Teriyaki is a Japanese cooking technique in which foods are broiled or grilled with a glaze of mirin*, saké, soy sauce and sugar†.
Proportions vary according to recipe: You can create a more sweet or more savory sauce, a thicker or a thinner sauce. Here‘s a basic teriyaki sauce recipe.
The alcohol in the glaze gives a luster (teri) to the grilled (yaki) protein; the brown color comes from the caramelization of the sugar.
Proper preparation of teriyaki involves repeated applications of the sauce during the latter stage of cooking, until the sauce thickens and acquires luster (the meat or fish can also be marinated in the teriyaki sauce up to 24 hours before cooking).
While some Americans grilling the meat and then pour on the sauce, this does not produce the same results.
The addition of garlic, ginger, sesame seeds and/or and chiles to teriyaki may be tasty, but is not traditional. The bottled teriyaki sauces that contain them are actually versions of the spicier Korean bulgogi sauce, which features garlic and hot chiles.
Teriyaki dishes are served with steamed white rice, which is made flavorful with the excess sauce. The dish is often garnished with chopped scallions (green onion).
While chicken teriyaki seems to be the most popular in the U.S., it isn’t even on menus in Japanese.
Instead, the authentic teriyaki protein of choice is fish, such as mackerel, marlin, skipjack tuna, salmon, trout, yellowtail and sometimes, squid.
*Mirin and saké are types of rice wine. Both are fermented from rice, but mirin has a lower alcohol content and higher sugar content (as an analogy, thing of sweet and dry vermouths). If you have saké but no mirin, make a mirin substitute by adding a half teaspoon of sugar to the saké, and warm it slowly to dissolve the sugar.
†Modern American substitutes include honey for the sugar and other alcohol for the saké (e.g. bourbon, vodka).
THE HISTORY OF TERIYAKI
Most of the modern Japanese dishes familiar in the U.S. first appeared during Japan’s Edo period (1603 to 1867), an era characterized by stability and economic growth. That included exposure to new ingredients from abroad, which gave rise to new styles of cooking.
Food historians believe that teriyaki was created in the 17th century, one of a number of new dishes using roasted or grilled fish and meat. The special sweet-and-savory glaze distinguished teriyaki from other grilled dishes.
With the proliferation of Japanese restaurants in 1960s America (thanks to the 1965 Immigration & Nationality Act, which enabled many more Asians to emmigrate), teriyaki dishes became popular [source].
To cater to American tastes, beef, chicken, lamb, pork, salmon and tofu with vegetables were offered instead of the traditional varieties of fish.
More recently in the U.S., fusion cooking has engendered teriyaki burgers, meatballs and other variations; and teriyaki sauce is used as a dipping sauce and a marinade ingredient (more about this in a minute).
In fact, the concept of a discrete teriyaki sauce (as opposed to a glazed fish dish cooked teriyaki [grilled] style) is believed to have originated in Hawaii, among Japanese immigrants. Local pineapple juice was incorporated, not just for flavor: It’s enzymes also help to tenderize the meat.