In Chicago, which is such a global city, I can eat everything from Macanese food to region-specific Indian to Costa Rican, all within a two mile radius of my house. This also means we have amazing markets full of ingredients that allow all of our citizens to effectively make the traditional recipes of their varied homelands, and for passionate cooks like me to play with. Two of my favorite markets are the Korean market near my house and a larger Japanese market out in the burbs. But while stocking up on burdock root, the honey ginger tea jelly that gets me through cold and flu season, various misos, and chile paste concoctions, I’m always stymied at the soy sauce aisle.
I have no dietary restrictions other than needing to watch my carbs, so I’m not worried about sodium content or whether a product is gluten free; all I want is something delicious to work with. I’m usually flummoxed by tamari and soy sauce, since they are always right there next to each other. Do I need just one, and if so, which one? Or do I need both?
While technically they are interchangeable in cooking, they are pretty different. Tamari is the Japanese version of what we know as Chinese soy sauce. And while both are soy based, the Chinese version contains wheat, while the Japanese contains either minimal or no wheat at all. Tamari is a bit thicker and a bit sweeter and the Chinese soy sauce is a little less viscous, and more salt-forward. If you have the space, I would keep both around: the Chinese soy sauce for cooking and hot dishes, and the tamari for dipping and cold sauces or salads. There is little variation between brands, but if you want to have a fun time, find an Asian market near you and ask for advice—or just buy a bunch and experiment.
And if you ever find yourself in Louisville, KY, pick up a bottle of Bluegrass Barrel Aged soy sauce, a local product made from GMO-free Kentucky soybeans, aged and fermented in old bourbon barrels. It’s a really lovely mellow sauce that is great as a finishing drizzle, and an interesting swap-out for an aged balsamic.