Mirin is a kind of Japanese condiment that you absolutely cannot do without if you are exploring Japanese cuisine. It is a substance that is close to sake, but the sugar content is higher and the consistency is denser. It's sometimes referred to as "mirin sauce" but it is not habitually used as just a sauce, rather, it is one of the basic ingredients used for making Japanese style sauces such as the famous teriyaki one.
There are a couple of theories as to where mirin originates. According to a popular theory, it would have been brought from China during the Senkoku Era (the warring period of Japan from 1467-1568). During the later Edo Era, it's popularity spread and it started being drunk as is as a refined kind of sake called seishu (清酒).
Nowadays mirin is not drunk that way. The only exception is when it is used as a substance to soak medicinal plant and is consumed as a medicine. By far, it's primary use is as a condiment.
How mirin is made and the types of mirin
The basic way of making mirin is by steaming a kind of glutinous rice called mochi kome (餅米), and then adding some rice yeast called kome koji (米麹). Then shochu (a kind of Japanese spirit) is added. It takes about 60 days for the fermentation process to be complete. There is no sugar added. The sweetness comes entirely from the carbohydrates from the rice that are transformed by the fermentation.
Hon mirin (本みりん): The True Mirin!
Hon mirin literally means "true mirin". It has an alcohol content of about 14% so it is subject to the liquor tax and you have to be 20 or over to buy it. Kikkoman has a popular brand of hon mirin that sells for ¥446 for 600 ml. It is made according to the traditional method described above.
There is a wide range of quality in mirin. The company Fukuraijun (福来純) sells a hon mirin for ¥2,635. It's one of the finer quality mirin. It uses a blend of mochi rice and shochu rice. There is definitely a difference between a fine quality mirin and an average one!
Other types of mirin
Mirin fu chomiryo (みりん風調味料)
In order to avoid the liquor tax, makers made some mirin with an alcoholic content of less than 1%. This kind of mirin is called mirin fu (みりん風). It's not technically a real mirin but the taste is pretty close. Because of the very low alcohol content and the sweetness, this type of mirin oxidizes easily and can be contaminated with microorganisms. So once opened it's better to consume rapidly and keep it in a refrigerator. Some have no alcoholic content at all so they can be used in halal cuisine.
Another type of mirin with an alcoholic content of about 1,5% is the shio mirin. This one has salt added to it and with its low alcoholic content, it is still not subject to the liquor tax.
How to use mirin
There are so many recipes you can do with mirin. If you basically mix soy sauce and mirin, you will get a Japanese flavor.
The dish shown above is a mackerel fish prepared himono (干物) style using mirin. Himono means that it has been sun-dried with some mirin sprayed on it. You can buy these at store in Japan and you simply have to grill them or heat them up in a frying pan and they taste really exquisite! The savory flavor is quite strong.
Mirin is also used as a basic ingredient for making the soup of various types of Japanese nabe (hot pots). Try for instance this recipe of yosenabe for a great recipe using mirin!
And of course, there is the famous teriyaki sauce! The alcohol content of the mirin makes the meat extra tender and the sweetness makes the meat caramelizes a little at the end of the cooking process. Teriyaki is so good! It can be used for meat, fish and as a sauce for hamburgers for instance. Try these recipes in the following article if you are interested in cooking teriyaki dishes.
Mirin is a very versatile condiment, you can add it to all kinds of dishes to make things taste more Japanese! If you know how to use mirin and just a couple of other traditional Japanese condiments, you will be able to make very tasty Japanese meals in no time!