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The ABCs of Japanese Cooking
#2 Mirin, sake, and miso

January 12, 2017

Hi, everyone! Welcome back!

As I said in the first article, if you're into cooking Japanese food, soy sauce is a must. But there are three seasonings that are just as vital-mirin, sake and miso. They pop up all the time in recipes. What exactly are they? How do you use them? And what do they taste like? Stick with me and you'll get some answers!


Have you ever tried cooking with mirin? Even if you haven't, you've probably tasted it before. It's a sweet liquid but it does more than sweeten.

1. What is mirin made from?
Mirin is made by fermenting steamed glutinous rice, kome-koji (rice with koji mold) and alcohol for about a couple of months. You then press and filter the result to make a sweet and slightly thick liquid.

2. What does mirin do?
First, it has a mild sweet flavor. But it also lends a luscious luster to foods!
It adds texture and prevents simmered foods from breaking down. It enhances and rounds out flavors, adding depth. Mirin helps tone down foods with a fishy or gamey taste.

3. How does mirin compare to sugar?
Mirin's about half as sweet.

4. So which should I use, mirin or sugar?
If you're aiming for a straightforward sweet flavor, use sugar.
If you want a refined sweetness and an appetizing glaze, use mirin.

Recommended recipes: Chicken Teriyaki, Pacific Saury Simmered with Ginger, Braised Carrots and Gobo Burdock Root

From Madam Akiko's Book of Trivia
Did you know that authentic mirin is actually thick sake? Back in the Edo period, people even used to drink it. Sip it and see! No more than a sip, though!


I'm sure you already know what a huge difference wine or brandy can make to a dish. In washoku -- Japanese cooking -- sake is used to boost flavor and add depth. If you're all set to try a recipe but find you're out of sake, you can make do with white wine! And if the dish requires just a hint of sweetness, try mirin instead of sake.


Miso is fairly easy to make at home. Every family used to have its own recipe that was handed down from one generation to the next. It's a delicious and versatile seasoning that warms body and soul. There's nothing quite like a bowl of mamma's miso soup! It's packed with love!

1. What is miso made from?
Steamed soybeans, rice or barley, fermented with koji mold and salt.

2. What does miso do?
Miso's got great umami. It adds depth, plus a savory and subtle sweetness. It's also an excellent tenderizer.

3. Types of miso
Miso can be divided into three categories, depending on what steamed ingredient you grow the koji mold on:

1. Rice miso

Soybeans, kome-koji (steamed rice and koji mold) and salt. This is the most common type of miso used throughout Japan.

2. Soybean miso

Soybeans, koji mold and salt. No rice. This has a very rich taste that's just bursting with umami.

3. Barley miso

Soybeans, barley-koji (barley and koji mold) and salt.

These are the three basic types. But depending on the region and the length of fermentation, you can get a huge variety of different flavors and colors. Some are pale and sweet. Others are dark and salty, and pack a powerful flavor punch.

Recommended recipes: Miso soup, Miso Simmered Mackerel, Stir-fried Miso Pork and Eggplant

From Madam Akiko's Book of Trivia
Even on busy mornings (every day, right?) or when you’re on your own, you can enjoy a bowl of miso soup in a jiffy if you stock up on homemade miso balls. They’re so simple to make. Just combine two teaspoons of miso with a teaspoon of bonito flakes and wrap the whole thing in plastic film. That’s it. And this will keep in the fridge for about a week. When you feel like a bowl of miso soup, all you have to do is unwrap a ball and pour hot water over it. Try adding different toppings like wakame seaweed and naga-negi long onions. Homemade fast food!

Madam Akiko's recipe of the day

I bet you're getting hungry. Let's start cooking!

Click here for the recipe!
Akiko Watanabe's Asari no misoshiru (Miso soup with clams)

Mini Quiz

Ahem! After a good meal, there's nothing like a good nap. But not until you answer my quiz!


The three basic types of miso in Japan are rice miso, soybean miso and barley miso.
True or false?

The answer is: True!

See also
#1 Soy sauce
#3 Knives and cutting boards
#4 Basic cutting techniques
#5 Otoshibuta drop lid
#6 Chopsticks Part 1
#7 Chopsticks Part 2
#8 Dashi
#9 How to cook rice without a rice cooker
#10 Dried foods
#11 How to make miso from scratch
#12 Homemade Tsukemono
#13 Mushrooms