What’s in Your Teriyaki Sauce?


Photo Credit: Sílvia Martín

The term teriyaki has become so popular that in most Westernized cities, anything marinated or served with a soy sauce based concoction is called a teriyaki dish. Taking advantage of its popularity, many food manufacturers have come up with readymade teriyaki sauces; cooks now just have to pour this flavorful mixture to come up with a distinctly oriental meal.

A Sauce with History

Most people associate teriyaki with Japanese cuisine and the word does have its historical roots around the 17th century in Japan. The “teri” in the word refers to the shiny texture of foods marinated or basted with sugar, while the “yaki” can be interpreted as grilling. Ironically, teriyaki sauce is believed to have originated in Hawaii, where Japanese immigrants adjusted their cooking to come up with a mixture using soy sauce and local products such as pineapple juice.

The sauce known today as teriyaki is handed down from what these immigrants invented and popularized. In the 1960’s, when Japanese food started to become popular in the United States, teriyaki became a term associated with Japanese dishes made with a sauce composed of brown sugar, soy sauce, rice wine, and corn starch.

What’s in that glaze/dip?

Teriyaki sauce today is used as a marinade, as a glaze, and as a dip. It will contain the usual ingredients, and you can buy it off a grocery shelf, or you can spread your culinary wings a bit and make your own. In My Basic Teriyaki Marinade/Dip, Rhonda Adkins says, “I never ever buy teriyaki marinade or sauce at the grocery store.  1) it is so easy to make 2) the homemade version tastes way better 3) I know exactly what’s in it 4) it’s definitely cheaper 5) it uses standard pantry items 6) it is so easy to make…wait I said that already.  It is so easy to make, it is easier than going to the store and buying it!

“I use the marinade for several recipes , it’s a natural with chicken, pork, steak and even my Maui Wowie burgers.  To turn it into a sauce just add some cornstarch, heat it up and like magic, it is transformed!  I promise you’ll use this recipe over and over…”

Her version is faithful to the sauce’s Hawaiian roots; she puts a cup of pineapple juice in the mix. She also uses a cup of soy sauce, half a cup of packed brown sugar, a teaspoon each of garlic powder and ground ginger. Stirred together, these ingredients make a nice marinade. If you intend to prepare a sauce,  all you need to do is add a tablespoon of cornstarch per cup of marinade and simmer the mixture until the cornstarch is cooked and the sauce is sufficiently thickened.

A Search for Authenticity

Andrea Nguyen writes about authentic teriyaki in True Chicken Teriyaki Recipe, her article in Viet World Kitchen. She says a friend prepared chicken teriyaki for her, and it did not taste like the teriyaki she was used to in the States. In her article she notes that teriyaki was more popular outside of Japan than within the country.

Andrea Nguyen quotes from Shizuo Tsui’s book, Japanese Cooking, “Many foods that are grilled also can be pan-broiled over high heat in their own fat or with a film of oil in the pan, or quickly browned and sauteed. Since the use of a pan or grilled also is defined by the verb yaki, such cooking is part of the wide yakimono (“grilled things”) category.

“…While cooking over charcoal is the orthodox Japanese approach, a pan is often employed, even though it’s a stepchild kind of technique. He notes that certain things are cooked in a skillet only. While neither Tsuji or Shimbo say so, both of their recipes for chicken teriyaki call for cooking in a skillet, then finishing the chicken with the sauce to coat it with color and flavor…”

To season four large boneless, skinless chicken thighs, her recipe calls for half a cup of mirin, one fourth cup each of Japanese soy sauce and sake, two tablespoons sugar, salt, black pepper, canola oil, and green onions. Instead of broiling the chicken over coals, she simply pan broils it.

What’s Good with Teriyaki

In Wines with Beef Teriyaki, Dan Miller says, “Matching wines with Beef Teriyaki means matching more than just beef. The teriyaki sauce adds several new dimensions.

“Wines that match well with Beef Teriyaki include full flavored wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Mmerlot, Zinfandel, and most Red Bordeaux wines wines (since they are usually Cabernet or Merlot based). Big red wines from the Rioja region of Spain will also work. Pinot Noirs and most Red Burgundies may be a little too light to stand up against the teriyaki sauce.”

A final note: Life is for living and teriyaki is for enjoying. If you prefer to have sake or beer with your teriyaki, go right ahead and simply enjoy!

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