What’s Special About True Rice Wine? -1
CHIBA -Teriyaki is a well-known and popular cooking style in the world. You are probably familiar with teriyaki burgers and teriyaki sauce. The secret of teriyaki’s sweet taste is the golden combination of shoyu soy sauce and sweet rice wine called mirin. Although you probably have tasted teriyaki before, you may not know much about mirin wine. A lot of Japanese people consider mirin to be just an old-fashioned condiment used for fish teriyaki or nikujaga braised meat and potatoes.
Compared to soy sauce and miso soy bean paste, mirin keeps quite low-profile. However, mirin is a must-have item to give sweetness and gloss to your cooking. Sometimes honey or sugar is used instead of mirin to function in the same way. But that’s an inferior replacement. Real teriyaki requires shoyu soy sauce and authentic mirin.
Real mirin is a sweet wine made of steamed glutinous rice, malted rice and shochu distilled liquor*1. Not knowing its ingredients, many Japanese people would probably be surprised to learn that mirin is drinkable as it is. Real mirin is an alcoholic beverage with an alcohol contact of about 14%.
In fact, there are at least three kinds of mirin*2. First is made by “the old-style brewing” method, which is natural fermentation with no chemical compounds used; second is industrial hon-mirin, which controls fermentation time; third is a mirin-like condiment which does not include alcohol (unlike real mirin, this isn’t drinkable!).
In this story, we’ll focus on the first-category alcoholic mirin without any additives.
Old-style mirin started to be produced in the 16th century. In the 17th century, it became popular as a sweet and easy-to-drink alcoholic beverage. By the 19th century, mirin came to be used as skewered eel sauce and buckwheat noodle dipping sauce. Until the mid-20th century, mirin was one of the expensive condiments used at high-end Japanese restaurants. It was only after the 1960s that mirin appeared on supermarket shelves. After that, mirin became a regular condiment for Japanese cuisine at home.
Mirin’s sustained low profile is obvious by its place on the supermarket shelf. While the spaces for shoyu, miso and other imported and new condiments are easy to spot, the space for mirin is rather small. Many artificial sweeteners have been developed, which have altered the quality of home cooking and might be one of the reasons that mirin has been driven into a corner. Due to the rising popularity of koji (fermented) rice malt in recent years, a little more attention has been paid to mirin again. Mirin’s demand may continue grow.
In Nagareyama City in Chiba Prefecture, koji rice malt meister Sachiko Takagi is an ambassador for mirin’s benefits. She lectures on mirin at events open to the general public.
As a mother of three, she obtained the meister license last year after she became interested in koji rice malt and other traditional Japanese condiments. She established an organization named Cozy Kitchen and talks about the history and properties of mirin.
The place where she fulfils this role is the home of mirin. Nagareyama boasts a significant proportion of Japan’s mirin production. Her lecture now attracts a lot of people, including mothers who are interested in fermented food and safe condiments. It is natural that a mother wants to give safe food to her child. Even so, the extent of mothers’ enthusiasm for each event is surprising and a real delight.
What is the significance of the differences between mirin and the old-style mirin? What’s special about mirin at all? Its history is probably not widely known.
In pursuit of in-depth knowledge of mirin, Sachiko and I visited Kubota Distillery in Noda, Chiba Prefecture, which was founded in 1872. Yoshitaro Kubota, president of the distillery, gave us a full tour of his factory. He taught us how to make mirin by showing us a variety of equipment.
Broadly, there are seven processes before mirin is bottled. Glutinous rice will be polished and steamed. This will be mixed with malted rice, which takes two days to complete. Then it will be soaked in clear shochu liquor to create the main fermenting mash called moromi. By the way, Kubota’s wooden rice malt chamber is large enough to accommodate 10 people. With this factory’s method, shochu-soaked glutinous rice and rice malt are brewed for three months, one month longer than the regular way of doing. It takes longer because rice malt is harder than regular rice. After ripening it, the brewed ingredient is squeezed in order to separate the liquid from the strained lees. The liquid is bottled. In the process of ripening, rice starch has converted into natural sugar. Thanks to the enzyme generated by koji mold, sugars, amino acid and organic acid, among other things, are generated, forming soft and natural sweetness and full-bodied umami idiosyncratic to traditional mirin. This is the Kubota’s old-style, real mirin distributed under the brand “Koshiki Hon Mirin” (“Old-Style Authentic Mirin”). The production is limited due to its hand-made method and the extra time and labors required.
There are several kinds of mirin each with a different color, from reddish to whitish. Kubota’s old-style mirin is clear light yellow, almost transparent. This translucent color is made possible by suppressing the umami and filtering twice. It is a delicate, pure color. Yoshitaro said, “Mirin contains several kinds of sugar, giving our product sophisticated and complex sweetness and umami. Rice malt melts rice when making mirin. If you leave it as it is, the color will turn reddish. Our product is ‘white mirin’ made by less umami ingredients and thorough filtering.”
Yoshitaro, as the fifth generation of Kubota Distillery owners, told us that good koji rice malt means high enzyme force, which breaks down sugars efficiently. This is called a high-saccharification koji rice malt. When it comes to the kind of koji rice malt, the benefit lies in each of their different functions. For example, koji rice malt that contains a lot of the enzyme that break down sugars is perfect for mirin; koji rice malt that contains a lot of the enzyme that breaks down proteins is perfect for miso soy bean paste.
If the saccharifiation force is high, it tends to convert the original ingredients into something else. It multiplies synergy, as though “one plus one becomes four or five”. This is what is exciting about fermented food. “When we realize the quality level that we aim for, it is a great pleasure for me,” said Yoshitaro. “Nothing is more worthwhile than making our customers happy.”
Continued to Part 2
*1: Some factories use material alcohol instead of distilled spirit to make traditional mirin.
*2-3: Sachiko Takagi’s textbook, “Cozy Book, Nagareyama Mirin.”