Soy Sauce and Tamari – What Is The Difference

May 13, 2013 10 Comments

Difference Between Tamari and Soy Sauce

Do You Know The Difference Between Tamari Sauce and Soy Sauce?

I admit that I’ve never really given this much thought, but to my untrained eyes at least, soy sauce and tamari look pretty much alike. So there must be some reason that both are available. So I did some digging, and this is what I found out.

It is no wonder that both sauces look so similar.  Soy sauce and tamari are both sauces made by fermenting usually some combination of wheat and soy. Technically they are both soy sauces as they contain soy. But while soy sauce always contains wheat, tamari contains less wheat, if any, which makes it a good alternative for people with a gluten intolerance. Since not all tamari is gluten free, it is best to check the label to be safe.

Where Do They Come From?

Soy sauce originated in China and then spread throughout Asia. Tamari is one specific type of Japanese soy sauce. So if you see a bottle that says something like Tamari Soy Sauce on the label, you’ll know that it is Japanese.

How Are They Made?

One interesting thing I discovered is that, while soy sauce is “brewed” or fermented as a specific product, tamari is actually a by product of miso production. Miso ages into a thick paste while the tamari is the liquid that gathers in the vat as miso ages or matures, sort of in the same way that whey runs off cheese as it is pressed. The word tamari is actually loosely translated as “puddle” since it puddles up during miso production!

Tamari is a bit thicker and darker in color than its Chinese counterpart. Flavorwise, it is smoother and less salty than soy sauce. I sometimes find Chinese soy sauce to be a bit harsh while tamari is mellower and lends a more complex flavor to dishes than soy sauce.

When To Use Each

Since tamari is more complex and mellow than regular soy sauce, I think that it is a better option for dipping and/or mixing with wasabi as an accompaniment to sushi. Still, most sushi places that I’ve been to offer soy sauce on the table, even though sushi is Japanese. I’m really not sure why this is as, since a quick price search shows the two to be comparably priced. Perhaps it is because most Americans are more familiar with Chinese-style soy sauce rather than its Japanese cousin.

Whatever the reason, most sushi restaurants will have tamari as well. You just have to know to ask for it.  And as I find myself eaten less gluten too, I will do the same.

But what about cooking?

Which bottle should you pick up to add to your stir fry?

I look at it the same way I look at my olive oil. If I have a very fruity and rich extra virgin olive oil, I am not going to use it as a frying oil since the complexity will just be lost when it is heated. I save my less-flavorful oils (and oils with a higher smoke point) for frying.

So, when the sauce is going to be the star of the show, as for a dipping sauce for sushi or a quick and easy sauce for noodles, I’d choose tamari. When you just need to add some salty flavor to a stir fry, reach for the bottle of soy sauce.

So, do you need to own both Japanese and Chinese soy sauce? Unless you are gluten-intolerant and must use gluten free tamari, I leave that choice up to you. At least now you know the difference between the two. And don’t forget to ask for tamari the next time you go out for sushi!




Last modified on Thu 27 October 2016 10:22 am

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  1. Roxana says:

    Thank you for the explanation. I’ve been wondering about the two for some time. To me the tastes are very different, and I would not just assume I could substitute Tamari for Soy Sauce. You explained that very well. FYI, there are now several brands of gluten free soy sauce on the market. Kikkoman is readily available in stores, and other brands are available online. I have a box of little individual servings that I can take on the plane with me for travel. Both the Tamari and Soy are available this way online.

  2. Michael Wood says:

    I would like to comment on the reason that Japanese restaurants in America have soy sauce sitting on the table instead of tamari. I have lived in the Tokyo metropolitan area for 7 years. And I have never seen anything but soy sauce at sushi restaurants. There may be an area in Japan where you see tamari in some of the sushi restaurants, but I have not heard of it. I did just do a search on the difference between the two, and someone mentioned that tamari is mild, so good with sashimi or for making teriyaki sauce.

    A lot of tamari is made in Kyushu, so maybe they put it on the tables at their sushi restaurants, but I have no idea.

    So if a business owner in America wanted to mimmick their Japanese counterparts, they would probably not put tamari out on the tables. (They would also not make California rolls, eel rolls, etc., not that those are bad or anything)

    • Jason says:

      Apparently, it depends on exactly how “authentic” you’d like to be. According to Wikipedia: “Wheat-free tamari can be used by people with gluten intolerance. It is the “original” Japanese soy sauce, as its recipe is closest to the soy sauce originally introduced to Japan from China.” Interestingly, they also say that tamari is darker and “richer” in flavor than the common soy sauce, so it seems to be subjective over which is milder. In my own experience, I’ve found standard soy sauce to have a little more of that funky/fermented taste than tamari.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Each brand of soy sauce has it’s own flavor variation. Also all different Asian countries have their own soy sauces that compliment the respective cuisine. Kikkoman is actually a Japanese brand and seems to be the most common brand found in USA. Yamasa is another Japanese brand. Lee Kum Kee seems to be the most common Chinese brand I’ve heard of. I started using tamari (usually San-J brand since that’s what I could find at the time) because I switched to it for gluten reasons and now just prefer it’s flavor.

  4. I am a brand new vegan. Fortunately my husband and I both jumped onto this bandwagon together. It makes it a lot easier when another in your household is doing this. You don’t have to smell meat and other ingredients and items that you can’t have. It isn’t an easy transition due to the lack of something different to eat and the constant craving for meat and dairy products. One of the items a lot of the recipes call for is Tamari and I had never heard of it. Thank you for this explanation. It really helps us fledgling vegans to indulge into more variety, which will keep us looking forward to our next meals!

    • Hi Jacki, thanks for sharing. Please keep me updated with your transition and suggestions for making the move over to becoming a vegan. I have flirted with the idea many times but have not been able to make the jump. What were your reasons for the change?

  5. R. Tanabe says:

    When I was a kid, we used to visit my aunty on the Island of Maui, this is in the 60’s. My Aunty would cook Japanese Nimono dishes, and it was heavenly. Though out my life I could not recreate her “umami” cooking. Then one day, I was cooking New Years food for our temple, not only that it had to be vegetarian, but also had to be gluten free. So I used tarmari brand soy sauce. Since then I have not looked back, never again will I use any soy sauce that has wheat in it. I do prefer Yamasa over Kikkomon, one thing about “tamari” soy sauce is that it doesn’t keep it’s “umami” for very long. I would say 6 months. So buy it sparingly, I alway tell people, don’t worry about the price. You don’t drink it.

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