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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