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All about Teriyaki

October 17, 2016

In Japanese cuisine, the appearance of a dish is considered every bit as important as its flavor. The expression "First you eat with your eyes and then with the mouth" may seem like a cliché now, but its truth remains unchanged: if a dish does not look appetizing, it loses much of its taste appeal.

Teriyaki is one cooking style that always makes food look appetizing. Whether the main ingredient is fish, chicken or beef, the addition of a glistening savory sauce lends the dish an extra dimension. Not surprisingly it has become one of the most popular cooking methods both in restaurants and in Japanese home cooking -- and one that is steadily becoming a firm favorite internationally, too.

Appetizing gleam

One reason for the appeal of teriyaki is that it's so straightforward. The main ingredient -- in Japan the technique is most commonly applied to fillets of fish -- is first broiled or grilled. Then, in the latter stages of cooking, a thick basting sauce is applied several times until it starts to caramelize, sometimes almost to the point of blackening. It is this two-part process that gives teriyaki its name: "teri" means luster or gleam; and "yaki" means grilling or broiling.

The key factor in teriyaki is this sauce, known as "tare" in Japanese. This is simply made by blending shoyu (soy sauce) with sake or mirin (a sweet rice liqueur) and sugar, and then boiling it down to reduce the liquid and concentrate the flavor. The sugars in the alcoholic drinks not only help to offset the saltiness of the shoyu, they are responsible for producing the wonderful glaze that forms when the sauce is applied during the broiling process.

A new technique, born in the Edo period

People in Japan have been using the teriyaki cooking method for centuries, since the early years of the Tokugawa shoguns (1603-1868). The nationwide peace that followed the unification of the country under the shogunate led to urbanization, improvements in agriculture, and numerous innovations in Japan's food culture.

Among the most important new seasonings was shoyu (soy sauce), which was produced first in small artisan workshops and later in larger-scale facilities that sprang up around the fast-growing city of Edo (modern-day Tokyo). One of the main places where mass production methods for shoyu developed was the Noda area of what is now Chiba Prefecture. Noda was the birthplace of a soy sauce company that is now known around the world.

Although the flavor of shoyu on its own was considered too powerful and penetrating for many dishes, it was soon found that blending it with mirin -- or with sugar, after that became more widely available and affordable -- created an excellent balance for cooking.

A sweet but overlooked seasoning

Mirin, although less well known than sake outside of Japan, has an equally venerable history as an alcoholic beverage. These days it is used almost exclusively as a seasoning in cooking, but during the Edo period it was commonly consumed as a drink. It is made by adding steamed sticky rice (mochigome) and rice koji (rice inoculated with a special mold) to shochu liquor and leaving it to further ferment for about two months. The resulting liquor has a golden color and intense sweetness.

By the mid-17th century, mirin was already being produced on a commercial scale. However, it gradually fell out of favor and after World War II, versions made from pure alcohol and synthetic flavoring dominated the market. These days mirin made by the traditional process without additives is known in Japan as hon-mirin ("real" mirin) or honkaku ("authentic") mirin.

Adding gloss to seafood

During the Edo period, poultry and meat were rarely consumed, so the earliest teriyaki recipes were for fish and other forms of seafood. The most common types of fish used this way included yellowtail (buri in Japanese), marlin (kajiki), skipjack tuna (katsuo), salmon (sake) and mackerel (saba). They would be grilled over charcoal, either basted as they cooked or dipped into the tare and then returned to the fire.

To this day, fillets of yellowtail or marlin remain the classic ingredients for teriyaki recipes. However, these days chicken is equally popular. For home cooking, pan-frying is now used more commonly than grilling. And the tare is mostly added at the end, rather than several times during the cooking process.

Skewering some long-favorite alternatives

Ironically, some of the best-known forms of teriyaki cooking are rarely classified as such. When eels are filleted, broiled and basted, the cooking style is known as kabayaki (literally, "bulrush grilled"), supposedly because the long shape of the eels was thought to resemble the wild plants.

Kabayaki is most commonly associated with freshwater eel (unagi). However, it is also used for conger eel (anago), pike conger (hamo) and loaches (dojo). In each case, the savory-sweet kabayaki sauce is blended from shoyu, mirin and sugar, and the eel fillets are either basted or dipped into this sauce several times as they are cooked.

Another hugely popular preparation that is based on a teriyaki-style sauce is yakitori, in which morsels of chicken meat are arranged on bamboo skewers and then grilled, often over charcoal. As with eel, the chicken is often dipped into a sweet-savory soy-based sauce during the cooking process -- although salt is sometimes used as an alternative seasoning.

Overseas influences

In the last couple of decades, teriyaki's fame has spread beyond Japan's borders, especially to the United States. This has led to significant changes in the recipe. Beef or chicken are cooked this way far more often than seafood. To make the tare, wine is often used in place of sake, and sometimes even pineapple juice. Ingredients such as chopped garlic or ginger are also added.

In return, these overseas developments have had a reverse impact in Japan. Fast food chains have introduced teriyaki burgers, and similar sauces are now used for hamburger steak or even meatballs. A perennial favorite with children, these modern takes on the traditional cooking style are helping to keep teriyaki as popular as ever.

Text: Robbie Swinnerton

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