth–good luck with your experimentation–let me know how it goes.

    Kirk–I really don’t like Kikkoman, either. That bottle is probably five years old, and I bought it at a place where I could only buy Kikkoman. I used it for a Jamaican/Asian fusion jerk dish, and then have never used it again. For Japanese foods–the few that I make–I tend to use the San-J tamari, because I really like the rich, but pure clean flavor of it. But I figured I should stick that orphan bottle of Kikkoman in there because most Americans are at least familiar with that brand.

    Spots–the “thick soy sauce” or “soy jam” is in the picture above–it is in that jar from Kun Choon sauce company. That is the only brand I have found.

    My theory about it is that it is primarily made for the restaurant trade, and most home cooks don’t use it. It does give fried rice the color and flavor that Americans expect it to have, and I have used it once or twice in marinades and in red-cooked dishes to darken the color considerably. But other than that–that jar you see there can last me for years.

    Oh, and one other thing I use it for–to darken the color of Thai drunken noodles. I forgot!

    Comment by Barbara — March 4, 2006 #

  6. An excellent post. I’ve been around soy sauce and Asian grocery stores for quite a while, but never really understood the difference or the varieties. Thanks!

    Comment by Brendon — March 4, 2006 #

  7. Jack & I found Shouten Soy from The Grateful Palate and have never looked back. Ohara Hisakichi Shouten is totally amazing and transcends any soy sauce we’ve ever tried – it is fantastic with sashimi – but it is a strong sauce and you only need a little. After discovering it I started to realize the breadth of soy sauces used in cooking and as condiments.

    This is a great post Barbara!

    Comment by Joanne — March 4, 2006 #

  8. This is so interesting!

    I must admit to a vast ignorance about Chinese cuisine, despite living in the SF Bay Area. I know/own “light” soy sauce, japanese soy sauce (tamari) and Thai dark soy sauce (I cook tons of Thai food), but didn’t really know the differences between all the different kinds. I typically use japanese in place of dark soy sauce and have often wondered why things don’t turn out quite right. Now I know! I guess I need to pay the same attention to soy sauce as I do to my Indian spices. This is a great primer to get me started.

    Comment by Diane — March 4, 2006 #

  9. “Soy jam”

    -do you mean soy paste? My mom uses that for a lot of her marinating.

    Comment by Rose — March 4, 2006 #

  10. Wow! Now I have a reason to go shopping again. I’ve used nothing but Kikkoman for years, though occasionally I buy La Choy–both “American”brands and nothing like what you’ve described here. I”m looking forward to trying the dark soy sauce in my fried rice and stir-fries. Thanks for the great primer.

    Comment by Cyndi — March 4, 2006 #

  11. Beautiful! Barbara!, I have just given today a new recipe using soy sauce.You have a nice elaboration on Asian cooking and condiments.Could I use your link relating above in my posting to websharing and please visit my site give your thoughts.Waiting for your reply.Bye! Have a nice time

    Comment by ramya — March 4, 2006 #

  12. No, Rose–not fermented soybean paste–that is a totally different series of sauces/condiments/flavorings.

    I have only read the thick soy sauce called soy jam in a few older cookbooks–the useage is archaic. Unlike soybean pastes and bean pastes, it is a thick, viscous liquid–mostly molasses, really. It is so thick that they put it into jars because it flows so slowly, but it is nowhere near as thick as soybean pastes, which if you dig up a spoonful of them and then hold the spoon upside down, it will stay in the spoon.

    Thick soy sauce, if treated that way, will give way and make a godawful mess on the countertop!

    Welcome, Brenden–nice to meet you! I am glad that you liked this post. I should probably take on fermented soybean pastes next.

    Joanne–I don’t make much in the way of sushi or sashimi–I have a lack of a good place to get sushi quality fish here. But, I have been meaning to get some really high quality Japanese artisan-made soy sauce, just ‘cuz.

    Diane–glad to be of service! As the Chinese dark soy sauce isn’t so expensive, it is worth it to pick up a bottle and not substitute. You will get an immediate difference in flavor and be amazed.

    Cyndi–you are welcome!

    Ramya, yes, you may use this link–and when I get a chance, I will check out your new site.


    Comment by Barbara — March 4, 2006 #

  13. Is it possible to determine by type which, if any, should be refridgerated? Is it a matter of salt content? The only bottle I have which I recall explicitly saying it should be is some Thai Golden Mountain soy sauce. (I have three roommates who don’t understand why I have three or four types in there at a time.)

    Comment by Scott — March 4, 2006 #

  14. Loved your Soy article, but I noticed that Philippine soy sauces were omitted. They make several excellent varieties, one of the tastiest being: Mother’s Best Toyomansi (soy sauce with calamansi). Calamansi is a small green-skinned citrus with a unique orange-lime taste.

    Comment by F. Lync Brusoe — March 5, 2006 #

  15. Scott–I think you should be guided by the lable. If it says refrigerate after opening, refrigerate it. I don’t refrigerate any of mine, and have had no trouble with them going off or bad. You just want to be certain to close them tightly so that they don’t evaporate.

    As for why some would require refrigeration while others don’t–I think you are essentially correct–it probably has to do with the sale content. Salt is a preservative–it prevents bacterial growth by providing an inhospitable place for bacteria to grow. Salt will suck the moisture out of microbes–and they need the water to live.

    The Philippine sauces were omitted because I know next to nothing about Filipino food! This is a sad, but true lack on my part, so thank you and welcome to my blog, F. Lync. Nice to meet you! I will have to try Mother’s Best if I can find it around here.

    Comment by Barbara — March 5, 2006 #

  16. Barbara,

    What a wonderful post! I am so glad I found your blog. Now I’ll know what to look for when I go to my local chinese store.


    Comment by Helen — March 5, 2006 #

  17. What does one do when confronted with labels that have little or no English on them? I know the difference between dark and light soy sauces, but much of the time don’t have the choice to choose between brands because I have to go with the ones that have a translation on them.

    Also – which is best for dipping sauces like for gyoza?

    Comment by Elusis — March 6, 2006 #

  18. Excellent article. My usual m.o. is to go to the chinese store and ask the owner or the clerk which is best. As I don’t know chinese I’ll usually hold up the bottles I’m thinking of and ask if they are good. Apparently most people know “good? or better?” and I get a good one in sign language!
    this is , indeed, an excellent article. I hop to see more!

    Comment by Marjorie — March 6, 2006 #

  19. Elusis–you can take Marjorie’s advice–it usually works for me as well. Ask the store owner or another shopper. I have had a lot of Americans ask me what is the best brand of whichever thing they are looking for, or to help them find something because they see me shopping, with an overflowing cart or basket and figure that I am approachable.

    I had a couple of store owners jokingly offer me a job because I always ended up helping people find stuff.

    The other way to do it Elusis–is trial and error. That is more of a crapshoot–I have gotten some icky stuff that way, but I have also gotten great finds, too.

    As for gyoza–if you are doing Japanese gyoza, go for a good quality Japanese soy sauce–you can do tamari if you like. In Japanese markets, they have special soy sauces that are higher in price that are meant as dipping soys–they have amazing flavor. As for brands–I don’t know any off the top of my head, but Joanne in her comment above suggested Ohara Hisakichi Shouten from the Grateful Palate. It is probably one of the small batch artisanal soy sauces that are becoming popular in the US.

    If you don’t want to spend that much, a naturally brewed Japanese tamari or soy sauce will do fine.

    For making the dipping sauces for dim sum, I always use Kimlan Premium Aged Soy. It is a thin or light soy sauce and has a great flavor for dips.

    Maureen–I do use that method myself, though I am just as apt to ask other shoppers–especially nice grandmotherly looking sorts. Or, I will guess and buy something, and try it. That is how I ended up getting the Kimlan Aged stuff, which is my standard thin soy sauce in the house now.

    Comment by Barbara — March 6, 2006 #

  20. Thank you! It makes sense. I grew up in a Chinese household where cooking was second nature, and the selection of ingredients was always intuitive. I could never understand why my grandmother had so many bottles, and why she used what she did when she did so. “That’s the right one for three-cup chicken” was never a very satisfying answer…

    Comment by genevieve — March 6, 2006 #

  21. I’d include kecap manis (Malaysian/Indonesian cuisine) in your list – it’s soy sauce sweetened/thickened with sugar and flavored with garlic and spices like star anise. (At least that’s how you make it at home.)

    Great, informative post!

    Comment by Robyn — March 6, 2006 #

  22. Genevieve, welcome!

    Yes, answers like, “Because that is the one we use,” is not very helpful. But when cooking is second nature, and is something one does, and learns by doing–well, there isn’t always a lot of “why” being transmitted along with the “how.”

    I remember my grandmothers teaching me cooking, and they were not so good at the “whys” either–it is a cross-cultural thing. Cookery is not often thought of in a scientific way, or in a logical way, to figure out why.

    That is why I tend to approach it the way I do–with lots of whys in with the hows–I have found in my teaching, that people tend to remember the hows better if they know they why that goes with it. I know that I was always better at math when it had a purpose to it, than when I just was doing it in a vacuum.

    Lots of people are that way.

    You are right, Robyn. Again, Indonesian food is something I have very little experience with, so that is what kecap manis is left out.

    There is so much in the world to learn!

    Comment by Barbara — March 6, 2006 #

  23. Barbara:

    What a fantastic post… I’m a big fan of Asian cuisine, and I’ve never been able to get my fried rice just right. And now I know why… I wasn’t using thick soy sauce!! 🙂

    Thanks for the great information.


    Comment by Mark — March 7, 2006 #

  24. Not a lot of people know the thick soy sauce trick–I learned it because I worked in a Chinese restaurant. The thing is–Chinese home cooks don’t make brown fried rice–that is an American Chinese restaurant thing.

    I like it both ways, pale and brown. It tastes good either way, but most of the folks who eat fried rice like it brown, so that is how I make it. And I do have to admit to liking that smoky hint of sweetness….

    Comment by Barbara — March 7, 2006 #

  25. We’ve got a friend who is cutting wheat out of his diet and is having a heck of a time trying to find a soy sauce that doesn’t include wheat as an ingredient. Do you know of any or have an alternative he could use? I thought he may want to try making his own soy sauce but not sure how involved that may be.

    Comment by Barbara (Biscuit Girl) — March 11, 2006 #

  26. San-J Tamari is completely wheat free, Biscuit Girl–it is what I always suggest my friends with gluten sensitivity and celiac use, and they all tolerate it just fine.

    Comment by Barbara — March 11, 2006 #

  27. Hi,

    Thanks for your page. I was wondering if you (or anyone else) have tried the following soy sauces –

    Pearl River Bridge – Superior Dark Soy Sauce; Eden Selected Shoyu Soy Sauce; Ohara Hisakichi Shouten (Yuasa Mukashi Shoyu) Soy Sauce.

    All three are highly recommended by different sources, respectively – Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sichuan cookbook, Cooks Illustrated Jan/Feb 2000 Magazine, various websites & The Grateful Palate.

    I hope someone can make a comparison between these soy sauces, like the one found on this page –


    Comment by Steve — July 8, 2006 #

  28. Hi

    Thanks for an informative post.

    In Australia and the UK, you can buy Cheong Chan (Elephant brand) thick soy sauce in a bottle. I grew up in a Malaysian Chinese household using this for fried rice, Char Kway Teow (fried noodles) and Sa Hor Fun (another fried noodle dish). It can also be used to marinate Penang style hainanese chicken. It gives an authentic flavour to Malaysian Chinese dishes. We also always used Pearl River brand thin and dark soy sauces for their superior flavour.

    Happy cooking!

    Comment by Natasha — November 30, 2006 #

  29. Hi Barbara,

    Thank you for this informative article. It clears up a lot. One thing I’m still clueless about is the difference between soya sauce and soy sauce. Some recipes call for soya sauce. I’m missing out on all these different and wonderful tastes as I have to make my own soy sauce substitute, sodium-free. Sigh. If you have any helpful advice in making that taste more like soy sauce, I’d love to hear it. Again, thanks for making the sauces more understandable. 🙂

    Comment by Debora — January 15, 2007 #

  30. Natasha–I just started using Pearl River Bridge brand, and love it!

    Debora–soy sauce and soya sauce are the same thing. No worries.

    How do you make your own soy sauce substitute? What do you use? If I knew, I might be able to make suggestions. The problem is that salt is necessary to make soy sauce as it is a fermentation–the salt allows the proper bacteria to grow while inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria.

    Comment by Barbara — January 18, 2007 #

  31. […] Luckily, I found a blogger who addressed my exact issue, with her entry <a href=””&gt; Soy sauce: A Primer of the Types, Functions, and Flavors of the Quintessential Condiment</a>. The main fact that I gleaned from her lesson is that there are some soy sauces that are used in Chinese cooking, some for Japanese and Korean, and some for Thai. So at least there are some broad categories that make choosing the right one easier. Even if I don’t master the use of the appropriate soy sauce, I have it narrowed down to two or three more appropriate choices. […]

    Pingback by Zen Cooking » Blog Archive » Soy Sauce — January 27, 2007 #

  32. Thanks for this article.
    I allways use japanese style shoyu because it’s the only one I can find made with organicaly grown soy.
    I’m concerned about chinese using GMO soy, as I don’t want any in my cooking.
    Do you have some informations about this?

    Comment by plume — March 8, 2007 #

  33. Plume, I cannot say about the Chinese using GMO soy or not. However, what I do know is that one of the largest growth sectors in Chinese agricultural products for export is organically grown food.

    If the Chinese see a demand for organic soy sauce, they will fulfill it, though.

    Comment by Barbara — March 8, 2007 #

  34. Thanks, I recently ventured into Asian cooking, and was unaware of that there were so many different types of soy sauces. Your article was very enlightening.

    jose in Alaska

    Comment by jose — March 12, 2007 #

  35. I am glad to help, Jose!

    Comment by Barbara — March 14, 2007 #

  36. HI.
    I am still confused about Tamari sauce.
    I have been shopping around and I can`t find it.
    I read all your posts and noticed another Australian reader there.
    Can You please suggest a substitute that I can use.
    Thank You

    Comment by Tony — February 4, 2008 #

  37. Tony, I am sorry I was slow answering you–my Dad was in hospital for open heart surgery, so I was distracted a bit.

    In Australia, you should have no trouble finding Tamari soy sauce–it is a Japanese product. Try looking in a market that sells Japanese foodstuffs, and asking for tamari shoyu.

    Comment by Barbara — February 11, 2008 #

  38. What about L’ Chepeau Soy Sauce? It’s really, really expensive and only available in Dubai. What’s up with that?

    Comment by EL Cheapo Soy Sauce — April 4, 2008 #

  39. Rice Bowl with Baby Bok Choy

    The only good thing about getting back from vacation, as far as I can tell, is a respite from foods that conk you out like benadryl and leave you feeling puffed up when you wake up the next morning….

    Trackback by Pink of Perfection — May 27, 2008 #

  40. […] the sauce 2 tablespoons shoyu or soy sauce 1 tablespoon rice vinegar 1 1/2 teaspoons fish sauce 1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame […]

    Pingback by Rice Bowl with Baby Bok Choy « Pink of Perfection — March 29, 2011 #

  41. Not knowing any better, I’ve used Japanese soy sauces and Shoyu most of my life, but I now live in a military area with a large Asian population and much better access to a wide variety of quality products from that area of the world.

    I’ve recently tried Pearl River Bridge brands of dark, light and thick Chinese soy sauces to get a feel for the differences and noted they all seem to have a bitter aftertaste when tasted by themselves. Is this common to all Chinese brands or specific to this Pearl River? Does this flavor change when cooked, and if so, does anyone have suggestions on a simple way to taste test brands to determine which one I want to start with (my cooking time is limited by work, especially during the summer).

    Thanks to one and all…

    Comment by Bear — June 18, 2011 #

  42. Dark soy sauce has molasses in it, and that is probably the lightly bitter taste you are tasting. Dark soy sauce is always used in cooked dishes. Light soy sauce, such as by Pearl River Bridge or Kimlan, tastes more close to the Japanese shoyu, but it still has a different overall flavor. BUT, it can be used in uncooked sauces and dishes and won’t have that bitter aftertaste you noticed in the dark soy sauce.

    Comment by Barbara — June 18, 2011 #

  43. Thanks Barbara! I haven’t had the guts to open the bottle of Pearl River Light yet after trying the Dark and the Thick; guess I’ll have to screw up my courage!

    Comment by Bear — June 19, 2011 #

  44. Bear–thick soy sauce is mostly used to color dishes–marinades, sauces, stews and fried rice. It is mostly molasses and it doesn’t have much of a soy sauce taste to it.

    I personally hate molasses–my Grandpa loved using sorghum molasses on his biscuits and bread–ugh. Turns my stomach to just smell it. But thick soy and dark soy, once they are cooked do not have that smell/taste that you are objecting to.

    Comment by Barbara — June 19, 2011 #

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