What Is The Difference Between Soy Sauce And Tamari Sauce? And Why Quality, And Not Quantity, Is Important For Both

In this post:

“One ingredient I can’t live without is soy sauce. It’s key in everything I cook and is in my own interpretation of cerviche. I add it to tiger’s milk, though never use too much acid. It’s simply soy, fresh ginger, coriander, chilli, garlic and salt” 

Nobu Matsuhisa

Short answer:

The short answer to the title question above is: tamari sauce is a type of soy sauce from Japan. It contains very little or no wheat. It is a completely different animal to the ubiquitous soy sauce found in Chinese take-aways – in fact because most is not fermented, technically this ubiquitous soy sauce is not soy sauce.

I am absolutely certain that famous Japanese-Puruvian fusion chef, Nobu Matsuhisa, does not use Amoy in his Tiger’s milk (a citrus-based marinade that cures the seafood in a ceviche – see quote above).

Long answer – guide to soy sauce:

Soy sauce is made using two techniques – brewing and blending.

Brewed soy sauce

In the case of brewing wheat, soy beans, salt and water are used. Mostly the brewing process results in light soy sauce although a darker, thicker and richer version is made in Taiwan. Lighter soy sauce is used more often post-cooking – the eater sloshes it on with greater or less abandon.

Blended soy sauce

Blended soy sauces are brewed sauces with other ingredients. Many are specially aged and contain molasses and caramel. They are generally darker, more viscous, sweeter and less salty. The flavours deepen and become more complex during cooking so they are used during the cooking process as well as as a dipping sauce. Some sauces are given an additional mushroom flavour while others are further thickened with starch.

Japanese soy sauce tends to contain a high proportion of wheat and sometimes alcohol is incorporated giving it a sherry-like taste. There are five kinds of Japanese soy sauce, the most prevalent of which, in Japan, is koikuchi.

Tamari sauce

Tamari is one of the other Japanese soy sauce types, and is the one which most resembles the original version which came over from China. Tamari specifically does not contain wheat (or at least very little – if you are celiac you should check the bottle).

Don’t buy chemically produced soy sauce

The important thing with any soy sauce is to buy naturally fermented sauce. The chemically produced variety has inferior taste and is often rancid.

Good brands to buy are Marukin and Ohsawa

At the other extreme there are the Marukin and Ohsawa artisan brands. Ohsawa Organic Nama Shoyu is pretty special, it’s a saishikomi (double-brewed) type of Japanese soy sauce. Nama means raw (or unpasteurised) and ‘organic’ means that it contains living enzymes – this soy sauce is fermented for two years in cedar barrels under the sun. The enzymes produce a particular blend of amino acids which result in ‘umami’ – the Japanese word for flavour – and the fifth taste after sweet, sour, bitter and salty. The spring water used to make this sauce has its source in a small Japanese mountain village called Kamiizumisui (“God Spring”). The Yamaki Company which makes it uses only ingredients organically grown in Japan by MOIA (Mokichi Okada International Association), a quasi-religious, quasi-co-operative organic farmers’ organisation and movement (Mokichi Okada is the founder of the Church of World Messianity who in 1936 developed an agricultural system known as ‘no-fertiliser farming’).

No wonder Tamari is known as the champagne of soy sauces!

Below we sample some more generally more available types of soy sauce:


What about a pot for your soy sauce (a shoy sashi)?

If you are a milk-bottle-on-the-table type of a person (I must confess I am, sometimes, a bit of a slut) just leave it in the glass it comes in. But if you serve soy sauce frequently it’s worth buying either that icon of post-war Japanese design, the G-type soy sauce pot designed by Masahiro Mori in 1958 for Hakusan Porcelain Co, in Nagasaki. You can control the flow by putting a finger over the small hole in the handle of the lid. Once you’ve finished pouring you tip the pot back slightly so as to prevent drips. They are quite hard to find now, so ebay is a good bet.

Another option is to buy the pot and other accessories on the Nobu site. Everything here is truly beautiful… the plates, the bowls, sake bottles…..

Otherwise, go to my jugs pinterest board for some other ideas, I particularly like the Bridget Bodenham jugs.

Further reading

If you are interested to know more read the novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners by Kirstin Chen.

When, and how, was soy sauce invented?

“At some point before the third century BC, however, some bright spark experimented with what would happen if soybeans were exposed to qu, the same fermentation mould previously used for making alcohol. The earliest surviving reference to the resultant relish is in the Songs of Chu, suggesting that it was a ‘foreign’ invention, which reached the Chinese world during the rise of the Qin empire, and spread widely in the early Han dynasty.

Jonathan Clements, The Emperor’s Feast
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Related Posts

All About Job’s Tears – What They Are, How To Cook With Them, And The Benefits For Celiacs

I’d never heard of Job’s Tears until I went to the Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery.    Wandering…
Read More

Sea Urchins: The Secret To Their Appeal And How To Prepare Them

“What does it taste like? I’m not sure because I’ve never had anything like it. All I know is that it…
Read More

Sign up to our Saucy Newsletter

subscribe today for monthly highlights of foodie events, new restaurant at home menus, recipe ideas and our latest blog posts