Some years ago, while working on Richard Wong’s Modern Asian Flavors: A Taste of Shanghai cookbook (Chronicle Books), he sat us down and had us taste serveral brands of soy sauce. We were all surprised that: 1) they tasted different, 2) we could taste differences, 3) we had preferences.
Recently, I got curious about soy sauce and started reading the labels of bottles of soy and tamari at Rainbow Grocery here in San Francisco. As a natural foods cooperative that carries only vegetarian ingredients, the store naturally focuses on organic and natural-foods brands.
First I noticed that by ingredient labels alone, it would not be possible to distinguish between tamari and soy. Soy sauce can contain wheat and so can tamari. Since I have a client who prefers to go without wheat, the gluten-free tamaris caught my eye. But even among these, the ingredient label of one (the Wan Ja Shan, $3.09 for 10 fl. oz) listed simply water, whole soybeans, and salt while the second (the Ohsawa, $10.39 for 10 fl. oz) listed whole soy beans, water, sea salt, distilled sake, and aspergillus oryzae.
It is always helpful when tasting, to compare an unfamiliar ingredient to a well-known one. Since that tasting with Richard Wong when I discovered how much I liked Kikkoman, I have used it in all my cooking. I am not a soy or tamari expert, so I approached the tasting with a few simple questions. What did these taste like? Would I prefer one to another? How would the two tamaris compare to my standard Kikkoman (ingredients: water, wheat, soy beans, salt, sodium benzoate—1/10th of 1%—as a preservative). Would I like them well enough to spend the money?
I poured the sauces into similar white dishes so I could see the color and smell the aromas. And I had sliced apples to clear my palate of salt.
To me, Kikkoman is medium dark in color and has a clean, bright aroma and taste with citrus, black tea, and mushroom tones with a well-balanced salt content.
The Wan Ja Shan has a color similar to the Kikkoman with a high-toned, salty, fermented aroma. It’s taste was light and, to me, powerfully salty. If you were to cook with it, I would certainly be careful with salt levels.
The Ohsawa was the darkest in color and the thickest in texture. It’s aroma was deeper and richer than the other two with almost a molasses flavor. It too tasted salty but also delicious as the salt played against the intensity of the mushroomy, wine-y flavors. This would be best used, I think, as a drizzle on cooked foods such as grilled steak.