Tamari is made from soybeans, water, and salt; unlike shoyu, it does not contain wheat. This has made tamari a popular choice overseas, where there is demand for wheat-free and gluten-free products.
Another reason for its popularity is tamari’s rich umami taste, the result of the high soybean to water ratio and the lack of wheat. The salt content gives tamari a robust taste that works with the umami to make this an excellent seasoning for cooking. It is particularly suited to giving dishes a lustrous shine and glossy finish.
Tamari production began as a by-product of soy bean miso. During the fermentation process, a dark liquid would pool on the surface of the miso; this was how the earliest tamari was made. Tamari that is collected from miso dates back to eighth-century Japan and may have originated in China before the birth of Christ. By 1290, the first commercial tamari shop was established. Gradually, central Japan, because of its ideal climate, choice soybeans, and high-quality water, became a tamari center. Around the fourteenth century, a purposely wetter soy miso was prepared; after fermentation, its flavorful liquid was pressed out, filtered, and bottled. This was the beginning of Japan’s small tamari soy sauce industry, which survives today in the Aichi, Mie, and Gifu prefectures. The original thick, concentrated tamari that is closely associated with soybean miso contained no wheat and had a ratio of 10 parts soybeans to 5 parts water. This so-called Go-bu tamari is expensive, time consuming to make, and requires skills that can only learned over generations and must be passed on from one touji, or brew master, to another. In present day Japan Go-bu tamari is a dying tradition and only a few old dedicated producers have survived.
Traditionally made Tamari such as Mitoku’s Yaemon, which is long aged in wood, contains no wheat, and is made with a very high percentage of whole soybeans, accounts for a very small part of the world’s tamari production. According to Japanese Agriculture Standards (JAS), even a product made with 20% wheat can be called tamari.
Besides adding wheat modern tamari manufacturers make a much more dilute product than Mitoku’s Yaemon tamari. Authentic Go-Bu tamari, such as Yaemon’s, is made from 10 parts soybeans and 5 parts water. Therefore Go-bu tamari moromi is very thick and difficult to press and extract out the rich, concentrated tamari.
In contrast, to save time and money, modern tamari makers use a ratio of 10 parts soybeans to 10 parts water. What’s more, most tamari is made by the rapid commercial process using hexane-defatted soybeans, fermented at high temperatures for three to six months, and often bottled with additives. An even lower grade product, called synthetic tamari, is often sold in supermarkets. This product is not even fermented, but is a mixture of hydrolyzed soy protein, color additives, and flavoring agents.
Organic Yaemon Tamari Soy Sauce
Available in bottles or bulk
Like shoyu and miso Tamari is a fermented soy food, and it shares many of miso’s medicinal and nutritional properties while avoiding the problems associated with unfermented soy foods. (See Miso Health Benefits.) Scientists have given particular attention to the high concentration of “brown pigment” in tamari because of its strong anti-oxidant and anti-cancer properties. Tamari is said to aid in the digestion of grains and vegetables while being rich in several minerals. Unlike shoyu, tamari does not contain wheat and is an excellent seasoning for those on a wheat free diet. Because many of the health promoting qualities of fermented soy foods are due to the soybean content, tamari is often considered the most health promoting variety of soy sauce. Tamari is a flavorful substitute for salt in all types of cooking.
Taketoyo town in Aichi prefecture is a renowned center of authentic tamari production. In its prime, the town was home to more than fifty producers; today, that number has fallen to just six. One of those producers, the Minamigura Aoki Yaemon Company, was founded in 1871. The company is currently headed by a fifth-generation family president, who continues to use a time-honored method of production, passed down over the generations, to ensure that Yaemon tamari tastes just as it always has done. According to the current president, there could be no greater shame than to be told the taste of Yaemon tamari had changed under his watch.
Koji-making is everything to Yaemon tamari
Tamari is a product of nature, meaning there is very little scope for human involvement. However, the Yaemon producers are determined to make their scant contribution count. They do so by ensuring that their koji (cooked soy beans inoculated with Aspergillus oryzae, a fermentation culture) is of the highest possible quality. They have built up detailed records of every stage of the process, from climatic conditions, to steeping time and steaming time. This data provides a crucial reference point each time a new batch of koji is broken open to check its progress, enabling small yet critical adjustments to be made. “We’ve been keeping these records since the third-generation president was in charge. It helps us to identify the cause when we have a problematic batch, and work out what has gone right when the batch is good”, says the current president.
Ensuring that lactic acid bacteria propagate well is of particular importance. With most shoyu, alcohol fermentation results from the presence of yeast bacteria. This is not the case with tamari, and indeed the term “decomposition” is perhaps a more accurate description of the making process than “fermentation”. The producer must ensure the presence of a balance of good bacteria and good lactic acid bacteria, both of which are necessary to ensure that the protein in the soy beans is broken down efficiently into the components which impart umami to the resulting tamari.
Establishing good conditions is a prerequisite to making good koji. There are two stages to this process: the steaming, in which soy beans are steamed, and the soaking, in which soy beans are steeped in water prior to steaming. Both stages are critical; the producer must determine, from experience, how much water to allow the soy beans to absorb and how long to steam them for. When making shoyu, steaming and soaking times are calculated by the hour. For tamari, the process is much more time-critical, with each stage time to the minute.
The steamed soy beans are crushed and formed into thumb-sized balls, called miso-dama. These are placed in a special room, where they are inoculated with Aspergillus oryzae; this mixture is known as koji. The temperature and humidity are carefully controlled, and growth is monitored constantly for three to four days. The producers use sight, aroma, and texture to check the progress of the koji, waiting for it to reach optimal condition. The quality of this koji will determine the taste of the tamari, once it is ready in three years’ time, so this is a critical stage.
Once removed from the inoculation room, the koji is in a delicate state, so it needs to be moved directly to cedar barrels where fermentation will take place. The koji is placed in these barrels together with salted water, the salt content of which helps to protect the mixture from harmful bacteria. The Yaemon family has more than eighty of these cedar barrels.
With the mixture now in the barrels, the next challenge faced is ensuring that the koji absorbs the salt water evenly. The solution is a process known as kumikake, which is performed in a style unique to tamari-making. The mixture of koji and salt water (known as moromi) which will yield the tamari is closer to a solid than a liquid, making it hard to churn by hand. Instead, the barrels are equipped with a tube running from the top to the bottom. The liquid that pools at the bottom of the barrel is scooped up and poured back over the mixture from the top, in a process similar to basting. Heavy stones are then placed on top of the barrels, and the mixture is left to mature over two summers in the natural conditions of the Minamigura Yaemon warehouses, just as it has been for more than a century.
Once the maturation period has come to an end, the tamari is pressed and pasteurized, then filtered. The process at the Minamigura Aoki Yaemon Company is so well refined, and the protein in the soy beans broken down so completely, that there is little to be filtered out from the almost-finished product. This filtering is the final stage in a process that results in tamari that is a deep red-brown in color and rich in natural umami.
Tamari is a uniquely delicious, versatile seasoning that adds immeasurably to the flavor of soups, sauces, vegetables, dips, and entrées. Making tamari is an expensive, time-consuming process. However, because tamari is made with 100 percent whole soybeans, it is very concentrated, so a little goes a long way. The Yaemon’s special koji drying process further concentrates the flavor. The staying power of Mitoku’s tamari during cooking is incredible. Reduce the amount of soy sauce called for in a recipe by about 25 percent when cooking with Mitoku tamari.
Unlike shoyu, which derives much of its flavor from the natural alcohol produced by wheat fermentation, tamari’s rich flavor comes from an abundance of amino acids, which are derived from soy protein. Because amino acids are not volatile, they don’t evaporate the way alcohol does. This makes tamari the better soy sauce to choose when lengthy cooking is required. Tamari also contains more flavor-intensifying glutamic acid than shoyu. Bland foods like shiitake mushrooms and tofu are enhanced when simmered in a seasoned liquid. For dishes that require this long-simmering process, tamari is the preferred seasoning.