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TODAY

Thursday, July 18

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If you are someone who is sketchy about Japanese food, chances are you've ordered chicken/beef/tofu teriyaki when your foodie friends drag you to a sushi bar.

Teriyaki is a gateway dish to Japanese cuisine for many people. And it gets a bad rap from many foodies because it's often pretty bland. But it can be really good — and even better, it can easily be made at home. And I mean the sauce can be made at home, not just the dish.

I love having lots of spices, vinegars, mustards, oils and sauces on hand. This way when I'm throwing together one of my "accidental dinners" and I don't know what it needs, I can open a cabinet or drawer and do a guessing game about which bottle will provide enough of the right flavor.

In the past this has meant that I've bought a lot of pre-made sauces, especially sauces used in Asian cuisine, because I haven't known how to make them. Up until recently, teriyaki was one of them. I'd plunk down $3-$5 a bottle for a combination of ingredients that would have cost me about $1 since I had the ingredients on hand anyway.

Since I'm not lucky enough to know someone willing to give me their family teriyaki sauce recipe, I had to turn to the Internet. And I wandered all over the place looking for the most genuine teriyaki sauce recipe. And the ones that I found varied widely. I also learned that many store-bought teriyaki sauces aren't vegetarian. Beware of added beef broth, you veggie-minded folks, it's cheaper than the other commonly used ingredients.

Since I was confused about what makes a true teriyaki sauce, I decided to look for a definition of the word "teriyaki." It actually appears to be a combination of two words. "Teri" means "shiny" or "luster" and "yaki" means "grill" or "broil." So I think if I were to take something, coat it in something before cooking it over high heat, I'd have something which could be called "teriyaki" if it came out shiny.

Lots of people mentioned that some ingredient or other "had" to be in teriyaki sauce or it just wasn't real teriyaki. But the recipe at Recipe Zaar seemed to be the most basic one I found that was similar to many others. (By the way, they're a great site for looking up recipes since people can post their notes about the recipe. This recipe is taken straight from their site.)

Basic Teriyaki
1/4 cup of tamari soy sauce
1 cup water
1 tablespoon of fresh grated ginger (more or less to your taste)
3 tablespoons of brown sugar
1 clove of minced garlic
2 tablespoons of cornstarch
1/4 cup cold water

Combine the first five ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the corn starch to the cold water and stir well to combine thoroughly, then whisk it into the saucepan slowly. Bring it back to a boil while stirring constantly. Add more soy sauce or water to the pan if the sauce is too thick.

It takes about four minutes to make this sauce and you'll have enough to last for a couple of dishes. It's tasty, and it's possible you'll have all the ingredients on hand, but I don't like it, at least not as much as I want to. Here's why: I don't see any reason to add water, an essentially flavorless liquid, when you're trying to create a richly-flavored sauce. And adding cornstarch to thicken things is a nice quick fix, but if I'm going to make a sauce to have on hand and use for weeks or a few months, I don't mind spending more time to let a sauce thicken on its own.

Here is an amalgamation of various recipes which I found and have decided is my favorite.

1/4 cup of tamari soy sauce
1/4 cup of sake
2 tablespoons of mirin (or you could use sherry)
1 tablespoon of honey or molasses or brown sugar
1 tablespoon of freshly grated ginger

Combine all of the ingredients in a sauce pan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low and stir occasionally. After 20 minutes or so enough liquid should have evaporated to make the sauce thicker.

It takes 20-30 minutes to make this sauce instead of the four minutes to make the other one, but I think the flavor difference is well worth it. However, if you really aren't going to spend the time to patiently watch a sauce cook until it's thick, use the first recipe, but substitute sake, or rice wine for all or most of the water. Just taste it before you go pouring it all over your food. If it's too salty, add something sweet. If it's too sweet, add some more soy sauce.

Now that you've got a sauce that you are happy with, what are you going to do with it? You can do a lot. You can throw a couple of handfuls of chopped fresh veggies in your skillet over medium heat with a little vegetable oil or, even better, sesame oil and a couple of tablespoons of water. Once they're almost cooked through, pour about a quarter cup of teriyaki sauce over them, stir to coat, cook for a minute or two and then pour it over steamed brown rice. You've now got a vegan dinner that is healthy and tasty.

Or you could marinate 1 pound of chicken breast, pork loin or seitan that has been cut into 1/2" strips in 1/4-1/2 cup of sauce for 30 minutes or as long as overnight. Chop up a handful of green onion or throw in some cilantro for a fresh zing. Cook some rice (brown rice takes longer than white so be prepared) in a rice cooker or on the stovetop. About 10 minutes before the rice is done, turn on your broiler in your oven. About five minutes before the rice is done place your marinated strips on your broiling pan, being careful that they're as close to the center as possible without touching each other. Set your timer for two minutes and pop them in the oven. Once the two minutes are over, take them out, flip them, and return them for another two minutes.

This should be plenty of time for the seitan and the beef to cook through. The pork might need to cook for 3 minutes on the first side and two on the second. The chicken may need to cook for 3 minutes on each side. The best tip I can give you for broiling is to not walk away from your oven. Let someone else answer the phone. Food goes from good to burnt very quickly when using your broiler. If you're eating the seitan, all you need to know is whether the sauce has turned shiny. If it is, then you're ready to serve and eat.

If you're eating meat, you're going to want to make sure that the chicken and pork especially are cooked through. Once you do this a few times you'll be able to tell when it looks done, but there is nothing shameful about using your knife to cut into the widest piece of meat and spread it open a bit to see if it's pink. Your friends will appreciate that you're not going to give them trichinosis or salmonella.

You can also use teriyaki as a dipping sauce for when you buy a bag of frozen gyoza or dumplings, boil them, and dip them in the sauce while standing at your kitchen counter reading your mail. I won't tell anyone.

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