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When to Cook With Tamari Instead of Soy Sauce

tamari
The soy sauce/tamari aisle in almost any grocery store can be a bit daunting until you know what you're looking for. Deb Lindsey/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Sometimes it's the condiments we think about the least that end up offering the most exciting flavors and backstories. For those who drizzle, dip and dunk, a solid side-sauce is what makes a meal worth eating. Those with skittish taste buds may believe in ketchup as the ultimate "it-goes-on-everything" condiment. For others, it's something spicier, like hot sauce. Still for billions more, soy sauce is the condiment that fits the bill.

More than 2,200 years in the making, soy sauce has been long considered Asia's wonder sauce. This soybean byproduct is made by cooking and mashing fermented soybeans with salt and water; a process that yields a dark brown liquid and mash. Then, after this concoction is aged, strained and bottled, the result is a sweet, salty and distinctly umami flavor that dazzles the senses and goes with everything. Soy sauce, baby! Then there's tamari: another sauce in the soy family that's thicker, sweeter and a bit less salty.

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Amongst the myriad soy-based sauces all over Asia, tamari's gained as much traction as the soy sauce you'd find at a sushi restaurant. For those who think these two sauces are as interchangeable as ketchup and catsup, we ask you to simply reconsider everything you've ever thought you've known about flavor.

So, What Is Tamari?

Pressed from the liquid drained from fermented soybean (aka miso) paste, tamari is a sauce made of soybeans, water and salt, that's native to Japan (whereas soy sauce is a Chinese invention). Tamari is thicker and is made without wheat (thus it's gluten-free), while up to 50 percent of the total content of soy is wheat, and is often sold at a higher price point. While you can put soy sauce on literally almost anything, the condiment is typically used with both hot and cold dishes, especially sushi, and so much more. Tamari, on the other hand, can be used as dressing, a dipping sauce, in stir-frys and with dumplings. So, if you need to go gluten-free, tamari is your best option.

Seattle chef Shota Nakajima is an Iron Chef Gauntlet alum, a semi-finalist for two James Beard Awards, who managed to beat Bobby Flay on the aptly named TV show "Beat Bobby Flay." He also has a lot of thoughts on the two condiments.

"Soy sauce is the salty umami bomb flavor that I grew up on," Nakajima says. "I literally put it on everything. I've introduced tequila shots chased with a drop of good soy ... it works, trust me."

Nakajima goes on to describe the three main types of soy sauce used for cooking:

"Koiuchi is the rich, balanced classic soy used for the majority of Japanese cooking," Nakajima explains. "Then you have Usukuchi, which has a higher sodium level and a lighter color due to the lighter roast on the wheat. Then there's Usukuchi. This one is used to finish lighter-flavored stuff. Clear soup, chawanmushi, etc."

Nakajima often uses tamari as finishing sauce while adding a little extra bump of umami.

"I tend to use Kikkoman tamari because I grew up in a household where my mother used it ... so it tastes nostalgic. In my mind, tamari is used as a finish for braising or adding a little extra umami to a Koikuchi base." Koikuchi is a type of soy sauce made from equal parts soy bean and wheat, with a salty, deep umami flavor.

Think the fun ends with these two tantalizing condiments? Think again! While choosing your condiments is totally based on preference and diet, there are far more sauces than tamari and soy sauce out there. If you're craving a tasty umami kick with your dinner consider fish sauce, liquid aminos, Maggi seasoning, teriyaki sauce or — for real — MSG. Enjoy!

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