Written and illustrated by Misa Ono
“Mirin” is an essential seasoning for Japanese cuisine. It is used for many dishes as a sweetener, soup for udon or soba noodles, or sauce for grilled eel or chicken. Mirin is mainly used to add sweetness. Many people who use sugar instead of mirin says “What’s mirin for?” I always tell them “You can also drink it. Aged mirin tastes like sweet sherry.” Then they were surprised “What!? Can we drink mirin!?” … Of, course, otherwise you don’t use mirin for cooking. But not the cheap “mirin-flavored sweetener” though. Only real mirin with alcohol is drinkable and tastes good.
Mirin with alcohol may be considered as an alcohol so be careful not to say “I have good alcohol in my bag” when you pass customs at the airport overseas. Drinking mirin is just my personal preference because I think mirin is delicious. I normally buy mirin in a 1.8L bottle. When it’s freshly opened, it is with champagne color and mild sweetness. As time goes, it becomes darker in color, tastier and more delicious. Amber color, sweet and rich in umami.
Sipping this mirin is an amazing moment, as sipping sweet sherry. If you feel it is too sweet, add soda water or ice. During New Year celebrations in Japan, people traditionally have a drink called “toso” which is made with medicinal herbs “tososan”, soaked in the same amount of mirin and sake (the portion may differ depending on people). I love toso. It tastes like sweet herbal liquor. It may be only me who mix it with soda water but it is really good!
In cooking, sugar may be good enough to sweeten the dishes. However, mirin has additional good features such as rich umami and exquisite sweetness. I often make meals with mirin, not sugar. Other positive features of mirin, it makes ingredients shiny, removes fishy smells, helps ingredients keep its shape and absorb seasonings well, as well as enhances the flavor and umami of ingredients. Sugar doesn’t have these features. Start to use mirin and see how different your dishes will be!