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 Miraculous Mirin 

by John and Jan Belleme

If you have not discovered authentic mirin, you are in for a treat. An exquisite, versatile seasoning, it has the unique ability to coax and accentuate the flavors of bland or light-tasting foods. Its mild sweetness balances many dishes and tones down others, such as sea foods. Along with natural soy sauce and dashi (kombu stock), mirin is known as one of the three essential tastes of Japan. It complements arid balances the salty flavor of shoyu, tamari, and miso, and the sourness of vinegar or lemon. With a little experience, you can use mirin in a variety of ways to enhance both Asian and Western styles of cooking, and it is ideal for the new "East meets West" fusion cooking. However, finding real mirin can be a problem unless you know what to look for.

Once a thriving industry with over 200 companies, the processing of mirin did not survive the rice shortages of World War II or the post-war seventy-six percent liquor tax. As reported in the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, by 1959, Toshio Sumiya's family business was the only company in Japan using the traditional methods of mirin brewing. Sumiya Bunjiro Shoten was sole keeper of the flame until recently, when a handful of companies began the production of authentic mirin.

In 1910, when Sumiya's grandfather started the family shop, the production of mirin was a complex, exacting process requiring years of experience to master. After serving a long apprenticeship, Sumiya's grandfather chose the perfect location to begin his own business, an area in central Japan known as Mikawa, where three great rivers flow into the Bay of Ise. Now part of the Aichi prefecture, this region is known for its mild climate, high-quality rice, and excellent water. As a result of these ideal conditions, Sumiya's grandfather was able to produce a mirin that was rich and delicious beyond everyone's expectations. It was named Mikawa Mirin, literally "three-river mirin," in honor of its birthplace.

The labor-intense fermentation methods still used by the Sumiya family are steeped in the history and culture of pre-industrial Japan. More than a process, the family's work represents a way of life that, like Mikawa Mirin, is rare in the modern world. Although most mirin manufacturers, past and present, buy inexpensive shochu that has been distilled from molasses, the Sumiya family prepares its own spirits from hand-made koji, premium rice, and spring water. These ingredients are mixed together and stirred each day for about a month. The resulting alcoholic mash, called sake moromi, is placed into cotton sacks, pressed, filtered, and distilled into clear rice shochu. This completes the first phase of authentic mirin processing.
Next, 2,000 pounds of sweet glutinous rice are soaked and steamed. The cooked sweet rice is then added to the shochu together with more koji. This second mash, called "mirin moromi," is placed in 1,000-gallon enamel vats that are insulated with rice-straw mats. With the exception of an occasional stirring, the mirin moromi is left to ferment for about three months. Gradually, the koji enzymes break down the complex carbohydrates and protein of the glutinous rice into sweet, simple sugars and amino acids that blend with the shochu to form a delicious alcoholic rice pudding that, unfortunately, only traditional mirin manufacturers ever get to sample. Standing over the huge vats, Sumiya sniffs the sweet rising vapors to judge the progress of the developing mash. A quick taste confirms what his nose has already discovered; it's time to pump the mash into cotton sacks and press out its sweet essence. (The remaining flavorful pressed moromi is used to make delicious mirin pickles.) Finally, this sweet essence (immature mirin) is returned to the enamel vats and left to age for about 200 days.

During the hot days of the long Aichi summer, the subtle color and flavor of the mirin develops further. In the fall, Sumiya and his brothers eagerly sample their 70,000-gallon golden harvest and confirm that grandfather's recipe, unchanged after almost eighty years, yields mirin that is as delicious as ever. The mature mirin is then filtered through cotton and bottled, unpasteurized, for shipment to customers around the world. Continuing his grandfather's commitment to quality in modern times, Sumiya now offers Organic Mikawa Mirin.

When shopping for mirin, read labels carefully. Authentic and organic mirin, such as the Mikawa products, contain only sweet rice, water, rice and rice koji (natural rice culture). Another good quality product related to mirin, called aji no ha, is often sold as mirin, but it contains no sweet rice and has salt added. The ingredients are rice, water, rice koji and sea salt. As in cooking wine, sea salt is added to the finished product to avoid paying alcohol taxes.

Japan's traditional sweetener (before the introduction of white sugar), mirin enhances the flavors of sweet as well as savory sauces, vinaigrettes, stir-fries, fried noodles, sushi rice, and marinades. It is the "secret" ingredient that lends a characteristic flavor to Japanese noodle broths and dips for tempura and other deep-fried foods. Mirin is used to flavor many simmered dishes, including fish, shiitake mushrooms, reconstituted dried tofu, and deep-fried tofu. When simmering foods, use 1 tablespoon of mirin and 1 1/2 tablespoons of shoyu per cup of water or stock. The following simple mirin recipes are ones that we come back to time and again.

Teriyaki Tofu

Unexpected guests? This flavorful dish is quick and simple to prepare. (Serves 3)

-1 pound (1 large block) firm tofu
-3 tablespoons mirin
-2 1/2 tablespoons shoyu or tamari
-2 teaspoons ginger juice (finely grate root and squeeze to extract juice)
-2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil 2 tablespoons finely minced scallion

Cut tofu crosswise into six equal slices. Wrap slices in a clean, dry kitchen towel and gently press to remove excess moisture.

Combine mirin, soy sauce, and ginger juice, then pour mixture over tofu slices. Coat tofu on all sides and let marinate 15 to 20 minutes. Turn slices once or twice while marinating.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Remove tofu from marinade and set marinade aside. Drain excess liquid from tofu and fry on one side until lightly browned. (Be careful not to burn it.) Carefully turn slices and cook 2 to 3 minutes more, then add marinade and cook another 30 seconds.

Place tofu slices on individual serving dishes. Top each slice with a little of the remaining pan juices. Garnish with minced scallion, and serve hot.

Marinated White Fish Fillets

This simple dish enhances the delicate flavor of fresh white fish. It takes little time to prepare and, when properly cooked, is absolutely delicious. (Serves 3)

-3 tablespoons mirin
-1 tablespoon shoyu
-6 thin slices ginger root, diagonally cut
-1 pound white fish fillets (flounder, sole, snapper, scrod, sea bass, orange roughy, etc.), cut into 3 pieces
-3 cabbage or collard leaves to steam fish on
-2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
-1 teaspoon safflower or light sesame oil
-Dash chili oil (optional) 1 rounded teaspoon ginger, peeled and cut into thin julienne strips 1 scallion, cut on the diagonal into thin 1-inch strips

Combine mirin and shoyu in a large shallow dish. Completely coat fillets with this mixture, tuck ginger slices under fillets, and let marinate for 20 to 30 minutes, turning once. Arrange fish on a steamer tray lined with cabbage or collard leaves. Steam fish over rapidly boiling water until just white throughout and flaky (about 9 minutes for each inch of thickness). Transfer fillets to individual serving dishes.

In a small skillet, heat the oils. Add ginger strips and seal-lions, and saute 30 seconds. Immediately spoon heated mixture over fish. Serve immediately.

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