What Is Tamari and Is It Really Gluten-Free?

The Kikkoman soy sauce bottle is the dominant force in Western Chinese and Japanese inspired cuisine. But it is hardly the only player in the soy-based sauce world. There are dozens of varieties of sauces with different uses, tastes, and origins. Today, we are primarily concerned with tamari sauce: what it is, where it comes from, and how it’s used.

What is tamari sauce?

Tamari sauce primarily comes from the Chubu region of Japan but it was brought there from China as far back as the 7th century AD. It is a byproduct of the creation of miso paste. 

When soybeans are cooked and fermented, they create a dark red paste (aka miso). As the fermentation occurs and the miso ripens, a liquid is produced and accumulates, which serves as the base for tamari. The process informs the name; the word tamari translates to “that which accumulates.” It is mixed with water, salt, and sometimes a splash of alcohol, then bottled for our collective enjoyment.

Dark brown and viscous, tamari sauce is often used as a dipping sauce for sushi and sashimi. It is also incorporated into many teriyaki recipes, both as a marinade and, when mixed with traditional soy sauce, as a cooking agent.

What does tamari taste like?

Tamari has a strong umami flavor, thanks to the fact that it is almost entirely made from soybeans. This also results in a richer taste than its soy sauce brethren—it’s almost meaty. It is comparable in many ways to eel sauce, another soy-based cousin of tamari.

What is the difference between tamari and soy sauce?

Tamari and soy sauce, while similar, have some key differences. Both are made from the fermented paste of soybeans, but traditional soy sauce mixes that with wheat. Tamari is soybean based only. 

There are also differences in taste and consistency. Soy sauce is more watery than tamari. Imagine dipping a piece of sushi into soy sauce; the rice absorbs some of it while the rest drips back into the bowl. With tamari sauce, there’s less drip.

In terms of taste, soy sauce is a lot sharper than tamari. 

Is tamari gluten-free?

Traditionally, yes, tamari is gluten-free. It is made without wheat. Those with high gluten intolerances should always be wary, though. While most are gluten-free, there may be some brands that add a little bit of gluten, which can wreck someone’s day. As always, check your labels.

About the Author

Luke Field

Luke Field is a writer and actor originally from Philadelphia. He was the former Head Writer of branded content at CollegeHumor and was also a contributing writer and actor to the CollegeHumor Originals cast. He has extensive improv and sketch stage experience, performing both at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and with their Touring Company. In addition to writing, he also works as a Story Producer, most recently on season 4 of Accident, Suicide, or Murder on Oxygen. Keep your eyes peeled for his brief but impactful appearance as Kevin, the screaming security guard, in the upcoming feature The Disruptors, directed by Adam Frucci.

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