Mirin, Mirin style flavouring and Cooking Sake

Mirin, Mirin style flavouring and Cooking Sake

If you are cooking some Japanese food, you will need a few Japanese seasonings. The most common ones are 酒(さけ/sake – Japanese rice wine), 醤油(しょうゆ/shouyu – soy sause – although this can be universal these days), 味噌(みそ/miso – fermented soybean paste) and probably 味醂(みりん/”mirin.”) I have talked about sake and miso before, so I’m going to concentrate on “mirin” today.

I have heard many people say they can’t cook a certain Japanese food because they can’t get hold of “mirin“. However, if you know what it is or what it is like, it is not that difficult to find a substitute.
The real “mirin” is made from steamed glutinous rice and alcohol. It contains 14 to 15 % alcohol and lots of sugary molecules. So it is similar to sake, but unlike sake, it is very sweet. People used to (or maybe still) drink it like “sherry” – so you can substitute it with “sherry” most of the time. The only thing is “sherry” can bring sourness to the food as well. If you don’t want that to happen, and if you can get hold of sake, then you can add sugar to sake. The ratio is apparently 1 teaspoon (5ml) of sugar to 1 Tablespoon (15ml) of sake.
These days you can find all sorts of “teriyaki” sauces in supermarkets and that is another thing you can use as a “mirin” substitute because teriyaki sauce is basically a mixture of soy sauce, sake and mirin. If your recipe requires both soy sauce and mirin, using “teriyaki” sauce would be perfectly fine. By the way, the word 照り焼き(てりやき/teriyaki) is the combination of  照る (てる/teru – to shine) and 焼く (やく/yaku – to grill) , so altogether “teriyaki” means “glossy grill” and it is “mirin” that gives that gloss to “teriyaki“.
Earlier I said “real mirin” contains alcohol. The reason why I used the word “real” is that there is a mirin substitute produced and sold in Japan as well. In Japanese it is called みりん風調味料(みりんふうちょうみりょう) which is like “mirin style seasoning”. This seasoning contains less than 1% of alcohol but more sugar. Because of the sugar, this also gives suitable “gloss” to the grilled food. I can find this in local supermarkets here in a country town Australia. By the way, in order to distinguish “real mirin” from these substitutes, the real mirin is called 本みりん(ほんみりん) sometimes.
If you see 料理酒(りょうりしゅ), cooking sake, in a supermarket, you can of course use it as a substitute for sake but cooking wine always contains quite a bit of salt, so make sure you use less salt than your recipe suggests.
Any alcohol, including real mirin, incur liquor tax in Japan, and until recently supermarkets in Japan were not allowed to sell any taxable alcohol, so they developed undrinkable (thus untaxable) “cooking sake” and “mirin style seasoning” so that people can buy them easier in supermarkets and cheaper without paying liquor tax. (Because mirin is considered an alcoholic beverage, you may be asked to show your ID when buying mirin if you look young.)

I prefer using “real” mirin and drinkable dry sake for cooking as they both have other merits such as taking fishy/bloody smell away, making meat tender, etc.. Anyway, please try to find these substitutes and try cooking more Japanese food!

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