The Japanese Sweet and Savory Glaze
Teriyaki is a Japanese cooking method frequently served at restaurants that uses a sweet sauce made with soy sauce to marinate or glaze various meats, fish or tofu. Teriyaki dishes are very typical and easy to make at home when the sauce ingredients are available or with a ready-made sauce.
Teriyaki is known as a sauce in Western countries, but the Japanese word initially described a way of cooking a dish. The characters used to write teriyaki (照り焼き) are indeed:
- teri (照り), for "glaze," and,
- yaki (焼き) meaning "grill."
When looking for the word teriyaki in Japanese on the Internet 📶, the results show countless pictures of mouth-watering, nicely broiled dishes, with an appetizing glazing sauce.
How to cook the teriyaki way?
The base ingredients for the sauce are quite simple. Recipes and quantities may vary, but one of the most frequent and easy recipe to memorize is:
- Soy sauce (not the sugary one, which was not invented in Japan),
- Cooking sake 🍶, its taste is sometimes salty and it is lower in alcohol than the average rice alcohol served in restaurants (even though it still contains 14 degrees of alcohol!). If cooking sake is not available, a bottom-range sake should do the trick,
- Mirin, is a sake made from glutinous rice, only used for cooking, and characterized by a syrup aspect, a very sugary taste and a slightly lower level of alcohol than sake. It cannot be replaced by sake,
- Powdered sugar.
The good proportions are 2/2/2/1 (soy sauce / sake / mirin / sugar), to adjust depending on the quantity required for cooking the dish: for example 4 table spoons soy sauce, 4 table spoons sake, 4 table spoons mirin and 2 table spoons sugar.
There are several ways of cooking a teriyaki dish:
- Marinade: first combine the 4 ingredients of the sauce in a bowl, then steep the food (chicken for example) for at least 30 minutes in the sauce. Strain the marinated food, cook it in a pan and it will turn in a nice golden color.
- Coating: which is the most common way to prepare a teriyaki (with for example fish or chicken): prepare the sauce mix in a bowl. When the meat or fish starts to broil or when its 80 % cooked, coat it with the sauce until completely cooked. You can use the remaining sauce to enjoy the dish.
- Glazing: simmer the 4 ingredients of the sauce mix in a pot to obtain a nice syrupy sauce. When the food (for example tsukune chicken meatballs) is cooked, dip it in the sauce and eat immediately.
All these teriyaki cooking methods have the same results: mirin and sake are here for the glaze, and sugar brings in the caramelized aspect.
Origins of the teriyaki sauce
For cuisine historians, this technique is genuinely Japanese, and was invented in the 17th century by the archipelago’s chefs. It spread afterwards thanks to the development of soy sauce mass production in the former Edo (today’s Tokyo) at the same period.
The word teriyaki originally defined a cooking technique to add syrupy and sugary aspects, but its meaning was extended nowadays to include the "teriyaki sauce."
It may have appeared for the first time in the West thanks to the first Japanese immigrants in Hawaii, who created a similar condiment with local ingredients, and introduced a teriyaki style sauce outside Japan. The big Japanese soy sauce company Kikkoman took inspiration from this Hawaiian preparation to develop its teriyaki sauce in the United States in the 1960s, helping to popularize the product.
In Japan, ready-made "teriyaki sauces" are also available in supermarkets, and their bottles are inscribed with teriyaki soosu (照り焼きソース) on their labels.
The food most commonly cooked in teriyaki
For the Japanese, teriyaki often reminds a tasteful, mouth-watering dish, with chicken filet or yellowtail fish as the main ingredient. The best places to enjoy these preparations are smaller restaurants, especially at lunchtime. Served with rice and miso soup, they have many variations, such as:
- Teriyaki chicken (照り焼きチキン): usually a grilled chicken fillet, with a nice golden color, sometimes already sliced to facilitate eating with chopsticks.
- Teriyaki pork bowl (豚の照り焼き丼): this delicious dish consists of slices of pork meat generously coated in sauce, on a thick layer of rice and often topped with chopped green onions.
- Tsukune (照り焼きつくね): these chicken meatballs with onions are often paired with a beaten yolk for dipping. When the sweet sauce is used to dip or glaze the yakitori (Japanese skewers) it is called tare (タレ).
- Yellowtail teriyaki (ぶりの照り焼き): the buri (Japanese name for yellowtail) is a whitefleshed fish living in the Mediterranean Sea and North Atlantic Ocean. The Japanese love its taste in sushi, sashimi or teriyaki.
- Teriyaki salmon (鮭の照り焼き): one of the most common fish coated with the sugary sauce while cooking.
- Teriyaki tofu (照り焼き豆腐): another type of ingredient to cook in teriyaki, which adds a powerful flavor to the bean curd.
Variations with beef or pork and beef minced meat can be served at restaurants. Additionally, the teriyaki burgers are listed in the standard menus at McDonald’s in Japan, an interesting experience for junk-food amateurs.
"Japanese style" teriyaki at home
Buying ready-made sauces in the supermarket, to bring back as a souvenir and cook at home is quite easy as the sauce are usually sold in 200g plastic bottles for about ¥200 (~US$1.75).
Another easy and fun solution, that also helps avoid the use of too many food additives, is to make the sauce from scratch. Cooking sake (ryorishu 料理酒) and mirin (みりん) are also available in supermarkets in 300-400ml plastic bottles at a very affordable price.
Cooking teriyaki dishes at home is also quite simple. Many websites, such as this one, display several detailed recipes. Japanese cooks also use a pinch of ginger to give an additional freshness to the dish.
There are several ways to cook teriyaki. The best way to know which one suits you better is to try on as many restaurants as possible, and identify the various ingredients involved in their cooking.