A Word On Food: Barbecue Hula

Nov 12, 2013

I graduated from high school in a small Midwestern town at 17. My older sister, Jane, had moved to Honolulu to go to a junior college out there. How she managed this relocation to the faraway islands, considering our socioeconomic circumstances and our conception of what our arc of life could be, was beyond me.

She had moxie! She invited me to come visit during my summer vacation. Of course I did!

It was comical how green I was. A cornhusker in the exotica of that garden of tropical delights. Honolulu was the first big city I’d ever spent more than a few hours in. Back home, the closest we got to a metropolis was on the days we’d go see the Cubs play in Chicago 40 miles or so to the southeast. And they were all daytime games since Wrigley Field refused (rightfully) to light its leafy arena back then. So cities at night were a rarity to me, too.

My initial culture shock in Honolulu was eased when Jane took me to a place that served big, juicy hamburgers. After the second visit, Jane and her girlfriends talked me into trying it with teriyaki sauce on it.

I liked it! Hawaii was not only beautiful but tasty, too.

Teriyaki, of course, is not Hawaiian but Japanese. But let’s not hold that against our Hawaiian friends. It has become one of the most beloved of all Japanese flavors, has crossed many borders and claimed many fans around the globe.

"Teri" literally translates as "gloss" or "luster" and describes the sheen of the sauce that goes over the broiled ("yaki") foods.

Teriyaki is a simple sauce-marinade that works well for meats or fish, especially those with some oil or fat to them. It is basically a combination of sake, mirin, soy and sugar. I infuse one version I make with fresh ginger and lemongrass. I think I will begin adding some chilis the next time I make it, come to think of it!

You can marinate larger items, such as chicken legs and thighs, for a few hours before cooking them or brush some teriyaki on the end of thinner cuts for the grill or broiler. You don’t want to marinate anything too long before cooking it. The soy can get too strong.

In this week’s "Highly Recommended Cookbooks," I give a shoutout to Chef Tadashi Ono’s book, “The Japanese Grill,” co-written with the equally great Harris Salat. I ate at Tadashi’s New York City restaurant and can attest to his cooking skills. He is a bona fide grilling master and, if you like Asian flavors as much as I do, you will want the book.

In it he cautions us that the "typical" versions of his dishes in U.S. restaurants are "gummy gravies." He teaches that frequent turning and glazing is key to fine teriyaki technique. I also like the way he sprinkles a little Shichimi (She-CHEE-Me) Togarashi on the finished meat or fish for extra depth. You can buy the book here.

I was in Honolulu again a few years ago. While I waited for a bus to Makapu’u Beach, I noticed a billboard that said "teriyaki burger.” It was a Burger King sign. Despite the opportunity for nostalgia, I passed on that teriyaki experience.

I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s my Word on Food.

Read below for my recipe for teriyaki sauce.

Yield: 3/4 Cup

1/2 cup soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons of peeled, minced ginger
1 large clove of minced garlic
1/4 teaspoon miso
1 1/2 tablespoons sake
2 teaspoons toasted white sesame seeds
3 scallions, all of the white and some of the green, minced
1 scotch bonnet, stem and seeds discarded, minced

Mix all of the above together and reserve until needed.