Three Building Blocks of Japanese Flavors

I had a hard time deciding what to post this week. I was going to make a Japanese style chiffon cake for my sister's birthday (yes I have many sisters), but then we accidentally ran out of propane. However, to go with the Japanese ribs we had for the birthday dinner, I made tentsuyu, the dipping sauce that generally goes with tempura. This is one of my favorite condiments, made from grated diakon, dashi, soy sauce, mirin, and ginger. It has a wonderfully strong flavor, packed with umami, that cuts fatty foods, like pork ribs and tempura, perfectly. I also like to drizzle it over my rice.

I don't have enough on tentsuyu to write an entire post, but it did get me thinking about condiments. One of the things I find so interesting about Japanese cooking is the fact that almost every dish is flavored with the same three building blocks, soy sauce, mirin, and sake. However, I never feel like everything tastes the same. The birthday dinner I made had spear ribs, cucumber wakame sunomono, and the tentsuyu. All were made with practically the same base, and yet they all tasted completely different.

So what about these three ingredients? The most common is soy sauce, which is hardly exclusive to Japanese cuisine. Recently I wrote quite a bit about this crucial sauce for my up coming book. Here is a brief excerpt:

"Soy sauce is made from fermented soybean paste, grain, brine, and Aspergillus oryzae or Aspergillus sojae molds. It has a strong, salty flavor, is used in many Asian foods, and has been adopted by many western chefs as well. It was first invented in China sometime between the third or fifth century. Originally it was probably used as a way to make salt go farther, seeing as it was expensive. These first soy sauces were made either from fermented meat or fish sauces that had soy beans added to them, but eventually soy became the main ingredient.

Japan first adopted the new condiment in the seventh century where it was developed into five different categories. In America we tend to think that soy sauce is soy sauce, but the different varieties of Japanese soy sauces (or shoyu as it is called) can be as dissimilar as red and white wine.

Koikuchi, which might be your standard soy sauce, is made from equal parts soy and wheat, making it slightly sweet. Usukuchi uses a sweet liquid in its production which is made from fermented rice, it gives it a lighter taste and color. Tamari is the closest to the original Japanese soy sauce and derives its name from the fact that it used to be made from the run off from making miso. Tamari uses little or no wheat and there are many gluten-fee varieties. Shiro, or white soy sauce, is the opposite of tamari, using almost entirely wheat and little soy, thus it is quite sweet. Finally saishikomi is made with the same brine as a previous batch, making it stronger and darker than the other varieties."

As you can see, there is more to soy sauce than you might have supposed. Personally, I almost entirely use a gluten-free tamari. This is mostly because I am sensitive to wheat, but I also really like the strong flavor.

As for mirin (pronounced mee-rin), it is a type of rice wine, like sake, only with a lower alcohol content. The sweetness comes not from refined sugar (which isn't good for you, guys), but from the fermentation process. There are three different types, starting with hon mirin (true mirin), with an alcohol content of 14%. Next is shio mirin, which jumps down to 1.5% alcohol. Lastly is shin mirin (new mirin), with the even lower 1% alcohol content. Today mirin is pretty much only used for cooking, but back in the Edo period they did drink it. I've never tried drinking it straight, but the flavor is very mild and sweet.

Also in the rice wine category is, of course, sake (pronounced sah-kay not sah-kee). I won't pretend that I understand how alcohol is brewed, but apparently sake is brewed more like beer than wine. I guess this has to do with fruit sugar versus starch sugar. I don't want to spoil anything because I actually intend to write a more in depth post about this process later. So you'll just have to wait patiently, or, you know, go read about it somewhere else (traitor).

So from these three ingredients you get the classic Japanese flavor combo that makes up the base of so many dishes. They are also the base for many additional sauces and condiments like tentsuyu. Some other classics are ponzu (with the addition of citrus and vinegar), teriyaki (with the addition of a little sugar), and kaeshi (a concentrated base for noodle dishes). By tweaking your measurements, cooking methods, and adding other ingredients, like ginger or citrus, a myriad of flavors can be achieved. Which is great because it saves room in the fridge. It's also one of my favorite things about Japanese cooking.

So now I have a question for you, my faithful readers. Do you use any of these three building blocks? If so, how? Please feel free to scroll down and use the comment section! Also let me know if there are any foods you would like me to explore!

Until next time, flavor your life with equal parts curiosity and adventure.

P.S. We recently got a new kitty, who we have named Merry. He's a little terror. See him here, stalking my fingers as I type out this post. This was only moments before he smacked me upside the face and left scratches on the side of my nose. I can't stay mad at him though, just look at that fuzzy face!