Serious Eats: Recipes

Gluten-Free Tuesday: Tamari Sauce

After a short hiatus, Shauna James Ahern is back with us for Gluten-Free Tuesday! She'll be alternating weeks with our new gluten-free baking columnist, Elizabeth Barbone. Please join us in welcoming Shauna back! —The Mgmt.

There are moments in my life when I long for tamari.

It's not just that I love the flicks of salty umami flavor on my tongue or the sight of its dark drops on white sushi rice as I raise a spicy tuna roll to my lips. Tamari has a complex taste, a smooth texture, and a far less abrasive nature than cheap soy sauce. Tamari should be in everyone's refrigerator, at the ready for barbecues and stir fries.

None of that is why I long for it, however.

Tamari has become one of my most essential foods—far more than a condiment—because 1/2 teaspoon of it could save me three days of pain.

Let me explain.

Five years ago I was diagnosed with celiac sprue, an auto-immune disorder that left me unhealthy and wondering where to find my energy. All my life I suffered from this. It was only after two years of intense pain and endless medical appointments that I found out: Stop eating gluten and save your life. Easy. I cut out the gluten.

In the past five years I have never once "cheated." (Who would I be cheating but myself?) I haven't sneaked a taste of a great baguette, a chocolate malt, or a stick of black licorice. I've learned how to make my own breads, pastas, and pizzas. (The gluten-free beer I buy from the store.) My afternoons are spent with my hands in flours made from grains I never heard of before 2005 -- sorghum, amaranth, millet. I have never been tempted to eat anything with gluten in it because the world is filled with foods that are naturally gluten-free. If it doesn't have gluten in it, I'm eating it. And boy, have I eaten well.

However, I've still had a little gluten from time to time.

You see, the insidious nature of celiac is that even a tiny bit of gluten can trigger the autoimmune reaction. 1/2 teaspoon of gluten is enough to make me stick close to the bathroom for three days. Three days of being sick for 1/2 teaspoon. It doesn't seem like a fair trade, does it?

Can you imagine how easy it is to get 1/2 teaspoon of a gluten-containing food by accident? I'm vigilant. We keep a gluten-free kitchen in our house. I examine the label of every food I eat. I know the shelf space where all my favorite brands sit in the store. I got this down.

However, every time I eat in a restaurant, I pepper the waiter with questions and then cross my fingers. Did the pantry guy change his gloves after making a salad with croutons before making mine, supposedly entirely free of them? Does the restaurant use packaged beef or chicken base to make their stocks? Did the chef remember that step before telling me his soup is gluten-free? Are the french fries fried in oil clean of any other foods? Or does the breading from onion rings float around with my fries?

I still eat out. I know the right questions to ask now, thanks to my husband, who is a professional chef and knows how kitchens work. However, in spite of vigilant efforts from both of us, sometimes it still happens.

Last week we were visiting husband Danny's sister in Iowa City. A lovely town, Iowa City has multiple restaurants using produce from local farmers on small menus crafted for the season. We had so many choices. Danny's sister recommended a place with outdoor seating for the 80-degree weather, a menu full of salads and burritos, and great service. We were happy to settle down in our seats.

As I always do, I immediately told the host who seated us that I have to eat gluten-free. Five years ago, I had to explain what that means. These days, almost every restaurant has educated waiters ready to feed me safely. I still ask all the questions, but I feel safer in a place that doesn't ask me if I'm trying to avoid eating glue. (True story. That actually happened to me.) Our host pointed out four items on the menu that they recommend for gluten-free folks. One appealed to me immediately: a Thai chicken satay salad with rice vermicelli noodles.

Our waitress approached with water and told me I could not have the tortilla chips because they were fried in the same fryer as gluten foods. Cool. They knew. Later, when I ordered the salad, she said, "You can't have the peanut sauce, because it has soy sauce in it. But we'll put another sauce on there for you."

I smiled. I leaned back in my chair and opened my face to the sunlight. We were in a good place.

The salad arrived, the chicken skewers smeared in a yellowy sauce. I took a bite—warm, a bit of spice, lovely. We all talked and watched our toddler daughter eat her salad.

A moment later, our waitress scurried to our table. "Oops," she said to me. "They gave you the wrong sauce, it turns out. The one with soy sauce in it. You didn't eat it, did you?"

Yes. Yes I had.

I collapsed back into my chair. I knew what was coming. The waitress apologized. I didn't make a fuss. What was done was done. It was all coming.

A few moments after eating, a fuzzy ringing started in my ears. Ten minutes after eating, a fierce headache burrowed into the middle of my forehead. The stomach ache started next, then the brain fog. My sister-in-law said I looked like a different person when we left the table. That night, I could barely move for the joint pain.

The next day, as always happens, I had pains in my entire intestinal system, and had to keep running to the bathroom. That we were flying across the country with a toddler on the day I wished I could huddle near the toilet made this one especially fun.

By day three, my intestines were still in an uproar but starting to dull. I suffered from the blues, real bad. (90% of the serotonin made in our bodies is created in our intestines. When something goes wrong in your gut, something goes awry in your mind, as well.) Anxious and unable to sleep, I waited out the inevitable. A bit more pain, a lot more lethargy, and one more day of being not myself. Finally, that bite of chicken with a sauce made with soy sauce was out of my system.

Soy sauce contains wheat. Did you know that? Why do we need wheat in soy sauce? The original soy sauce, brought to Japan from China, contained no cereal grains at all. However, as soy sauce grew in popularity, it needed to be made on a mass scale. Wheat made that process possible. Apparently, some soy sauces are at least 50% wheat.

Wheat-free tamari is the modern equivalent of the original soy sauce, using a slow fermentation process, turning soybeans into sauce over time. It has a far more complex flavor than mass-produced soy sauce, as well as a smoothness and balanced saltiness. After discovering tamari because I had to go gluten-free, I honestly prefer it to soy sauce now.

If only restaurants would use wheat-free tamari instead of soy sauce, I would never have to worry about getting sick. I know. It's probably not going to happen. But a gluten-free girl can hope, can't she?

About the author: Shauna James Ahern (aka Gluten-Free Girl) writes one of the most popular gluten-free cooking blogs out there and has a book of the same name.

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