Japanese Cooking 101, Lesson 4, Part 1 : Awase-zu (Vinegar Sauces) For Sunomono

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This is Lesson 4 of Japanese Cooking 101: The Fundamentals of Washoku.

So far in Japanese Cooking 101, we've covered how to: * Make proper dashi, the base stock used in many savory dishes in Japanese cooking (as well as miso soup and clear soup using that dashi) in Lesson 1; * How to make proper Japanese style rice, the base starch of most meals in Japan in Lesson 2; and * How to make nimono or stewed dishes in Lesson 3.

A typical Japanese meal consists of many small dishes to accompany the rice. At least one or two of those dishes is a relatively simple dish called aemono (和え物) a dish of vegetables and sometimes a small amount of protein such as seafood or tofu mixed with a sauce and served cold. One type of aemono is sunomono (酢の物), a sour-flavored dish. Think of it as a Japanese style side salad, using oil-free dressings. Sunomo are quite easy to prepare, can be made on the spot or a bit in advance, and are very refreshing as accompaniments to richer dishes.

There are two stages to preparing a sunomono dish:

  1. Making the sauce. This can be done as you need it, or in advance. You can also buy bottled versions of many of these sauces in Japan or in well stocked Japanese grocery stores elsewhere, but they aren't that hard to make from scratch. They're a lot less expensive if you make them yourself, plus you know exactly what's going in them. (Many commercial sauces have MSG and preservatives and so forth.)
  2. Prepping the vegetables and other ingredients. This means cutting and peeling, salting on occasion, and/or blanching. In washoku (traditional Japanese cooking) it's very rare to just eat vegetables raw without any kind of pre-processing such as blanching or salting. (The habit of eating raw vegetable salads became widespread in Japan only after World War II.)

In Part 1 we will be looking at the various sunomono sauces.

Awaze-zu or vinegar sauces: Sour + flavor

The su part of sunomono means vinegar, so sunomono sauces all consist of vinegar or a sour citrus juice plus flavorings. Collectively these sauces are called awase-zu (合わせ酢) or "combined vinegar". Here are some of the most commonly used awaze-zu, which can all be made in advance or just made on the spot as needed.

  • Nihai-zu (二杯酢): 3 parts rice vinegar and 2 parts soy sauce, e.g. 3 tablespoons rice vinegar to 2 tablespoons soy sauce. Just combine and it's done.
  • Sainbai-zu (三杯酢): 3 parts rice vinegar, 1 part soy sauce, 2 parts mirin (you can substitute sugar for the mirin); e.g. 3 tablespoons rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 2 tablespoons mirin or sugar. Combine and stir over low heat until the mirin has 'cooked' a bit (about 5 minutes) or the sugar has melted, and cool.
  • Ama-zu (甘酢) or "sweet vinegar": 3 parts rice vinegar, 2 parts sugar, a little salt; e.g. 3 tablespoons vinegar, 2 tablespoons sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt. Combine and stir over low heat until the sugar and salt have melted.
  • Tosa-zu (土佐酢): The ratio of ingredients for sanbai-zu (above) with a handful of katsuobushi (bonito flakes) added. Combine as for sanbai-zu and stir over low heat, and simmer for a few minutes and strain before using. You can also just add a small pinch of dashi stock granules to sanbai-zu instead. (Tosa-zu gets its name from Tosakuni, the old name for current day Kochi prefecture, which is still famous for its bonito and katsuobushi production.)
  • Goma-su (ごま酢), sesame vinegar: 2 parts vinegar, 2 parts sugar, 3 parts soy sauce and 4 parts toasted and ground sesame seeds, e.g. 2 tablespoons rice vinegar, 2 tabelspoons sugar, 3 tablespoons dark soy sauce, and 4 tablespoons toasted and ground sesame seeds. (You can use tahini instead although it's a lot better with the ground sesame seeds.)
  • See also: Nanban-su (南蛮酢) or Nanban sauce.
  • Ponzu or Pon-zu (ポン酢): This citrusy sauce is very versatile, and is used as a dipping sauce as well as for making sunomono. The citrus juice can be from any sour citrus; in Japan the most commonly used fruits are yuzu, daidai or kabosu, but lemon, lime, and sour orange can be used too. There are various recipes for ponzu - here are a couple of variations:
    • Classic ponzu: 3 parts rice vinegar, 3 parts soy sauce, 1 part dashi stock, 1/2 part citrus juice; e.g. 3 tablespoons rice vinegar, 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 tablespoon dashi stock and 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice, all combined.
    • Sweet ponzu: 3 parts rice vinegar, 4 parts soy sauce, 2 parts mirin or sugar, 1 part citrus juice, 1 part dashi stock; e.g. 3 tablespoons rice vinegar, 4 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons sugar, 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Combine and heat until the sugar has melted.
    • Ultra simple ponzu: 3 parts citrus juice, 1 part soy sauce, a pinch of sugar; e.g. 3 tablespoons lemon juice, 1 teaspoon soy sauce, a tiny pinch of sugar. This is my favorite formulation and I often omit the sugar. It's a great all-purpose citrusy sauce. (For a small amount just combine 1 tablespoon juice and 1 teaspoon soy sauce.)

Which sauce you use depends on the ingredients you are using in the sunomono, as well as personal preference.

Which type of vinegar and soy sauce?

The most used vinegar for awase-zu is rice vinegar (米酢), read as kome-zu or (less frequently) yone-zu. This is a very mild vinegar with a slight sweet flavor. You can experiment with other vinegars; for instance, white balsamico is quite interesting, with a pronounced sweetness that may allow you to omit or reduce the amount of sugar in a given recipe. Apple cider vinegar, kuro-zu or black vinegar and so forth are alternatives with distinct characteristics. If you can't get a hole of rice vinegar, try white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar.

The type of soy sauce that is preferred in most awase-zu recipes is usukuchi (薄口) or light colored soy sauce. Light does not mean it has less salt - it actually has more salt than dark colored soy sauce, but it's preferred since it is light in color and won't add any brown tint to the vegetables and so forth. But the "regular" type of soy sauce you can get usually is dark soy sauce, so if that's all you have that's fine too. Some types of awase-zu specifically call for dark soy sauce, such as Nanban sauce (nanban-su).

Tamari and other very dark soy sauce types are rarely used in awase-zu recipes, will give a definite brownish color to your dish. But again, flavor-wise they are fine to use, although since they are usually a bit lower in salt you may need to add a tiny pinch of salt depending on your taste.

Make ahead?

The awase-zu types that don't use perishable ingredients like dashi and citrus juice will keep for a few weeks in the refrigerator, in a sealed container. The awase-zu types with dashi or citrus juice will keep for a couple of weeks, but don't try to keep them for too long.

I've given you a lot of information here, but it's really not difficult: just pick one awase-zu that looks good to you (or that's called for in a recipe) and you're ready to go.

Go to Part 2: How to prep various vegetables for sunomono.

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