The role of alcohol, onion and ginger in Japanese meat dishes

One of the most frequently asked questions here is about substituting or leaving out sake or mirin from a dish (most recently to the chicken karaage recipe). This reminds me of how certain ways of thinking exist in Japanese and East Asian cooking, that may not necessarily exist in many types of Western cooking. One of those is the perception of the flavor of meat.

Whenever meat is used in traditional Japanese cuisine (including Okinawan cuisine), it is almost always cooked with one or more of the following ingredients: leek or another member of the onion family; ginger; alcohol in the form of sake or mirin; or sugar. All of these ingredients serve a single purpose, besides adding flavor and in some cases, sweetness - to counteract the perceived gaminess of meat. This gaminess is quite disliked, so you don’t really see dishes that involve meat that’s just been cooked plain, as you see in Western cuisines. Dipping sauces also often serve the same purpose.

Alcohol also serves as a tenderizer in many recipes. And importantly, sake and mirin also helps to draw out or enhance the umami in food (see my related article in the Japan Times, about using sakekasu or sake lees for cooking.)

Here are some examples of the use of alcohol, onion or ginger in recipes:

  • For chicken karaage grated ginger and sake both counteract any gamy quality in the chicken.
  • In this nibuta (poached and marinated pork) recipe, leeks, ginger and umeboshi in the poaching liquid all serve to counteract the pigginess of pork.
  • This panfried and poached duck breast recipe is not exactly traditional, but follows traditional methods and thinking. Here the alcohol (mirin, wine and brandy) in the marinade counteract the gamy quality of the duck, as does the wasabi the sliced meat is served with.

This principle is also true for many of the regional varieties of Chinese cooking, especially the Cantonese or Hong Kong style which is the most familiar to Japanese palates. In the pork filling for gyoza dumplings, grated ginger, green onions and garlic (or the more usually used garlic chives or nira) all counteract the pork’s pigginess. The vinegar or hot chili oil that’s added to the soy sauce for dipping also cut the gaminess. (Mustard serves the same function in the dipping sauce for shuumai dumplings.)

A very simple method of dealing with ground pork, a much used ingredient, in Cantonese style cooking is to add water which has been flavored by leeks that have been bruised and steeped in it for a few minutes. Sometimes freshly cut ginger is added to this water as well. One of the simplest and best fillings for wonton dumplings is ground pork that has been flavored with leek-water alone.

So, the next time you are looking at a Japanese (or other East Asian) recipe with meat in it, and wonder about substituting or leaving out any of these ingredients, keep in mind that that will affect the outcome of the dish quite a lot.

Substitutes for sake and mirin

  • Sherry is often recommended as a substitute for either sake or mirin. Use dry sherry instead of sake, and a sweet sherry instead of mirin.
  • Chinese xiaoxing wine can be used instead of mirin, although the former is much stronger and a bit sweeter.

If you cannot have alcohol at all

Some religions, such as Islam, prohibit the use of any kind of alcohol whatsoever. You also may be determined to totally eliminate alcohol from your diet - if you are an alcoholic for example.

The alcohol in sake and mirin (not to mention wine, etc.) evaporates at around 70 degrees C (about 150 degrees F; the boiling point of water is 100 degrees C), so if you add sake or mirin to food as it cooks, the temperature should rise well above that. Therefore, using sake or mirin in cooking should not have any effects on an alcoholic - the miniscule amount of alcohol that could be left over is about the same that occurs naturally in ripe fruit. Japanese literature for alcoholics does not prohibit the use of sake and mirin in small amounts in cooking.

If you must avoid alcohol totally however for whatever reasons, there really is no straightforward substitute for sake or mirin. Your only choice is to simply omit it from the recipe you are using. You may add some sugar to substitute for the sweetness in the mirin, but it’s the alcohol as much as anything that causes the food to become less gamy, more tender, and simply taste better. I’ve seen some sites recommend sugar or honey etc. as a substitute for mirin, and I’ve even done it myself for the sake of expediency, but to be honest is not a straight-up, equivalent substitution, but simply a replacement of the sweetness.

Without sake or mirin, the taste of the food will be different. Unfortunately, you cannot have it both ways in this case.

See also

Soy sauce based dipping sauces used in Japanese cuisine.

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Really, the only problem I

Really, the only problem I have with cooking with sake is I can’t legally buy it. I’m not the legal drinking age yet, so buying alcohol, even just for cooking, is out of the question.That’s the only reason I’m wondering about how I can leave out the sake.

KT | 1 October, 2008 - 05:54

buying underage

I'm very much underage, and I look even younger, but they never ask me for an ID. I think it's because I buy cooking wine... I'm not totally sure, haha. Usually cooking wine is obviously cooking wine, though.

anon. | 21 January, 2009 - 03:34

Re: The role of alcohol, onion and ginger in Japanese meat ...

I actually live in Japan, and am well over the legal age for buying alchohol. That aside, I have not been shopping back stateside in a while, but I know that the sake and mirin that I purchase for cooking here is rather different from the bottled sake that you would buy for drinking.

As the last guy said about cooking wine, it is obviously packaged for cooking.

Ken | 14 April, 2009 - 09:24

Cookin vs drinking

I've noticed that most "cooking wines" have a lot of salt added so that they're not drinkable. Last time I used a chinese cooking wine I couldn't figure out why my soup came out super salty till I realized 8% of the volume of the wine was salt. Not something you'd want to drink. That's probably why someone might not check ID - you'd get sick before you got drunk. I don't know about cooking sake though. Haven't looked at that yet.

JahTeo | 11 November, 2009 - 06:07

Re: The role of alcohol, onion and ginger in Japanese meat ...

Hi! I'd like to get know something about alcohol.

Is sake meant to be drank before (as apéritif) or after meal (as digestif)? Or it's not distinguished in Japanese conception? And what about umeshu?

And something more about umeshu. I've just bought delicious drink labeled Chinese Plum Wine. I'd like to know, if it's made of ume plums or regular plums. It was quite cheap (cca 6€) and it smells and tastes just like regular plums, but I've never had ume, so I can't tell.

Thanks for your answers and for these sites!

L'petit prince | 29 September, 2009 - 19:14

Re: The role of alcohol, onion and ginger in Japanese meat ...

is sake or alcohol often use in japan to make onigiri?

girl | 30 October, 2009 - 15:29

Re: The role of alcohol, onion and ginger in Japanese meat ...

No alcohol is used in the rice part, so unless it's used in the filling (it's not in the standard fillings like umeboshi, salmon etc) it's not.

maki | 30 October, 2009 - 20:14
vampiremb | 21 November, 2010 - 19:50

Re: The role of alcohol, onion and ginger in Japanese meat ...

Yes, sake is very often used to make onigiri, by the chef *hicks*.

Guruman | 30 October, 2009 - 20:19

Re: The role of alcohol, onion and ginger in Japanese meat ...

I have mirin, but not sake. Does mirin make a halfway decent substitute in recipes that call for sake?

anon. | 16 June, 2010 - 00:49

Re: The role of alcohol, onion and ginger in Japanese meat ...

Wonderful site! I've used it several times in addition to my Japanese cookbooks.

There's a common mistake though, when you say there's virtually no alcohol left if you cook the food.

Alcohol does evaporate at 70 degrees Celcius, but it does so gradually in any case (as does water at 100 degrees) and slower if it is mixed with other ingredients. If you've marinated a steak it may not even reach 70 degrees in the center, or do so for only a short time.

This site has some times and percentages http://www.ochef.com/165.htm - I've seen it elsewhere, but this was the first place i found today.

ivar | 18 August, 2010 - 15:29

Re: The role of alcohol, onion and ginger in Japanese meat ...

OK!! This is probably THE most important article I have ever read in the past 12 years that I have been learning about Japanese cuisine!!!

First allow me to thank and congratulate you (maki) for telling us what no one seemed to be able explain!

Second.. I totally understand the substitution methods and agree with you.. however I am currently planning to open a Japanese restaurant in Egypt.. I am not allowed to use alcohol AT ALL! Even after evaporation if anyone sees the sake in the kitchen I could be in big trouble. SO........

Along the 12 years of being a Japanese home chef I have used (though I'm afraid to say it) vinegar instead of sake and I am not sure how different it could be for the end result.. BUT.. if the whole point is to get rid of the gaminess then I'm pretty sure that the acidity in (small amounts of) vinegar could have a similar effect and do the trick!

PLEASE.. correct me if I am wrong :)

Thank you very much

vampiremb | 20 November, 2010 - 03:32

Re: The role of alcohol, onion and ginger in Japanese meat ...

I do not think that vinegar will add the right flavor, so I would just reserve the use of vinegar for dishes that call for a sour flavor. If you are not allowed to use alcohol, I would just leave it out and use sugar to add the sweet flavor. Try working with ginger and things from the onion family to get rid of the 'gamy' flavor. However, I think that most of your customers will not notice the lack of sake/mirin in any case.

maki | 22 November, 2010 - 00:41

Re: The role of alcohol, onion and ginger in Japanese meat ...

WOW!! Maki.. thank you so so much.. you are great help! Can I contact you by email sometime?

vampiremb | 25 November, 2010 - 13:40

Re: The role of alcohol, onion and ginger in Japanese meat ...

I do prefer to answer questions about food and cooking and so on in comments, because that way a lot of people can read them and benefit. ^_^

maki | 25 November, 2010 - 23:21

Re: The role of alcohol, onion and ginger in Japanese meat ...

Ok.. ^-^

How long can you keep a 'mentsuyu' mixture (instant granulated or fresh dashi, soy, sugar) in the fridge?

vampiremb | 29 November, 2010 - 04:29

Re: The role of alcohol, onion and ginger in Japanese meat ...

It should keep for a few weeks, maybe up to 3 months. Take a look at this post (written back in 2004, I should mention I no longer make the Japanese Essence mixture since I found it wasn't as versatile as I thought it might be. I do have a bottle kaeshi aroun most of the time (kaeshi recipe) however, which keeps even out of refrigeration.

maki | 29 November, 2010 - 16:13

Re: The role of alcohol, onion and ginger in Japanese meat ...

It's true ... When my Japanese friend came over for an event we made sukiyaki without the sake since we had none and the shops were closed. Really does change the flavour. Similar to ginger in gyu-don, makes a HUGE difference in taste that I wouldn't cook it without the ingredients if I can help it.

hibanarei | 20 March, 2011 - 08:43

Re: The role of alcohol, onion and ginger in Japanese meat ...

I can't have alcohol at all, so at first I was having conflicting feelings about making bentos. But, I found a non-alcoholic mirin in a regular American supermarket called Kikkoman Kotteri Mirin, and I use it all the time now. I'm kinda sad that it's not the real thing, but happy that I can avoid alcoholic mirin and make bentos :)

Dugong | 18 April, 2012 - 00:00

Re: The role of alcohol, onion and ginger in Japanese meat ...

Is there specific sake for cooking? Or a certain type that is better suited to cooking? Or can you buy any sake?

Rachel | 28 May, 2012 - 19:55

apple juice or pineapple juice

I'm a moslem,I've ever heard that we can subtitute mirin with apple juice(or apple vinegar) and pineapple juice to subtitute mirin..so what do you think?is that really work?
I never taste mirin..so I can't tell the differences between the one which is using mirin with the one which is not

eve | 21 August, 2012 - 18:06

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