What Is Tamari in Japanese Cooking?

Sesame Avocado Salad with Korean Pancake and Tamari Sauce
Enrique Díaz / 7cero / Getty Images

Tamari is a Japanese sauce made of fermented soybeans. It is thicker and has a more balanced flavor than Chinese soy sauce, making it a good choice for a dipping sauce. Tamari is often made without wheat, while soy sauce usually contains wheat.

You may think of soy sauce as a singular condiment, but venture into your local Asian grocer and you'll soon learn that there are dozens of different types of soy-based sauces, all with slightly different tastes and consistencies. Learn about tamari and how it differs from the usual kind of soy sauce.

Tamari and Dietary Restrictions

Those on special diets for health or ethical purposes need to know these facts about what is in tamari and what is not.

  • Gluten-free: Nearly all varieties produced for consumption in the U.S. are indeed gluten-free, though tamari can contain trace amounts of wheat. If you're shopping at Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, or your regular grocer, chances are that all of the tamari you find will be labeled as gluten-free and will be safe for anyone on a gluten-free diet. Kikkoman brand tamari is one example that is not gluten-free and contains wheat (though they do make one type of tamari that is gluten-free and clearly labeled as such).
  • Vegan and Vegetarian: Tamari is a vegetarian and vegan food. No animal products are found in tamari.
  • Soy: If you have a soy allergy, you'll need to avoid tamari, though soy-free versions do exist.
  • Salt: Many tamari brands also have added salt. Read the label if this is a concern for you. For example, 1 tablespoon of San-J Tamari has 980 milligrams of sodium. This is slightly more than Kikkoman Soy Sauce, which has 960 milligrams in a tablespoon.

Substituting Soy Sauce and Tamari

You can substitute tamari for soy sauce, and vice versa, though you may find that you have a preference for one flavor over the other. Tamari has a bolder flavor with a less salty taste. It is more like a general seasoning sauce. Tamari combines well with a variety of other flavors, for example, in a noodle dish or vegetable stir-fry. You can use tamari in place of soy sauce in any vegetarian recipe.

Tamari is also less likely to have additives. Often the ingredient list is just water, soybeans, and salt. By comparison, the ingredient list on a typical bottle of soy sauce usually contains wheat, which is used to help the fermentation process, and a preservative such as sodium benzoate.

Other Alternatives to Soy Sauce

Soy sauce is a key ingredient in some Asian recipes and many vegetarian and vegan recipes also use it just to enhance flavor. But it can easily be omitted or substituted with other flavor enhancers such as spices, fresh herbs, or even plain salt (sea salt or kosher salt are always best). If you have a recipe which calls for soy sauce, here are a few similar alternatives you can use: