Answering Questions: Sake/mirin redux, bulk buying Japanese rice, and storing Japanese ingredients

Sake and other beverages

Answering Questions is a very sporadic series where I attempt to answer some of the backlog of questions I receive via email, via Facebook, or in comments to unrelated posts, the answers for which may be of interest to a broader audience. I’ve taken out any personal details and so on in the questions. Today I am answering some questions about Japanese ingredients, especially as they relate to the upcoming Japanese Cooking 101 course.

The sake, mirin and alcohol question redux

Since I listed both sake and mirin in my list of required ingredients for the Japanese Cooking 101 course, some people have asked me again about substitutions for one or both. This is the question I am most frequently asked by far on this site.

I do realize that using alcohol in any context is a no-go for some people, for religious, moral or health reasons. But the fact is, both sake and mirin are a fundamental part of Japanese cuisine. They are usually used in very small quantities - a spoonful or two at a time at most and always in cooked dishes, which gives time for some if not all of the alcohol to evaporate - but they often make all the difference in the taste a dish. And yes, Japanese children eat food prepared with one or the other all the time, and it's never considered to be a problem. (Keep in mind that fermentation, and tiny amounts of alcohol, are present in many foods that you may not even consider to be alcoholic, e.g. overrripe fruits.)

As I stated in the announcement for the course, one of the main objectives is to teach you what something is actually supposed to taste like when prepared the "authentic" way. While I do list substitutes for sake or mirin in most of my recipes where one or the other is normally used, for this course there will be no substitutes for either.

Sake and mirin are frequently used, always-stocked, common ingredients in a Japanese kitchen. There's a reason also why both are used, either in conjunction or separately; they have different purposes and flavors. Mirin is like a thin yet strong, sweet syrup with slight alcoholic undertones that gives a shine and unique depth of flavor to dishes it's added to. For instance, the 'teri' or shine of a real teriyaki comes primarily from the mirin in the teriyaki sauce. Sake is lighter, higher in alcohol, and better at counteracting the 'gaminess' in meat and fish as I described here: (The role of alcohol (and onions and ginger) in Japanese cooking.

I often recommend substituting sugar or another sugary substance like maple syrup or pineapple juice for mirin, and sometimes even for sake, but all that really does is to replace the sweetness. It does not replace the other flavors or characteristics.

As I mentioned in the alcohol and meat article, there are other alcoholic beverages you can substitute: dry sherry for sake, sweet sherry or xiaoxing (shaoxing) wine for mirin or a sake-mirin combo. I've also recently discovered when I ran out of sake that sweet vermouth makes an okay substitute for a sake-mirin combo.

But if you are taking the course, if at all possible please try to get a small bottle of both sake (cooking sake is fine) and mirin (hon-mirin is better, but aji mirin or mirin seasoning is ok too).

Question: Where can I buy Japanese rice/sushi rice in bulk to save money?

Most Japanese grocery stores stock up to 15 kg / around 30 lb bags of rice, which is quite a lot unless you have a large family. However, I don't recommend stocking more Japanese type rice than you can eat within a month or two at a time.

Japanese rice doesn't go bad if you store it for some time - no rice does really. However it does lose its desired flavor. Every kind of rice is different: for example, basmati rice tastes nuttier and more aromatic and cooks better for its intended purpose (i.e. in Indian dishes) when it has been aged for a minimum of a year. Japanese rice is very different: the fresher and higher in moisture content it is, the more it is prized -- to the extent that _shinmai_ or "new harvest rice" is highly prized and much anticipated every year. Rice that has been stored more than a few months is called furumai, old rice, and is considered undesirable.

We eat Japanese rice maybe 3-4 times a week in our house (we also eat other kinds of rice, especially basmati, the local Camargue rice, and Italian rices like vialone for risotto) but we only go through a kilo or so per month at most, especially now that I've reduced my rice portions quite a bit due to my diabetes. We buy rice in 5 kilo bags and repack it in airtight containers in 1-kilo portions to keep it as fresh as possible, and open as needed. (All our rice is stored at room temperature.) This is more cost-effective than buying the 1 or 2 kg bags, and allows us more choice in rice brands. If you do buy Japanese rice in bulk, consider doing something similar, especially if it's Japanese brown rice (genmai) or sprouted brown rice (haiga-mai). (See also: Looking at rice.)

Question: Should I store soy sauce in the refrigerator? What about other Japanese ingredients?

Many Japanese condiments and other ingredients will not go bad, as in become moldy or unpleasant or unsafe, if you store them at room temperature. But some of them will deteriorate in flavor after a time. Unless you are cooking Japanese or Asian food several times a week, that bottle of soy sauce may last you quite a time.

Here is how I store the main Japanese ingredients I have. Note: I do admit to having quite a lot of refrigerator space -- we have a big two-door fridge/freezer, plus a small counter-height refrigerator we were using for a while when we were in the midst of major house renovations and had no kitchen. So if you have limited refrigerator space, keep in mind that when I say something "must" be stored in the fridge that's what I mean; when I don't, it's not critical.

Please refer to the Essentials of a Japanese Pantry ingredient list for descriptions. See above for storing rice.

  • "Bulldog" type sauces: tonkatsu sauce, 'chuno' sauce, etc. - refrigerated after opening (The same goes for things like oyster sauce. Worcestershire sauce on the other hand is fine at room temperature.)
  • Dashi ingredients - konbu seaweed, katsuobushi (bonito flakes): tightly sealed and stored in the pantry. Dashi granules can also be stored in the pantry - they seem to last forever.
  • Furikake and other 'sprinkles': Store in the pantry, but use up within a month or two of purchase especially if they contain sesame seeds.
  • Mirin: Stored in the pantry open or unopened - it's quite sturdy.
  • Miso: Miso must be stored in the fridge, even before it's been opened, although in a pinch you can store sealed unopened miso in a cool pantry. "Live" miso will continue fermenting at higher temperatures. Use up opened miso within about 3-4 months if possible (although it won't become unsafe to eat, just lose its aroma somewhat).
  • Nori seaweed: Tightly sealed and stored in the refrigerator after opening, and used up within a week or so at most. Old nori is very unpleasant. Unopened packages can be stored in the pantry. Other dried seaweeds like wakame and hijiki can be stored in the pantry.
  • Pickled things in vinegar or brine like gari (sushi ginger), beni-shoga (red pickled ginger) and so on must be stored in the refrigerator after opening.
  • Sake: Stored in the fridge after opening; in the pantry if unopened.
  • Sesame oil: Store in the pantry, but use up within a couple of months of opening. The same goes for ra-yu or chili oil (used for gyoza dumplings and such).
  • Sesame seeds: I always store raw, untoasted sesame seeds in the freezer, where they keep longer before turning rancid. I take out some out and toast it periodically and store the toasted seeds in the kitchen, where it's used up within a week or so.
  • Shichimi (nanami) tohgarashi or 'seven ingredient' spice: Store in the refrigerator after opening. The sesame seeds in it can go rancid if you keep it at room temperature for too long.
  • Soy sauce: Once I open a bottle I store it in the fridge. Again, it will not go 'bad', but the flavor and color will go a bit 'off'. Nama-shoyu ('raw' soy sauce) and tamari are more fragile than regular soy sauce so should be stored in the fridge. I store unopened, sealed bottles in my rather cool pantry.
  • Umeboshi: Can be stored at cool room temperature, but I usually have it in the refrigerator. If you leave it exposed to air the plums will dry out, but still be edible.
  • Ume-su or ume vinegar: This is not a real vinegar, it's the pickling liquid from making umeboshi. Store in refrigerator after opening, or the color and fragrance fade.
  • Vinegar - the real kind, such as rice vinegar: Stored in the kitchen - it's fine at room temperature.

If I've omitted any Japanese ingredients you're not sure how to store, let me know in the comments.

Add new comment