As more folks are opting to go gluten-free lately, you may have been seeing or hearing more about gluten-free tamari, often used in place of your run-of-the-mill soy sauce. We’ve called for tamari in a couple of our recent Asian recipes, like this salad with spicy peanut dressing.
Are the two related? Can you use one in place of the other? Well, kind of.
Soy sauce and tamari are a lot alike, and probably indiscernible from one another to the unfamiliar eye or tongue. Both are a product of fermented soybeans; in fact, tamari is itself a type of soy sauce.
According to an article on Care2, the confusion between tamari and the soy sauce we’re familiar with began when George Ohsawa introduced a sauce he called “tamari” to the West in the 1960s. He hadn’t anticipated that real tamari would eventually make its way over as well, so at the time he’d just used the term to differentiate between natural, traditional soy sauce and the chemically-enhanced stuff we often get with Chinese take-out.
Shoyu is the Japanese word for traditionally slow-brewed soy sauce. It is made with roasted wheat, and is known for its ability to enhance other flavors, much like table salt. It is the everyday soy sauce, the one best used for light cooking, stir frying and keeping table-side.
Tamari is often seen as a bit of a higher-end choice. It was originally a by-product of making miso, and was reserved as a delicacy for special occasions. It is richer and more complex in flavor than your average soy sauce, and its appearance matches that: it runs a little darker and thicker. Contrary to what you might think, though, tamari is actually a bit milder and smoother than soy sauce, and not quite as salty. It has its own flavor, rather than just working off of other flavors. Use it in slow-cooked meals, soups and flavorful dressings.
Of course, not all tamaris (nor shoyus, for that matter) are created equal, so the quality really depends upon the source or brand. Finding a fine bottle of soy sauce is much like shopping for wine: It’s just as easy to walk away with a cheap, mediocre product as it is a lovingly produced, exquisite one. Do some research, ask some friends and shop around before you go for good ol’ Kikkoman. Many of our favorite soy sauces are made with artificial, chemical fermentation and loaded with fake coloring and preservatives.
It’s important to note that tamari is NOT an across-the-board gluten-free product. While it was traditionally made without wheat, many of the bottles labeled “tamari” today do contain wheat (much of this is due to lingering confusion from Ohsawa’s day). You must look specifically for a gluten-free bottle if that’s the way you’re going. While soy sauce is usually about half-and-half soy and wheat, the “tamaris” that contain wheat usually contain a lesser amount.