The Japanese have a great affection for a thick slice of juicy su-te-eki, a “steak” in Japanese. This love affair with beef officially began about 130 years ago, when the emperor lifted the ban on eating it. But the rich flavor of beef had seduced the country (especially the local feudal lords) far earlier, ever since its arrival with the European traders in the sixteenth century. When one local warlord wanted to send a tribute to the Shogun in the capital, he sent “forbidden” beef. To preserve the beef for the weeks-long journey, he covered it in miso (a salty, fermented soybean paste). Thus was born a now-classic Japanese dish, gyuniku no misozuke, or beef marinated in miso.
The high salt content of the miso preserves the meat and also alters its texture, making it slightly firmer. At the same time, the miso transfers its aroma and flavor to the meat.
Today in Japan, sliced, miso-marinated beef is available at any supermarket, and as a result, not many people do their own marination. I still do because I like having control over the quality of the beef and the proportion of marinade ingredients. I use a thick cut of sirloin steak and strong brown miso, called akamiso. The original version used sweet white miso, but I find that the robust flavor of brown miso perfectly complements and enhances the richness of the beef.
It’s important that no miso marinade is clinging to the steak when it’s seared because the miso would burn and make the steak bitter. Sandwiching layers of cheesecloth between the steak and the marinade solves this problem; the steak doesn’t touch the miso but still picks up its flavor and aroma. Although you could rub the steak directly with the miso mixture, you would need to spend extra time thoroughly removing all the miso residue with paper towels; rinsing the beef with water would wash away the flavor.
Marination time can range from five hours to overnight. The steak shouldn’t stay in the miso marinade longer than ten hours, or it will dry out and get tough.
It isn’t so traditional to make a sauce, but I like to use some of the miso marinade, mirin, and brandy to drizzle on the thinly sliced seared steak before serving.
One reason that miso-marinated steak is such a great introduction to Japanese cooking is that its special- ingredient list is short— just miso, mirin, and sake, and three staple ingredients in any Japanese pantry and all are available in North America in most Asian specialty stores. You can also find theses products online at www.katagiri.com, www.southrivermiso.com, and www.uwajimaya.com.
Miso (soybean paste)
Miso adds saltiness as well as its complex flavor and aroma to soups, sauces, dressings, marinades, and simmered and stir-fried dishes. Resembling peanut butter in texture without being oily, miso is also a rich source of protein and other nutrients. It’s made by fermenting soybeans with cereal grains like rice and barley, salt, and water. By varying the proportion of ingredients and the fermentation time, the producer can alter the color, flavor, saltiness, and texture of the miso. For the recipe Miso-Marinated Sirloin Steak (Gyuniku no misozuke), choose brown miso, also called akamiso or red miso. An open package of brown miso keeps for three to four months in the refrigerator, longer in the freezer.
Mirin (sweet cooking wine)
The sweet golden-yellow wine called mirin was once drunk as an apéritif, just as the Spanish sip sherry. This was back when mirin was made artisanally with authentic ingredients, including glutinous rice. Today, most mirin is made from other starches and is mass-produced, making it unsuitable for drinking straight. Mirin’s role in Japanese cooking is as a sweetener—it’s more refined and mellower than table sugar and has a distinctive fragrance. When used in a basting sauce, mirin gives meats and fish an appealing gloss. In a marinade, mirin tenderizes in addition to providing flavor.
The best mirin may be labeled honmirin: honjozo (“true mirin: naturally brewed”). Even though this isn’t “real” mirin in the artisanal sense, it does retain some of the traditional processing steps. Lower quality mirin is sold under the name mirin-fu chomiryo (“a kind of mirin”) and aji-mirin (“mirin taste”). Refrigerated, mirin will retain its flavor for two months. A substitute for mirin is 1 Tbs. sake or white wine plus 2 tsp. sugar.
Sake (rice wine)
Sake (pronounced sah-kay or sah-kee) is made by fermenting a particular variety of rice. When used in a marinade, it tenderizes meat. Sake also removes unpleasant odors from ingredients while adding a fragrance of its own. Although sake types and quality vary widely in Japan, here in North America, the options are limited. Avoid “cooking sake,” which ranks in quality right down there with “cooking wine” sold in supermarkets. Instead, buy a bottle of modestly priced sake in a wine store. Sake can be dry or sweet; choose dry, as its higher acidity helps balance food’s flavor. Once opened, sake fades quickly. It won’t become undrinkable for some time, but as with any fine wine, oxidation kills its flavor and quality within days.
Books on Japanese cooking
To learn more about the cooking of Japan, Hiroko recommends Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji, in addition to her own book, The Japanese Kitchen.