Meet the Soy Sauce Family and Its Cousins Tamari and Kecap Manis

published Oct 28, 2014
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(Image credit: Christine Gallary)

It’s hard to imagine any condiment shelf without a bottle of soy sauce — this intense sauce gives instant rich flavor to stir-fries, enhances sushi, and can add a quick punch of flavor to sauces and soups.

But there are so many types of soy sauce out there it can be a bit confusing. Here’s our guide to the most common types of soy sauce and other sauces that are in the same family!

(Image credit: Christine Gallary)

What Is Real Soy Sauce?

All soy sauces start with soybeans that are soaked, steamed, and then crushed into a paste which is then fermented with mold and brine. Some also include wheat, sugar, or other ingredients like coloring. After fermentation, this mixture is refined, sometimes pasteurized, and then bottled to produce a savory, dark, and extremely salty liquid that is used extensively as a condiment in East and Southeast Asian cuisines. It adds a distinct umami, or savory, taste to foods.

Soy sauce is sometimes labeled shoyu, the word for soy sauce in Japanese.

Be careful to only purchase real soy sauces that use soybeans as a main ingredient. Fake, cheaper soy sauces, sometimes dubbed chemical soy sauces, can contain hydrolyzed vegetable protein, coloring and corn syrup instead.

Common Types of Soy Sauce and Similar Condiments

While soy sauce is made in many different countries and with slightly different methods, here are some common types of soy sauce and similarly-flavored condiments you’ll see on store shelves:

(Image credit: Christine Gallary)

1. Regular Soy Sauce

The most common type of soy sauce sold, usually just labeled soy sauce, is most likely made in Japan or the United States with a Japanese natural brewing process. It contains wheat and has a sweeter flavor than Chinese soy sauce. Here are some other types of regular soy sauce:

  • Light soy sauce is thinner and saltier than regular or dark soy sauce.
  • Dark soy sauce is thicker and less salty than regular soy sauce but has a richer flavor and darker color, sometimes due to the addition of caramel.
  • Low-sodium soy sauce is brewed the same way as regular soy sauce, but a lot of the sodium is removed after the fermentation process.
(Image credit: Christine Gallary)

2. Chinese Soy Sauce

Chinese soy sauce contains little to no wheat in the brewing process. Chinese black soy is a thick, dark sauce that contains molasses. Sometimes the soy sauce is double-fermented, which means is ferments for a longer period of time and sugar or molasses may be added, contributing to a richer flavor and thicker texture.

3. Shiro or White Soy Sauce

Shiro or white soy sauce is lighter in color and has a more delicate flavor than regular soy sauce because it is made with a higher proportion of wheat than soybeans.

(Image credit: Christine Gallary)

4. Tamari

Tamari is a Japanese condiment that is very similar to regular soy sauce but contains little to no wheat (always check the label if you are sensitive to gluten). It has a dark color and rich flavor because it contains a lot of soybean amino acids.

(Image credit: Christine Gallary)

5. Kecap Manis

Kecap means soy sauce in Indonesian, and the most popular type of kecap is kecap manis, which is a thick soy sauce sweetened with palm sugar. This dark, rich soy sauce is the key flavoring in popular Indonesian dishes like nasi goreng and satay.