Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mr. Pork Belly does Utopia

Whenever I get impatient or irritated over nothing, it’s usually from fatigue. In addition, I start to lose my concentration and focus, so it’s not really a good condition to be in, while caught in that infamous, Los Angeles traffic. Talk about potential road rage. I’d probably get shot with a semiautomatic for making stupid gestures or honking over some insignificant, minor incident.

When I’m in this physical and mental mode…I think PORK. Pork is said to be a very good source of vitamin B1 (thiamin or thiamine), which helps in treating fatigue and irritability. I understand that thiamin is used, by many doctors, to help improve brain function and to treat mental-health problems. Hello! Perhaps there’s a connection here, since I tend to crave pork quite often! My brain seems to automatically trigger an alarm that my GCA (Going Crazy Alert) level is extremely high and it propels me to ingest thiamin, immediately. How the human body functions, is just amazing, isn’t it? I tend to cook certain foods based on what my body is telling me at the time. It’s a deficiency indicator. At least for me, it is.

Now, I also understand that heat applied in cooking destroys this vitamin and, generally, the loss is greater in meats compared to other foods. But, since I’ve heard that pork contains almost 10 times more vitamin B1 than beef, I figure that even if I lose most of the thiamin in the cooking process, I’ll still manage to get some. I try to minimize the damage by cooking at a lower temperature, and by not overcooking the pork.

Then again, I usually soak the pork in Sake to tenderize it, which is a big NO, NO because they say alcohol, like caffeine, causes the destruction of thiamin, as well. With all the coffee and booze I consume, no wonder I’m always cranky! On top of which, the section of pork I like the most, contains less thiamin compared to other (i.e. tenderloin) cuts anyway, so I guess I just have to rely on other food sources or supplements to get my daily dosage of vitamin B1, after all. Am I making any sense? What am I talking about? Am I going crazy? Not to worry, it’s PORK time! GCA! GCA! Bleep! Bleep!

What is this section of pork I’m talking about? It’s called Butabara, in Japanese, and it literally means pork belly. No, I don’t mean the stomach or the intestines - it’s the underside of the pork with layers of meat and fat. When this guy is cured or smoked, you’ll recognize him. You know, Bacon? No, no, not Kevin, but the guy who hangs around the breakfast counter.

I like Butabara so much that whenever I go out to eat at a Kushiyaki joint, I place this order first. By the way, for those who are not familiar, Kushiyaki refers to grilled, skewered morsels of meat, seafood or vegetable (a place that specializes in chicken would serve Yakitori, which translates into grilled bird/ chicken).

For a beer drinker and a grilled-food lover like myself, it is just a heavenly experience. In any case, the reason I order Butabara first, is because I’ve had my share, of direful moments, of placing the order only to find out that they’ve run out of the pork belly skewers. This is NOT good.

I often order multiple times during the course of the meal. At this one-man-operation joint I used to frequent, where the owner/ chef cooks all kinds of Japanese foods and serves them over the counter, I’d get scolded for ordering Butabara so often. His reasoning was that, to grill Butabara you really have to pay close attention to it, making it tougher on him to juggle other tasks and orders. Since I grill my own Butabara at home, I share his frustration.

But, please, let this not discourage you in any way! If you have a hankering for a little slice of paradise, this is my version of it.

Now, let us begin our indoor, artificial grilling experience with Butabara. Please check out my previous, Grill for the Thrill posting, on indoor grilling.

Before you can start to cook Butabara, you’ll need to get one. I get my block at a Japanese grocery store. These days, I see more and more of these Butabara blocks being sold at Japanese stores around my neighborhood, perhaps reflecting its popularity. Although you will not typically see a packaged cut like this (as shown in the photo) in the meat section of your favorite supermarket, your local butcher will, most likely, be able to accommodate your needs.

I’ve also noticed pork belly slices sold at Korean grocery stores. If you can’t get a Butabara block, these slices can work just as well. Either way, we’ll stick to cooking them as is, using the same method as our Teriyaki Chicken Wings (Grill for the Thrill post).

Like some people, some pork bellies have thick skins (pork rind). I mean, literally. Nothing wrong with thick skin, but just get your jaw ready for a good workout. If you don’t like chewy stuff, remove the rind prior to eating. I’ve found that it’s easier to remove after cooking. Some places sell Butabara with the rind already removed, but if you do end up with a thick-skinned piece of pork, it’s a good idea to score (cut into with a knife) the rind prior to cooking. I score a lot of food when cooking, but I guess it’s not as easy to score at a bar.

As we did with our Teriyaki Chicken Wings, we will be utilizing the AJ2000. But wait! We now have a new and improved model called the AJ2000X. This version features a non-stick cooking pan (instead of the aluminum container), with a self-standing, crossbar cooking grate suited for small or thinly-sliced food items. I seldom see this cooking grate around, but managed to find one at a local, Japanese grocery.

The stands can be folded in and can be used as a hanging device. It’s a handy, little gadget for camping and I also use it as an accessory to my Weber grill. If you wish to continue using the original AJ2000… not a problem, it’ll work just as well.

Now, as usual, I soak the pork in Sake for 30 minutes (as always, if you want to soak it longer, keep it in the fridge - no longer than 4 hours, and take it out 30 minutes prior to cooking). The alcohol in the Sake will seep into the pork and tenderize it, as it draws in the flavor. Oh, no! I forgot that I’m probably destroying the vitamin B1! Oh, well, since Butabara is not the tenderest section of pork, like the tenderloin cut, some sacrifices must be made. Besides, I’ll eat the Butabara with brown rice tonight. Yes, brown rice is also a very good source of vitamin B1.

Since I want to enjoy my Butabara plain and simple, with only some salt and pepper, and a splash of lemon, I usually don’t add any seasoning or marinade elements during the Sake- soaking action. If you want a little more flavor, feel free to add some Shoyu (Japanese Soy Sauce) and Mirin (Sweet Cooking Wine/Sake). However, unlike a Teriyaki marinade, I’d decrease the amount of Shoyu and Mirin. For every cup of Sake, I’d add about 1/5 cup of Shoyu and Mirin, respectively. For more information on cooking with Sake, Mirin and Shoyu, please refer to the My Three Musketeers post.

I have to say, though, that to experience the true flavor of this pork, no seasoning (prior to grilling) is required. The pork fat, in itself, is really flavorful. Again, just a tiny pinch of salt and pepper, before eating, is enough for me.

To cook the Butabara, we’re basically going to follow the same procedure as the Teriyaki Chicken Wings, but we’ll be cooking it at a lower temperature (and without the Teriyaki Sauce). Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and grab yourself a beer, or whatever it is that you like to drink, because it can take anywhere from 1.5 to 2 hours, or even longer, depending on the size/ thickness of the cut and the type of oven. But…man (and woman), will it be worth it, let me tell you.

Once the oven is heated, add 1 1/2 cups of water into the AJ2000(X), and place it in the oven. We’re basically warming up the unit, getting it ready for the cooking action. When the AJ2000(X) has warmed up nicely, take the unit out (remember the oven mitts), spray some oil on the grate and load the Butabara with the fat/ skin side facing up.

If you’re using a thinly sliced Butabara cut and it can’t stand up on its own, (fat/ skin side up), just lay it on its side. Pop in that pork and make sure (for better results) that the surface of the Butabara is leveled in the middle. With my oven, this means that the oven rack is on the second-to-the-last rung, or so.

After about 5 minutes, turn down the temperature to 300 degrees. If the height/ thickness of the Butabara block measures approximately 1.5 inches, I’d leave it in the oven for 50 to 60
minutes; less if less and more if more (height/ thickness). Either
way, be sure to peek inside, every so often, and check the status.

If the surface is browning too rapidly, you may want to open the oven door for a few seconds, let the heat escape and turn down the temperature slightly. The idea is to slow cook on low heat, and let Mr. Pork Belly get his nice, dark tan. As the surface gets heated, you’ll notice the fat bubbling and oozing from the meat. Keep your eye on him and let this process continue…slowly. After 60 minutes, he should look like this photo.

He’s going to continue cooking even more when turned over, so you don’t want this first side to be anywhere near black, at this point.

Once you see the nice dark tan, turn him over and let the other side get its share of rays. He even brought his own suntan oil (Piggertone and Porkanana Boat) so if you give him the right heat temperature and enough time, he’ll be looking just fine. Just have a dialog with him, every now and then, and ask how the temperature is. If you listen carefully, you can almost hear his response. If you hear a nice, slow yet consistent sizzling sound, you know that he’s loving it!

Unless you have a cold, you’ll also notice the hearty aroma of cooked pork. For me, it’s this interaction with food that makes cooking so fun and interesting. Just don’t talk out loud during this interaction or people around you may think you’ve finally lost it. Talk about being B1-deficient! GCA! GCA! Bleep! Bleep!

After another hour or so (in the case of the 1.5-inch block, as shown in the photo), he’s ready. But, as much as I (my real, outdoor grilling persona) hate doing this, I usually turn him over just one more time, switch the oven to broil mode and toast the fat/ skin portion just a little more, to get that full crispiness.

Typically, at this juncture, you’ll find me sitting in front of the oven, with the door slightly open and eyeing the crisping action, so that Mr. Pork Belly doesn’t turn out looking like a Saturday morning, cartoon character that just got blown up by some TNT
(not the TV channel but the explosive). Does The Coyote ring a bell?

After this last, finishing touch, take the Butabara out of the oven and let it settle on a separate plate/ surface, for a few minutes (I usually do 3 to 5), at room temperature. Leave the AJ2000(X) in the oven, with the heat on. It’s said that onion and garlic help to absorb vitamin B1 (what’s left of it anyway)
into your system, so why not have some, to compliment the pork.

Chunks of raw, Maui Onion would be awesome right
now, but I’ll have to stick with what I have. So, I'll add some regular, white onion and garlic slices (or whole cloves), to the AJ2000(X) while the Butabara is settling. This is why I suggested you leave the unit in the oven. The AJ2000X comes in really handy, here. See how its cooking grate prevents the small pieces from falling off?

I ran out of white onions, so I scrounged around and found some leftover Tokyo Negi (giant green onions). The garlic...well, I always have garlic on hand. It would be a sin for me to ever run out of it. You won't find Dracula anywhere near my house, that's for sure.

Oh, and you might be interested to know that the more you crush or chop a garlic clove, the better (medicinally) it is for you. A substance, called Allicin, starts doing its magic. It's also found in onions. My understanding is that, Allicin makes it easier to absorb vitamin B1 into your system. I have to tell you...as a garlic lover, rest assured, that there will be more on this topic.

Cut off a thin slice of Butabara and try it with salt and pepper, and a splash of fresh lemon, if you like. All that attention and hard work, to cook this guy, seems to pay off after that first, succulent bite. Timing is everything, here. It’s better to take that first bite as soon as the settling action is done. Have you ever wondered why dudes hang out around the BBQ grill? After experiencing that first bite, your onion and garlic should be done. So have at it!

The Butabara can be an appetizer or can even be used as a topping for Ramen (Japanese soup noodles), which I intend to do, tonight. Umm…I’m out of brown rice. Ah…that’s right, that’s what it was, now I remember! He, he, he!

Hey, you know how much I love charcoal grilling outdoors. This indoor, artificial grilling is simply a means of survival (when you have to have that grilling experience and fat-dripping action, but can’t be outdoors), which, I must admit, does have its advantages…like more heat temperature control. The AJ2000(X) will be appearing in future posts, that’s for sure.

More importantly, I guess it’s all about the balance. Eating a little from each of the different food groups is ideal, but is often difficult to practice. I mean, I have vitamin supplements for dessert, every day.

There’s nothing fancy about these recipes (if you can call them that, which I don’t like to) but with a little patience and a willingness to try, you can enjoy tasty, Japanese-style, comfort food at home.

Vitamin B1 is not the only cure for fatigue and irritability. I don’t know…touching and cooking (playing with) food; it has a certain, soothing effect on me. I forget all about that darn L.A. traffic, I was in, a few hours ago.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Grill for the Thrill

Grilling outdoors is not only my favorite means of cooking…it’s my passion. If I could, I would probably grill every, single day. The weather here, in Southern California, allows me to do so, pretty much all year 'round (though I’ve also grilled in snowy and rainy conditions, in the past).

But since I’m a charcoal kind of a guy, it’s not really ideal to grill every day, for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t want to waste charcoal just to grill a small meal for one or two people, unless I’m preparing additional food for later consumption, which I often do – cook and freeze. Second, I live in a condensed neighborhood, and if I charcoal grill every day (often using wood chips/chunks), my neighbors would probably start to complain with all that smoke and stuff. I’ve encountered hints from my neighbors, a number of times, expressed by the sounds of windows sliding shut. Kachunk! That’s a big enough of a hint for me, let me tell you. Besides, I like my neighbors.

Gas grills would be a wise choice, here, but I just don’t like dealing with propane, for some reason. I suppose I like charcoal because it gives me that primal, caveman-like experience, and the incomparable challenge you have, each time, in dealing with live fire. Besides, in my opinion, the food just tastes so much better! So, as often as I can, I make contact with my old pal, the dome-shaped, black grill named Weber.

Speaking of that dome-shaped grill, it’s been around for decades, and has been a common sight at backyard barbeque parties across the nation, since the Wonder Years. Do you know how it all got started? In the early ‘50s, a determined backyard griller, from Illinois, got tired of using his open brazier (that exposed his food to wind and ashes) and decided to make his own grill. At the time, Mr. Backyard griller worked for a sheet metal shop, welding metal spheres together to make buoys for Lake Michigan. All the elements necessary, to come up with a perfect grill, were in place. With 3 legs and a lid, he transformed the buoy into a revolutionary, lean, mean, grilling machine. His name? George Stephen, founder of Weber-Stephen Products Company.

Well, I’m no George Stephen but I have my own, little invention or indoor grilling method, if you will. Although I use the term grilling, some may argue that it’s actually baking or broiling because I use the stove oven. When I charcoal grill chicken, on my Weber, I put the lid on and have the temperature at medium heat (around 350 to 450F), to ensure thorough/even cooking. I basically use the same principle, by artificially creating a similar condition with the stove oven. It still gives you the benefit of grilling, in terms of fat dripping off the meat, and it’s easier than dealing with the greasy aftermath of cooking with a frying pan. Although I wouldn't use this indoor grilling method to cook a steak, some dishes turn out really well and I'd like to share one with you.

Before you start cooking, you need to assemble what I call the AJ2000. It stands for Aluminum Joe and it originated 8 years ago. Yes, I have a name for it in case I want to patent it someday. Yeah, right! Well, actually, I started this method by using a tray, with a rack on it, that is typically used for dripping off excess oil prior to serving fried foods such as Tempura (batter-fried veggies/seafood) and Tonkatsu (pork cutlet). As you can see in the photo, the gadget I'd been using got abused and beaten up pretty bad over
the years and I was looking for a replacement, when I
realized a simple alternative.

Basically, you need a cookie cooling rack and an aluminum container. Usually, you’ll find the two in the same section or aisle, of any large supermarket. Place the rack onto the top, inner edge of the aluminum container and check the fit. If it’s a firm, stable fit, the two were meant for each other. The last thing you want is to have your rack slide off, when taking the unit out of the oven, drop your food on the floor and burn yourself in the process. Also, a single aluminum container can become deformed (bent/twisted), when weight or pressure is applied, so it would be wiser to purchase 2 containers and stack them for added sturdiness.

Teriyaki Chicken Wings
Snap the joints of the raw wings so they’ll cook a little more evenly; it also makes it easier to eat later. Ladies, you don’t want Teriyaki sauce all over your face looking like a man with a five o’clock shadow, now do you. By snapping or breaking the joint, you're bending the bone backwards, giving the wing less of an angle. You don't have to be a blackbelt in martial arts and the chicken won't tap and give up either. After all, it's already dead. So don't worry about hurting the chicken and give it a nice twist and snap.

Although I cook mine as is, some people poke the thick portion of the meat with a thin, bamboo skewer or cut into it with a knife, for better heat penetration. After handling the chicken, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water, before you touch anything else. Don’t become THE CONTAMINATOR.

Marinade the chicken, in Teriyaki sauce, for at least 30 minutes (at room temperature) or for up to 4 hours in the refrigerator to prevent food-borne illnesses. For best results, let stand at room temperature, for about 30 minutes after removing from the refrigerator. If you have some leftover Teriyaki sauce from a week or two ago, this is the time to use it (check out my previous posting, entitled My Three Musketeers, on homemade Teriyaki sauce).

If you don’t have enough Teriyaki sauce to fully cover the chicken wings, use a plastic bag to ensure all surface areas get coated in the marinade. Massage the sauce in well. The sharp edges of the wings can rip through the plastic so be sure to use a thick plastic bag and/or double the bag for extra protection. Believe me, you don’t want Teriyaki sauce, that’s been in contact with raw chicken, spilling in your refrigerator! If you’re going to refrigerate the plastic bag, place a bowl/container under it.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Once the oven is heated, pour about 1 1/2 cups of water into the AJ2000 and place it in the oven. If you don’t add water to the container, the fat and juice drippings from the meat will leave a black mark that will be hard to scrub off. You’ll not only ruin the container for future usage, but the smell and smoke will not be pleasant, so be sure to add water.

Again, make sure the rack is firmly set onto the container. At this point, I’m just heating up the grill or the cooking grate, so to speak. The rack of the AJ2000 needs to do its warm up before taking on the action. Notice I'm using the broil mode (the upper heating element of the oven) to heat the cooking grate so it warms up faster. If you do the same, just remember to switch back to your original bake mode (lower heating element) of about 400 degrees F. Now, you two-wheeled enthusiasts get it…it’s hard to perform
well on cold tires. That's what a warm-up lap is all about.

Once the AJ2000 has warmed up, take it out of the oven (make sure you have your oven mitts on), spray some oil on the cooking grate and place the chicken wings, with the skin side facing down, onto the heated rack. I usually pour some of the remaining Teriyaki sauce on top of the chicken for one, final dip prior to cooking, but otherwise discard the marinade.

Place the AJ2000 on the lower rack of the oven so that the wings are positioned near the center. Cook for about 5 to 7 minutes, or until the chicken browns. Take a peak inside the oven and you will actually start to see some of the fat dripping off the chicken. The tips of the wings tend to burn faster than the rest, so keep an eye on them. Once the beach-going chicken wings get a nice, dark tan, it’s time to turn them over.

I now take out the AJ2000, place it on the counter and turn the wings over so the skin side is facing up.
After placing the unit back onto the oven rack, let it continue to cook for a few minutes, but keep your eye on them. Peek inside and listen and watch the sizzling action. If it's getting toasted too quickly, open the oven door slightly and let a little of that heat escape. Sometimes I switch to broil, for a minute or two, just to give the skin some direct heat from above, and then switch back to bake mode.

The point here is to control that heat temperature, accordingly, in an attempt to crisp the skin gradually so it will turn out nice and crispy, and not burnt. At the same time, you need to constantly keep the oven in the medium-heat range so that the chicken has a chance to cook thoroughly. You don't want to under cook your chicken.

Depending on the type of oven you have, where you live (i.e., altitude) and the size of the wings, results may vary, so control the heat temperature and cooking time.

You can also make the chicken wings with just salt and pepper. Soak the wings in Sake and/or Shochu (see my previous post, mentioned above) for about 30 minutes (at room temperature) or for up to 4 hours in the refrigerator. After the soaking action, take the wings out of the liquid and add salt and pepper (less is better in our home). Follow the above cooking/grilling instructions. When done, squeeze some fresh, lemon juice onto the wings and voila!

The wife claims that she could eat this version of chicken wings, every day. If you can't find the type of chicken wings featured above, party wings work just as well. Just follow the same instructions and enjoy the hot, juicy wings in the comfort of your home. Although the AJ2000 is my wing man in artificial grilling, sharing many cooking missions together, it will never replace grilling outdoors with charcoal. Then again, it does come in handy when it's raining cats and dogs outside.

We’re not done with the AJ2000, just yet. We’ll be exploring its partner, the AJ2000X, in an upcoming post. Yep, survival cooking with the AJ2000.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

My Three Musketeers

When I cook Japanese-style food, I rely heavily on my friends, the Three Musketeers. With all due respect to Three Musketeers’ fans, I’m not talking about Athos, Porthos and Aramis. I’m referring to Sake, Mirin and Shoyu.

Each one of them is known for its uniquely distinguished characteristics, and has individually established a solid position and saga of its own. Shoyu, or Japanese Soy Sauce, for example, plays such a vital role in Japanese food culture that I’ve devoted an entire posting to this awesome sauce (see my October 1st, 2008 posting, entitled Got Soy Sauce?). Yet, together as a collaborative unit, they are even more magnificent, accomplishing many savory victories together.

Despite their differences, they have one thing in common. They all help to mask the odor of fish and meat. Certain types of fish (even when fresh) have a fishy odor that is unpleasant to some people. The odor of chicken and other types of meats can often be uncomfortable as well, but if you ever get some game meat gutted and butchered by your hunting-loving friends or neighbors, it is definitely time to call in My Three Musketeers.

Another aspect, of their successful engagement as a team, is their role in creating a superb Teriyaki Sauce. The sauce is often used as a marinade, but Teriyaki is basically a method of cooking where you use the sauce to give the fish or meat a glossy sheen. Teri means shine or luster, and Yaki means to grill or broil. Mirin is basically responsible for this glazing effect, but it's the incomparable harmony and balance, attained by these three, that makes this sauce exceptional. Photo is of Buri (Yellow Tail) being marinated.

You can simply buy a bottle of Teriyaki sauce, but why bother when you can make your own, original homemade version. Besides, you should get acquainted with these Three Musketeers, simply because in the world of Japanese cooking, you'll be spending a lot of precious moments with them.

Now, like many homemade barbeque sauces, everyone seems to have his or her own secret, little recipe. The same can be said about Teriyaki sauce. Some people use Shoyu, Mirin and water. Sure, using water is cheaper than using Sake and perhaps some people just don’t like Sake. Some add sugar or honey to enhance the sweetness of the sauce. Adding sugar or honey is nice and sweet if you prefer it that way, but Mirin has its own, profound, complex sweetness that sugar just can not deliver. The Teriyaki sauce that we are about to create is plain and simple. In this sequel of making Teriyaki sauce, it’s all about the Three Musketeers and the double Gs (Garlic and Ginger) as the sidekicks.

Before making the sauce, let us briefly get acquainted with the three main characters. Since I already have a posting on Shoyu, let's focus on Sake and Mirin.

I’m a beer drinker and not a Sake drinker, but I use Sake extensively for cooking. The Sake I’m referring to here is a group of inexpensive, regular Japanese Sake and not your high-grade, premium ones. Some may consider this group of Sake as rotgut, but as long as it's drinkable, it’s good enough for cooking. A lot of Sake, produced here in the U.S., are reasonably priced; I usually buy my 1.5 liter bottle for less than two orders of Venti White Chocolate Mocca from Starbucks, but I’m sure it all depends on where you live and where you shop.

If the Sake is going to cost you more than $20 for a 1.5 liter bottle, you may want to think twice and drink it rather than use it for cooking. If you want to know more about Sake, you should check out John Gauntner’s website at www.sake-world.com. He’s one Haole (as they say in Hawaii) who knows Sake. By the way, Haole generally means Caucasian or foreigner in Hawaiian but just to be clear, I’m not using this term in any racially, derogatory way. In fact, I respect and admire the gentleman for his remarkable knowledge and expertise which, I think, is beyond many Japanese Sake buffs'.

Again, I’m no Sake drinker and I just use it for cooking, so I’ll leave the Sake-drinking aspect to Mr. Gauntner and move on. The reason I use Sake is, basically, 2 fold. First, as mentioned earlier, Sake helps to mask the odor of raw fish or meat, and second, it helps to tenderize them. Whenever I cook meat, I marinate them in Sake, sometimes with garlic or other marinade elements.

When I want to enjoy a nice, grilled steak simply with salt and pepper only, I soak the meat solely in Sake. If you soak it too long, the Sake will denature the meat, so limit the soaking action to less than 4 hours, and keep it refrigerated if you’re going to soak it for a while. I just don’t have the room in my refrigerator, with all the junk and beer cans, so I leave it out at room temperature for about 30 minutes or so.

In modern day Japan, Mirin is commonly used in making stewed or grilled dishes, sauces and soup bases for Soba and Udon (Japanese noodles). Mirin is typically referred to as Sweet Cooking Sake, Sweet Seasoning Cooking Sake or Sweet Cooking Wine, in English.

Some claim that the origin of Mirin can be traced back to a very sweet, alcoholic beverage made from Sake. Although I have no evidence whatsoever, my gut tells me that some 1000 years ago, Japanese men used this beverage to get the ladies drunk. A few hundred years later, Rice, Kome-koji (malted rice) and Shochu (or also referred to as Soju) were used to refine this beverage. Shochu, the other indigenous, alcoholic beverage of Japan, is typically made from potato, rice or barley, but unlike Sake, it is distilled.

Mirin became a highly-treasured, alcoholic beverage but due to its honey-like sweetness, it’s been said that dudes back in the old days started mixing it (and get this) with even more Shochu to make a cocktail. While the partiers where getting drunk on Mirin, chefs at high-end restaurants started using it as a secret weapon in their cooking ventures. And what a secret weapon it was. Mirin not only adds a delicate sweetness to and enhances the flavor of other ingredients, it also helps to amplify the visual presentation of the dish, which is a very important aspect in Japanese cuisine.

Today, Mirin is basically made from Rice, Kome-Koji, and Shochu/other alcohol, and is a common Chomiryo (seasoning) in Japan, used widely in homes, restaurants and the food- processing industry. Like many products, you have your small family-owned operations that produce authentic Mirin the old-fashioned way, using selective ingredients, and then you have your big companies with mass-production capabilities.

When talking about Mirin, you'll come across the term Hon Mirin (本みりん). The term basically means true (real, original) Mirin and usually contains 13.5 ~ 14.5% alcohol. Because of the alcoholic content, laws/regulations, pertaining to alcohol, led some Mirin producers to create different varieties of it.

At one end of the spectrum, there’s a variety called Mirin-fu Chomiryo. The term, Mirin-fu Chomiryo, basically translates into something like Mirin-styled seasoning and contains less than 1% alcohol. Other varieties contain more alcohol, but salt is added to avoid the alcohol tax. Talk about Loop Holes - Salt is added so people won’t consume it as an alcoholic beverage, thus no alcohol tax is applied. For the most part, the term Hon Mirin is used to distinguish itself from these transformed versions of Mirin varieties.

Some may define and refer to Hon Mirin as that which is made the old-fashioned way, using only Mochi Gome (Japanese glutinous rice or sweet rice), Kome-Koji and Honkaku Shochu (the Real Shochu made via the traditional distillation method). Not any kind of Honkaku Shochu but a type called Kasutori Shochu, which is made with Sake lees (a by-product of the Sake-making process and not just dregs). Even in Japan, you’re not going to find Mirin (that uses Kasutori Shochu) just anywhere. This is the kind of Mirin you can drink - and actually appreciate the taste; today, only a few manufacturers make this type of authentic Hon Mirin.

Whatever the case may be in defining Hon Mirin, like true love, you’re not going to find Hon Mirin on every street corner. My motto is, sometimes any kind of love is better than no love at all, especially when you're in survival mode. If you can’t find Hon Mirin, do the next best thing and get whatever variety of Mirin that works for you. In the meantime, please continue your journey in search of true love.

Although it's not the Mirin with Kasutori Shochu, I did manage to find a bottle of imported Hon Mirin made only with glutinous rice, malted rice and Shochu. See label photo.

Some people may wonder...with the alcohol from the Mirin, why would you need Sake? I wondered about it, too and asked an Iron-Chef-type guy at a restaurant in Japan. According to him, Sake tenderizes food, where as Mirin does the opposite by helping food hold its original form. Okay, so as the song goes...it takes two, baby. And then, you add the power of Shoyu. Thus, the power of three = My Three Musketeers.

Ready? Let's make our Teriyaki sauce. Typically, I use exactly the same proportion of Shoyu, Sake and Mirin. Some people prefer more Shoyu and use up to twice as much. The Shoyu can be your regular (Koikuchi) shoyu or Tamari Shoyu (for more information on types of Shoyu, please refer to my previous posting on Shoyu).

The Teriyaki Sauce
In this case, I poured a 1/4 cup of each of the guys into a saucepan, with a few slices of ginger and crushed garlic cloves. Heat the sauce on medium-high and bring it to a boil; turn down the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes. After simmering, let it cool off a bit, discard the ginger and garlic and your sauce is ready. Pretty easy, huh? Just remember, once the sauce comes to a boil, turn down the heat immediately and let it simmer. You don’t want your Shoyu to boil too much and lose its aroma. At the same time, you definitely want to bring the sauce to a boil and make sure the alcohol from the Sake and Mirin evaporates if you don’t want your kids behaving like drunken sailors. After the sauce cools down, put the sauce into a container and let it settle in the refrigerator for about 3 hours. Shake or stir before using. The sauce can be used as a marinade, and/or added to meat or fish while cooking, or used simply as a condiment.

Now, if you want a thicker sauce, I usually add Katakuriko (potato starch; or regular cornstarch, as we know it in the U.S.) to the sauce right after I turn off the heat. Pour a spoonful of potato starch into a separate container, with a couple of spoonfuls of water and dissolve it before pouring it into the Teriyaki sauce mix (so that it’s easier to blend). Stir well and adjust the thickness to your liking. If you want it thicker, add a little more starch. Now you have a thicker Teriyaki sauce that can be poured onto a hamburger like ketchup. This is how I, personally, like my Teriyaki Burger. Photo is of my Teriyaki Burger.

If you have any sauce left, pour it into a jar or plastic bottle, and keep it refrigerated. It can be stored for up to about 2 weeks, but just be sure to shake it well prior to using it the next time around. I sometimes pour the remaining Teriyaki sauce into a new batch of Shoyu (about 3/4 of cup, often adding more garlic) and then refrigerate it. Once you become friends with these guys and understand their basic roles, experiment and try different variations, to create your own version, to satisfy your taste bud.

Remember the photo of meat soaked in Sake? Well, I grilled it and put the leftover slices in the refrigerator. The next day, I placed the slices on a piece of bread and poured on some of that Teriyaki sauce. It’s not a recipe or anything; I just wanted to use up whatever I didn't consume the night before. Yes, the art of cooking with leftovers. I just don’t have space in the refrigerator. You know, the beer thing and all.

As for the Sake and Mirin, store the bottles in a cool place. The flavor can diminish, over time, so try to use up your Mirin as soon as possible (once opened) or you can keep it in the refrigerator and it will last a little longer. We’ll cover the usage of Shoyu, Mirin and Sake more, in the future, so you’ll have a chance to use them up. What about storing Shoyu? You mean you haven’t read Got Soy Sauce?. Well, check it out when you have a chance because if you’re going to cook Japanese-style food at home, you want to become acquainted with Shoyu.

By the way, remember the raw Buri (Yellow Tail) soaked in Teriyaki sauce? This is what it looks like after it's grilled.

Good luck in your search for true love...I mean Hon Mirin. If you find it, be sure to share your story with the rest of us.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Rice or No Dice

As a kid, I remember seeing an old photo of two Imperial Japanese soldiers, cooking rice, inside a cave somewhere in the Pacific Theater during WWII. They were using an aluminum mess kit, called Hango, to cook rice. In the midst of brutal war, I’m sure a hot meal meant more than what most of us could ever imagine. You could tell by their eyes and their expressions that they were very much looking forward to a special treat. What struck me the most about this photo was that they were using short candles to cook, simply because using an open fire, with the flame and smoke, would give their position away to the enemy.

Today, Hango is used among campers and outdoorsmen in Japan. I’ve experienced this method of cooking rice, a few times, many years ago and know a little to understand how difficult it can be, especially if you’re using an open fire and have little control over the heat temperature. Often, the rice gets overcooked, charring the bottom portion of it.

To one's surprise, it’s this charred portion that is so good, especially when you eat it while it’s still hot. Being outdoors in nature and sharing precious moments with your buddies enhance this experience. I never thought a mouthful of plain rice could taste so good. With this in mind, I thought it was important to cover the basics once again. In essence, when it comes to eating Japanese food, rice is practically the foundation. If the rice is awful, the entire meal can be ruined. To cook Japanese food at home, I believe this is where it must all start. It’s not just about cooking rice, it's all about the rice. Enjoy the journey.

The type of rice we're talking about here is called Japonica – a short-grain variety that is moist, soft and sticky when cooked, quite the opposite from the long-grain rice most Americans are familiar with. Both the brown rice (where only the outer husks of the grain are removed) and the white rice (brown rice without the bran) are available. Although some Japanese eat brown rice (or Genmai) for its superb nutritional benefits, typically it is the white rice that is served at meals, for its taste, flavor and texture. In this posting, we're going to use the white rice to master the basics.

Locally-grown, Japanese-style rice brands such as Nishiki and Kokuho Rose are milled and packaged in the U.S. and can be purchased at stores or online. Many of these local brands use California- grown, medium-grain rice. Although slightly thinner and longer than the short-grain, the California-grown, medium-grain rice has similar characteristics (i.e., soft and sticky when cooked) to the typical, Japanese short-grain rice and is used in many Japanese restaurants and rice-related products, including Sake (Japanese rice wine).

Before you start cooking your rice, here comes the million-dollar question - to rinse or not to rinse. For an old-school type of person like myself, rinsing rice was like washing and waxing your car. Before you go out on a date, you wash your car. Before you cook your rice, you rinse it. It was almost an automatic reaction; you didn't think twice about it. For better or for worse, things are a lot easier these days. Now, a rinse-free rice called Musenmai (literally means No Need to Rinse Rice) is available. Nishiki, among others, sells this type of rice – just look for the Musenmai or Just Add Water label on the package. Personally, I think it’s convenient, especially when you just don’t have the time, but I've heard some people in Japan (i.e., rice store owners, etc.,) saying that it’s better to briefly rinse it once anyway, and that the rice starts to lose its stickiness after a while. Whatever the case may be, I urge you to buy regular white rice first and go through the experience of Rinsing Rice. It is definitely easier than waxing your car.

Traditionally, the basic idea behind rinsing rice was to eliminate any impurities and to remove bran residuals that remained from the milling process. The residuals get harder to remove as time goes by and have a tendency to turn rancid after a while. You definitely don’t want your cooked rice smelling funky. But, thanks to new, milling-technology advancements, experts claim that you don't need to rinse as mush as people used to in the past.

Now, assuming we have our rice, let us begin the preparation and cooking process:

Step 1: Measuring the Rice
Decide how much rice you want to eat. Typically, when you purchase a Japanese Rice Cooker, a rice measuring cup is included as an accessory. Of course, you can also purchase the cup, separately, at a Japanese grocery store. When you fill the cup all the way to the top, it's equivalent to 3/4 of the U.S. Standard Measuring Cup. The Japanese refer to this as Ichi (one) Go. So, Ni (two) Go of rice is equivalent to 1 1/2 cups of rice and basically serves about 3 people. If you want to serve 4 people, San (three) Go (2 1/4 cups) should do. Hey, you just learned how to count in Japanese - Ichi, Ni, San! If you’re thinking about learning Karate or Judo, at least you’ll know what the class is saying when they’re doing the jumping jacks!

Step 2: Rinsing the Rice
Pour the measured rice into a large plastic bowl. Prepare another bowl filled with cold water. You’re about to initiate the first rinse, which requires speed. Pour the cold water into the rice and start stirring the rice with your hand. After a few quick stirs, drain the water between your fingers and make sure you don't lose any rice grains, or at least try not to. If you do lose a few here and there, don’t waste any time by trying to pick them up. To get rid of that water is your first priority here. The rice, which has been dehydrated, tends to absorb moisture and odor very quickly.
If you leave the rice in this stirred, murky water, it will just soak up the bran residuals and odors that you were trying to eliminate in the first place. You’ve got to be fast and do it, not under a minute, but in 10 seconds – you’ve got to be faster than Michael Phelps. Whatever you do, don’t leave the rice in this miserable water to go answer the phone or something.

For the second rinse, basically repeat the above with a new bowl of cold water. Again, quickly add water and stir a few times and get rid of the water fast. Boom, Boom, and Boom!
After you get rid of the water from the second rinse, gently stir the rice with your fingers. Again, be like Michael and form your fingers like when you’re swimming. Use your wrist to make a circular motion and quickly, yet gently stir a few times. Add a little water, repeat the stirring action and then get rid of the water. Repeat this final rinsing process about 3 times.

The idea is to make the rice grains scrub against each other when you stir them around. Some people use their palms, some massage the rice with their fingers. Different strokes for different folks. The idea behind it all is to polish the rice grains by having them scrub against each other.

Again, the point of rinsing is to do it as quickly as possible, so the rice doesn't have a chance to absorb the water. Don't worry, it will get its chance to take a nice, long bath later. Also, be extremely gentle. Just because you had a bad day at the office, don’t take it out on the rice. Stir or mix gently, or the rice will crack. Now, even repeating this rinsing process a few times, your water is not going to be super transparent. Don’t worry about it. At this point, the starch is probably what is making the water not so transparent and not the bran residuals. So, do not over rinse the rice. Also, whatever you do, do not use hot water to rinse otherwise you'll end up losing the flavor of the rice.
Step 3: Strain the Excess WaterOnce you’re done rinsing, make sure you drain all the water out. Pour the rice into a colander if you can, just to get the proper drainage of water. The absorbed water continues to travel slowly and deeper into the core of the rice. Don’t leave it out too long or the rice will dry out. Go to Step 4 as soon as the water is drained.Step 4: Add WaterPlace the rice into a pot or rice cooker, and add the appropriate amount of water. The amount of water you add depends on how new or old the rice is, and also depends on your texture preference, but the rule of the thumb is – 1:1.2 Rice to Water Ratio (20% more water). If the rice is old, add a little more water (i.e. 1:1.3 or 30% more water) and if the rice is Shinmai (newly-harvested rice), add a little less water (i.e. 1:1.1 or 10% more water). This ratio is what your typical Japanese Sensei of a Rice Dojo would recommend.

The local rice brands using California medium-grain rice seem
to require slightly more water than your Japanese counterparts. The local brand I use, at home, suggests 1:1.3 ratio of rice to water. So basically, follow the instructions provided by the makers. If there are no instructions, go with the rule of thumb.
If you're using a rice cooker, just follow the guidelines for measuring the rice and water. Typically, for a Japanese Rice Cooker, you use the Rice Measuring Cup mentioned earlier and for each cup-full of rice, add water to the level indicated. In the photo, I put 3 cup-fulls of rice, using the Rice Measuring Cup, and added water up to the level 3 line for white rice. Whatever the cooking method, try cooking as instructed first and if you want your rice to be a certain texture, adjust the amount of water yourself and remember the ratio.

Step 5: Soak the Rice in Water
Once the rice and the water are in the pot, don’t turn on the heat (or the switch, if you’re using a rice cooker) just yet. Let Queen Rice take her long, cold water bath. Let the rice soak in the cold water for at least 30 minutes; some people suggest even longer, anywhere up to 2 hours, especially during the winter seasons when the water temperature tends to be lower. This is why many Japanese prepare the rice, first, when making a meal and prepare the rest while Queen Rice is in Spa mode. This Spa treatment makes the rice nice and plump, so basically, give her the time she needs.

Step 6: Cook the Rice
After Queen Rice’s long bath, we’re finally ready to cook. If you have a rice cooker, hit the start button and let mini R2D2 do its job. I swear, some of these high-end rice cookers have stuff like, computerized-fuzzy-logic-temperature-control systems, that automatically make adjustments to temperature and heating time to cook perfect rice every time. They also have features like colored, LCD displays with easy-to-use navigation control panels. If my grandmother were alive today, she would've been afraid to touch these hi-tech gadgets; she'd cook the rice the old-fashioned way, which we’ll attempt to do now. Just make sure you have a lid for the pot.

First, put the lid on the pot and set it on medium-high heat, and let the rice come to a boil. When you start hearing the sound of water boiling, turn down the heat to low and cook 5 more minutes. Then, ask Queen Rice for permission to take the lid off, to take a peak inside. If you no longer see water covering the surface of the rice, and if you’re using an electric range, turn off the switch and let the remaining heat steam the rice for about 10 minutes (with the lid on). If you’re using a gas range, keep simmering for an additional 2 to 3 minutes, then turn off the heat and let it steam for about 10 minutes.

After you steam the rice, gently flip the rice over, portions at a time, and sort of mix and loosen up the rice; take it nice and easy. The idea is to gently spread out the moisture evenly. After all that rinsing and bathing to make the rice nice and plump, the last thing you want to do is smash the rice. The song for this process goes something like this - Flip me tender, flip me loose, never press me hard...and make sure you sing this like Elvis.

I can’t remember how we came up with this term, but we call this process Shaka Shaka at home. It's sort of like, "Oh, honey, the rice is ready...can you do the Shaka Shaka?" I'm not kidding.
For those of you using a rice cooker, you basically need to do the same. Even when the switch goes off or your mini R2D2 signals you that your rice is done, wait and let it sit for a while and let Queen Rice enjoy the steam treatment. Obviously, you’ve got to keep the lid on and give her some privacy. After 10 to 15 minutes, take the lid off and do the Shaka Shaka, and her majesty is ready to be served.

If you've made too much rice and have some leftover, wrap about 1 serving-size (individual serving) of rice in a plastic wrap, while still hot and freeze it. Don’t make a football or even a softball. Try to keep it small and flat so it freezes faster. Whenever you have a craving for rice and don’t have the time to go through the entire process of rinsing and cooking, you have yourself a microwavable, frozen rice pack. Speaking of microwavable rice, there are products out there. In fact, some airlines use this microwavable-type rice for their in-flight meals.

Musenmai and the microwavable rice are convenient, and are actually not that bad. But again, I urge you to start from scratch and spend some time with the Queen to get acquainted with her. At least you don’t have to use candles to cook the rice. But then again, maybe you have to, someday, if you lose the power in your house. I certainly hope you don’t ever have to go through this kind of emergency, but if you ever do, at least you know that you can cook rice with candles. Now, that’s survival cooking at its best.

Oh, yes, I almost forgot. Be sure to store the unused rice in a plastic container or Tupperware, and keep the lid on tight, because the queen hates bugs and stuff.

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Got Soy Sauce?

Which is worse? (a) Cookies without milk or (b) Tuna Sashimi without soy sauce. For those of you who answered (b), welcome aboard to Japanese Food at Home, home of survival-mode Japanese cooking and more. And, for those of you who have never had Tuna Sashimi or soy sauce, or if you chose (a), welcome aboard anyway. This blog is especially for those of you who have never experienced Japanese food. The objective of this blog is to check out some basic, homemade Japanese comfort food and the topics associated with this food culture, and to share them with you. No fancy, celebrity chef recipes and no state-of-the-art kitchen and equipment required. Just passion, love for the food and a bottle of soy sauce would definitely help.

Why soy sauce? For starters, because soy sauce plays such a vital role in Japanese food culture, it would be hazardous not to have it if you wish to prepare, cook and enjoy Japanese food to its fullest, even if you’re not a raw fish eater and love Teriyaki Chicken instead. Well, as you may have guessed by now, one of Teriyaki's main ingredients is soy sauce. See all those sauce and soup base bottles in the photo? All of them contain soy sauce as a key ingredient.

As a stand-alone, it’s an excellent condiment and it has the power to eliminate fish and meat odors, although I wouldn't use it as a deodorant. It also helps to keep food from spoiling; it was used to make preserved seafood side dishes, such as Tsukudani, since the days when refrigeration wasn't around. This photo shows fish Tsukudani and cubes of tuna Tsukudani. This preservation aspect is very important in survival cooking. You always want to try to preserve whatever it is, as much as possible. Including, marriage? Well, I'm no expert, but I try.

Anyway, in a nutshell, soy sauce is an all-around player and I decided to write about this subject today, October 1st.

Why today? Well, it’s Shoyu Day! And, what’s Shoyu? Shoyu is soy sauce in Japanese. So, who designated this day as Shoyu Day? The Shoyu Industry in Japan did, probably as part of a public relations promotion effort. Is it a national holiday? I doubt it very much. In fact, I don’t think many Japanese even know about it. Why is it that October 1st is designated as Shoyu Day? Well, traditionally, October in Japan basically meant the start of the storing or processing of harvested produce, preparing for the winter months. So for Shoyu makers, I think this month has a very significant meaning. To commemorate this special day, I’ll kick off this blog by writing a little about this awesome sauce.

I must admit, though, we’ve come a long way. Many people had no idea what soy sauce was a few decades ago and merely identified it as “that silver, packet thing that comes with your Chinese take-out.” Actually, the notion of soy sauce wasn’t too bad, though. I mean, it was almost impossible to describe sushi and sashimi back then. “Raw fish? You mean to say you eat fish bait?” Oh, yes, the good ‘ole days.

For those of you who have never bought or have not bought soy sauce in a very long time, you’ll be surprised with the types and varieties available today, especially at Japanese or Asian grocery stores. A buddy of mine will be demanding an explanation “so, which one do you use to dip that fish bait in?” For beginners like my buddy, let us start with the raw basics.

Firstly, not all soy sauces are the same. The main types of soy sauce are those from China and Japan, but Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and other Asian countries have their own, uniquely flavored soy sauces as well. Although similar in appearance, not all Asian soy sauces taste the same and they differ in consistency, aroma and saltiness. Throughout history, soy sauce has been refined to compliment Japanese cuisine, in general, as well as Japan's regional food culture/characteristics.

Also, on a different note, there are Naturally Brewed Soy Sauces and the not-so-natural ones. Some contain chemically hydrolyzed proteins or carbohydrates, and add caramel for coloring. Check the front or back label on the bottle and look for the mentioning of Naturally Brewed. You may have to pay slightly more for these than the chemically manufactured ones, but I think it’s definitely a worthwhile choice.

Secondly, there are 5 basic types of Japanese Shoyu categorized by the Japan Agricultural Standard, which is operated by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. For the most part, the specific ratio of soybean and wheat, the content of salt, and the fermentation process give each Shoyu type a different character.

Some are harder to find than others, especially outside of Japan, but for your reference, here they are:

1) Koikuchi (dark) Shoyu
2) Usukuchi (light) Shoyu
3) Tamari Shoyu
4) Saishikomi Shoyu
5) Shiro (white) Shoyu

Koikuchi Shoyu
If you say, “pass me the Shoyu” at an average family dinner table in Japan, you’ll most likely get the Koikuchi Shoyu. This type accounts for a little over 80% of all Shoyu consumed in Japan, and is typically referred to as the regular Shoyu. This is the type you're most likely to find at most Japanese restaurants and the small dispensable type bottles with red caps are a common scene. Some restaurants also have a dispensable Shoyu bottle with a green cap. The green cap bottle is usually low-salt Shoyu, which will be mentioned later. Made from equal amounts of soybean and wheat, its (Koikuchi) characteristics include a strong aroma, a myriad of flavors and a deep, red-brown color. As an all-purpose soy sauce, you can use this type as a tabletop condiment or for preparing and cooking foods. Usually, this is the type you use when Shoyu is mentioned in a recipe, unless otherwise specified. Also, since this type is referred to as the regular Shoyu, typically there is no mentioning of Koikuchi on the label.

Usukuchi Shoyu
Making up about 14% of total Shoyu production in Japan, Usukuchi Shoyu is lighter in color than the Koikuchi Shoyu and is milder in flavor and aroma, which helps retain food’s natural color and flavor. For this reason, it is commonly used for cooking and is used extensively in Kansai (Western region of Japan) style cooking. The ratio of soybean to wheat is the same as Koikuchi Shoyu, but its fermentation is controlled to prevent color development. If you intend to cook a vast variety of Japanese dishes, you may want to keep a bottle on hand.

Tamari Shoyu
Unlike the other 2 types, Tamari is made with a larger proportion of soybean over wheat. In fact, some are made only with soybean and no wheat at all. It is typically darker in color and richer in flavor than the regular type. This can be used as is or by mixing it with regular Shoyu for dipping Sashimi. Teriyaki sauce and certain dishes use this type to give a glossy, shiny finish to food. It is also used commercially for processing foods and Japanese snacks such as Senbei (rice cracker). Although this type represents less than 2% of total Shoyu production in Japan, its presence on store shelves is increasing.

Saishikomi Shoyu
Saishikomi basically means twice-brewed. Like Koikuchi and Usukuchi, equal amounts of soybean and wheat are used, but raw (more on this next time) Shoyu instead of the brine (salt water) is mixed in before the second fermentation. It requires double the ingredients and time compared to brewing regular Shoyu. Because of this, it usually costs more and is normally used as a condiment rather than for cooking. It is darker and more flavorful than regular Shoyu, and also has a stronger aroma than Tamari Shoyu.

Also called Sashimi Shoyu and typically used for Sushi, Sashimi and cold Tofu (soybean curd), Saishikomi represents less than 1% of total Shoyu production in Japan. This type is most likely to be imported from Japan and sold typically only at Japanese grocery stores. For the ones I've seen, the type of Shoyu is indicated mainly in Japanese, so unless you can read Chinese characters or Japanese, look for an English label (Nutrition Facts label) attached to the product. Although most Shoyu makers call it Saishikomi, the English label reads Saijikomi.

Shiro (white) Shoyu
The name derives from its light color (Shiro meaning white in Japanese), which is much lighter in color than Usukuchi and almost resembles the color of beer. Unlike Tamari, this type is made with mostly wheat and very little soybean. Like Usukuchi, it’s mainly used for cooking, typically at up-scale restaurants, to retain the food’s natural color and taste, though, some prefer it as a condiment – for dipping Sushi and Sashimi. In fact, I’ve read somewhere about how it was used as a condiment at a banquet for Commodore Perry during his expedition to Japan in the 1850s. So, I guess that makes him the first American to taste Shiro Shoyu? Today, this type accounts for only about 0.6% of total Shoyu production in Japan. Like Saishikomi, this type is most likely imported as well and sold mainly at Japanese grocery stores. Look for the English label.

Thirdly, there are many different varieties of Shoyu for special needs and preferences. Here are some:

Low-Salt Shoyu
For people who are concerned about sodium intake, less-salt Shoyu, in which the salt content is reduced, is available. The salt is reduced to about half the amount compared to regular Shoyu, only after a normal brewing process takes place because the appropriate amount of salt is needed for proper fermentation. Lower salt content does not necessarily translate into lower in price – expect to pay slightly more for low-salt Shoyu. Also, there is a variation, or combination if you will, of low-salt Shoyu using whole soybeans.

Whole Soybeans vs. Defatted Soybeans
This is when it gets a little confusing, even for many Japanese. In modern times, most brewers have been using defatted soybeans, instead of using whole soybeans. When using whole soybeans, the oil residue from the soybean had to be removed from the fermented mash. In order to bypass this process, and among other reasons, Shoyu producers started using defatted soybeans. So, unless indicated (label), most Shoyu is made with defatted soybeans. Nothing wrong with that and it probably makes sense in terms of the mass production process.

But, the traditional method of using whole soybeans has an edge. The oil from the whole soybean turns into glycerin during fermentation and gives the Shoyu a milder taste and some people like that. Thus, like any product marketing, Shoyu using whole soybeans is added to the product line-up. And, yes you've guessed it - whole soybeans produced organically are added to the fleet of products as well, which leads us to the next variety.

Organic Shoyu
For those of you who are into organic food, this is your choice of Shoyu. Yes, certified by the USDA and QAI (this is not a spy agency; it stands for Quality Assurance International), organic Shoyu is available, too, using only organically grown soybean and wheat. Oh, for those who don’t want wheat, there’s Organic Tamari Wheat Free Shoyu. Wait, it gets even better - can you imagine going into a local grocery store and asking “Do you have Organic, Reduced-Sodium, Wheat-Free Tamari Shoyu?” If they don’t carry such a product, go online. You’ll most likely find it there.

Soy Sauce for Sushi and Sashimi
It seems like there is really no standard definition to this variety, often referring to Tamari or Saishikomi. In fact, the middle bottle in the photo reads Premium Quality Whole Grain Sashimi Shoyu with an additional mentioning of the type of Shoyu, which reads Saishikomi. Some makers produce this variation using their Koikuchi Shoyu with Mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine), Konbu (kelp) stock and/or other natural flavorings to make it milder and sweeter. Although, my understanding is, once other flavorings such as Mirin or Konbu are added, technically it is no longer categorized as Shoyu.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, some Japanese soy sauces are made here in the U.S. and many imported from Japan. The two main Japanese brands, Kikkoman and Yamasa, have factories in the U.S.; you’ve probably seen some of their products at major super markets across the country. Some of their imported versions, as well as other imported brands with various types and varieties, can be found at Japanese grocery stores and online.

Confused? I don’t blame you. I think even the Japanese are. Well, after all, we do live in a world where one major brand sells 7 different flavors of shaving cream. Just start with the regular type. Purchase a dispenser or a small bottle at first, check out the taste and compare with other brands. Then, try another type or variety and find the one that best suits your tastes and needs.

Just remember to purchase the one that says Naturally Brewed Soy Sauce on the front or back label. We’ll look into the brewing process and revisit the Shoyu topic more in the near future, simply because Shoyu rules!

Oh, by the way, once you open the bottle, always close the lid tightly and keep it refrigerated or in a cool place. Shoyu is really sensitive to high temperatures and exposure to air, so keep it tight and cool folks, and have a wonderful Shoyu Day!

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