What is tamari and where does it come from?
According to the official Japanese Soy Sauce Information Center, tamari is one of five kinds of soy sauce found within Japanese cuisine. Produced mainly in the Chubu region in Central Japan, tamari is thicker than regular soy sauce, has a denser flavor, and is often served with sashimi and sushi as it is less salty. When heated, tamari reveals a tinted red color, and it can be used in cooking with grilled or boiled foods. It is also often used as an ingredient in senbei rice crackers.
Tamari was first imported to Japan from China during the 7th century and was originally just made as a by-product from miso paste. The first known commercially made Japanese soy sauce originated in the Kansai region from around 1580. During this time, a company known as Tamai Soy Sauce began selling soy sauce and miso paste to the people of Osaka, becoming what is thought to be the first soy sauce vendor in Japan.
It was not until the 17th and 18th centuries that soy sauce began to be manufactured commercially across Japan and wheat was also added to the recipe, resulting in the common soy sauce we know today.
How is tamari sauce made?
To make tamari sauce, first soybeans are soaked in water and cooked, before a fungus called aspergillus oryzae is added to the mixture. The soybeans are then stored in incubation chambers until a fuzzy mold called koji forms.
Once the koji has formed, it’s stored in fermentation tanks until it becomes a substance called moromi. The moromi is aged for several months before it is ready to be pressed to create the raw tamari. This raw tamari is then filtered and pasteurized before it is ready to be packaged and sold to the public.
What are the differences between soy sauce and tamari?
Although tamari is a type of soy sauce, there are several differences between what is known as regular soy sauce or koikuchi shoyu as it’s known in Japanese, which counts for about 80% of all soy sauce production.
Firstly, the ingredients are slightly different. Regular soy sauce usually contains soybeans, wheat, salt, and water, whilst tamari usually contains very little or no wheat and is usually lower in salt, making it a great gluten free and healthier alternative.
Secondly, the taste is different. Because of the differences in ingredients and production, tamari has a richer and denser flavor, and is less salty than regular soy sauce. It looks different too, it’s darker in color and thicker in texture.
You can usually distinguish tamari easily from the other kinds of soy sauces by appearance alone but here is a quick breakdown of the other types in case you are not familiar with them:
- Koikuchi shoyu (regular soy sauce) – most common type of soy sauce for everyday use, salty and umami flavor and used as an all-purpose condiment in cooking or as table sauce.
- Usukuchi shoyu (light color) – a light colored soy sauce originally from the Kansai region, saltier in taste than regular soy sauce, designed to bring out original flavors of ingredients. Often used in stews and simmered vegetables served with meat or fish.
- Saishikomi shoyu (refermented) – a denser soy sauce in color, flavor, and aroma originally from Kyushu region. It is made by blending it with another soy sauce and is often used for flavoring sashimi and chilled tofu.
- Shiro shoyu (extra light color) – a pale amber colored soy sauce originally from Aichi prefecture. Sweet in taste and often used in soups, pickles, and chawanmushi (egg custard).
5 Japanese Tamari Brands You Should Know
Below is a summary of some of the most well-known Japanese tamari brands and a brief description of their products:
One of the most well-known Japanese soy sauce brands is Kikkoman, whose roots date back to the mid-17th century when the production of soy sauce began to become popular in Chiba prefecture. Today they have three production plants in Japan and seven overseas.
In addition to their immensely popular regular soy sauce, Kikkoman also produce a tamari sauce. Kikkoman’s tamari sauce is naturally brewed and is free from artificial colors and flavors. It is also made with just four ingredients – water, soybeans, salt, and vinegar, making it gluten free.
Established in Japan by the Sato family in 1804, San J is a family-run business that has been passed down through eight generations. San J specialize in producing tamari sauce using the highest-quality soybeans. Their tamari has a milder taste and higher complexity of flavors than regular soy sauce. San-J Tamari contains no wheat, and it is certified gluten-free.
This tamari sauce is a great flavor enhancer for all types of dishes including poultry, meat, fish, tofu, and vegetables and gives a rich, full flavor to any food without taking over their taste.
Another famous Japanese soy sauce brand is Yamasa, which was founded in 1645 in Chiba prefecture. Like Kikkoman, Yamasa combines modern technology with traditional brewing methods to create a high-quality soy sauce used by many of Japan’s top professional chefs. Yamasa’s products range from their regular soy sauce for everyday cooking to specialist soy sauces to be served with sashimi and sushi, in addition to thicker teriyaki sauces.
Yamasa’s tamari sauce is made with 100% soybeans and is completely gluten and wheat free providing a sweet, umami-rich flavor ideal for adding to dishes such as teriyaki and sashimi.
Morita is renowned for their tamari soy sauce, where high quality and flavor backed by hundreds of years of tradition make it a popular sauce used by professional chefs. Morita is used in dishes in some of the world’s best Japanese restaurants, particularly in Osaka and Kyoto, considered the center of Japan's sophisticated food culture.
Morita was founded in 1665 as a sake manufacturer and expanded in 1708 when it began manufacturing tamari soy sauce. Brewed and fermented in Aichi prefecture in central Japan, Morita’s tamari sauce is created using carefully practiced techniques that have been passed down through generations for over 300 years.
Masuzaka has been producing miso since 1928 in Aichi prefecture, where a huge warehouse containing 400 cedar wood barrels stores miso in a completely natural environment. Within these barrels storing miso, tamari is formed as a top layer, in a process that takes more than 18 months to complete
Masuzaka’s tamari soy sauce is based on the taste of soybean miso and is made only from soybeans and salt making it completely gluten free. It can be used to season raw, steamed, grilled fish, white or red meat, vegetables, and wok dishes.
5 Tamari Recipes You Can Try at Home
Tamari can be used in a wide range of Japanese dishes – here are some of our favorite recipes you can find for free online:
Mediterranean-style Roasted Cod with Tamari – an easy-to-follow recipe from Kikkoman’s website using their own tamari sauce, this dish can be prepared in just 20 minutes and contains a combination of fish, Mediterranean vegetables, beans, and lemon. The tamari adds a deep umami flavor that combines well with the citrus and sweet taste of veggies.
Shabu Shabu Salad – this summer version of the classic Japanese winter dish by J-food blogger Just One Cookbook contains plenty of vegetables and sliced meat to create a light and refreshing dish full of flavor and protein. Tamari is used in this dish to make the salad dressing.
Sticky Tamari & Honey Chicken Thighs – this recipe from BBC Food uses tamari within its marinade along with sake, ginger, garlic, and chillies to create a sticky soy-based glaze.
Colorful Veggie Soba Noodles – this vegetarian dish by food blogger Cookie + Kate is a visual delight as well as a treat for your tastebuds, as its packed full of colorful vegetables blended with soba noodles tossed in a tamari sauce.
Creamy Miso Broccoli Soup – this hearty warm soup recipe by tamari manufacturer San J uses tamari sauce and miso paste to create a delicious and creamy soup base packed full of freshly chopped broccoli, peas, and white beans.