The harvest season has ended and the cold air now sneaks into open doorways and nooks. This year’s soybean crop has been gathered and now is the time to prepare the crop to “transform with the seasons.”
It is 7th century Japan. Buddhism has been introduced in Japan for only several decades. The Buddhist monks in Japan have brought with them, from China, the fine art and secrets of miso-making.
The kitchen in the pagoda is warmed by the wood fires whose flames dance under the bellies of heavy black cauldrons that are filled with soybeans. These will simmer for many hours.
When the fires burn out, the beans are left to cool. After cooling, the beans are arranged on a special floor and mashed under foot by Buddhist monks, perhaps a precursor to the ceremonial foot pressing of wine grapes.
After the beans are gently mashed they are mixed with a grain called koji, which, when exposed to moisture develops mold spores that contain enzymes that create a unique fermentation process which “brews” the bean mash into a salty, pasty substance which is called miso.
The monks mix the koji with the warm mashed beans and then transfer the mixture into cedar “aging barrels” to “transform with the seasons.” The beans literally transform with the seasons because the fermentation period can be as long as one to three years.
During the aging process, a thick, dark and salty liquid gathers, or “accumulates” in the barrels around the miso paste.
This “accumulated” liquid is tamari. Tamari is a word that is derived from the Japanese verb “tamaru,” which means “to accumulate.”
When the seasons have changed and repeated, the monks gather around to uncork the barrels and witness the blessing of the nourishing, and medicinal miso and tamari.
This is the ancient Japanese art of miso and tamari.
So, What Is Tamari?
Tamari is a variety of Japanese soy sauce that has a dark brown color, is slightly thicker than common, store-bought soy sauce and has a stronger flavor. Tamari is typically used to season foods while they are cooked like soups, stews and tamari almonds. Another variety of Japanese soy sauce called shoyu is more commonly used on the table (the way Westerners use salt) for adding seasoning to foods.
Japanese soy sauces typically include wheat as a primary ingredient, which tend to give their sauces a slightly sweeter flavor than Chinese soy sauces, although the tamari variety is almost always produced wheat-free, which is why tamari is popular among people eating wheat-free diets. Japanese soy sauces also tend to have a more alcoholic taste than Chinese soy sauces.
Tamari is the "original" Japanese soy sauce because its recipe and the way it is produced is most similar to how it was made when it was first introduced to Japan by China in the 7th century.
What Are The Health Benefits Of Tamari?
- Tamari (unlike salt, which is largely devoid of nutrition) provides: niacin (vitamin B3), manganese, and protein
- Tamari contains tryptophan, which is "an amino acid necessary for normal growth in infants and for nitrogen balance in adults…The body uses tryptophan to help make niacin and serotonin. Serotonin is thought to produce healthy sleep and a stable mood." (Source)
- If you have high blood pressure or have been advised by your doctor to limit your intake of sodium, you may want to avoid tamari, or find a low-sodium form of tamari
- Please read these safety precautions pertaining to tamari on The World’s Healthiest Foods site
Where Can I Get Real Tamari?
This is a good question because many brands of store-bought soy sauce which are overly processed and not produced in the tradition of real Japanese tamari are erroneously labeled "tamari." My recommendation is to try the tamari and miso from this company: South River Miso. I haven’t tried it myself yet, but I plan to. They seem to really care about the tradition and the process and they also seem to have the expertise, so I would give that a try. Here are a few links to their products:
- Organic Tamari
What Does All Of This Have To Do With Healthy Snacks?
Good question. I wrote a post a few weeks back about the exotic snack – tamari almonds, which I tried and now love to eat. I promised in that post that I would share the secret of what tamari really is, and this post you are now reading is the fulfillment of my promise. I originally thought it would be a quick and dirty post on what tamari is, its health benefits and how you can eat it with healthy snacks, but as I researched the material it seemed like a good idea to craft more of a story and get the real feel of ancient Japan, where tamari was invented. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed it!