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.
As the taste for “forbidden” beef migrated northward in Japan, a new method for preparing it was born.
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.