You may not have heard of mirin, but if you’ve ever eaten Japanese food, the chances are you’ve tried some without knowing it. One of Japanese cuisine’s most important condiments, this sweet rice wine is a key ingredient in teriyaki sauce, and is often used to add flavour to stir-fries and sushi.
Mirin has a similar flavour to sake, but with a lower alcohol content and a light, syrupy texture. Its sweet, tangy flavour makes it the perfect foil for the salty, umami flavours of other popular Asian condiments, like soy sauce or tamari.
There are three types of mirin. The first, and best-quality, is hon mirin, or true mirin, which is around 14% alcohol, and is mixed and fermented for between 40 and 60 days. Shio mirin, or salt mirin, is mirin containing at least 1.5% salt, added to make the wine unpalatable as a drink, thus avoiding alcohol tax. The third type of mirin is shin mirin, or new mirin, which has a similar flavour to hon mirin, but with less than 1% alcohol.
Sadly, mirin can be difficult to find outside of Asia, which can cause problems for Japanese food fans looking to recreate some of their favourite dishes at home. Luckily, there are several similar-tasting ingredients that can be used as a substitute for mirin if you don’t have any to hand.
Dry sherry is used in a similar way to mirin in French and Mediterranean foods, and its subtle sweetness is a reasonable dupe for its Japanese counterpart. It typically contains around 15-17% alcohol, but this will reduce during cooking. Dry sherry can lack some of the sweetness of mirin, with a touch more acidity. You may want to add a pinch of sugar to mitigate this - about half a teaspoon of sugar for every tablespoon of sherry should be enough.
Sweet Marsala wine is another popular European cooking wine. Again, it has a slightly higher alcohol content than mirin, at 15-20%, but the levels of sweetness are a closer match, so there’s no need to add extra sugar.
Dry white wine is easier to come by than sherry or Marsala, and if you don’t use it all in your cooking, you can always enjoy a glass or two with your meal. Although it lacks the sweetness of mirin, its aromatic, tangy flavour makes it a better match than medium or sweet wines. Add half a tablespoon of sugar per tablespoon of wine.
Rice vinegar and mirin are both made from fermented rice, but as might be expected, rice vinegar has a more acidic, sour flavour. Mixing one tablespoon of rice wine vinegar with one teaspoon of sugar makes a pretty good mirin substitute, but it might not be the best choice if the recipe calls for another acidic ingredient.
Sake and sugar or honey is perhaps the closest approximation of mirin. Both are Japanese rice wines, but sake contains more alcohol and less sugar. To increase the sweetness, add one teaspoon of sugar or honey for every tablespoon of sake.
Sake can also be used by itself, if you’re watching your sugar intake. It matches mirin in all other respects, and if your recipe only calls for a little mirin, you shouldn’t miss the sweetness.
Shao Xing cooking wine is the Chinese equivalent of mirin, and can also be used with or without sugar or honey according to taste.
Water can also work if you’re looking for an alcohol-free option. This obviously works more in terms of consistency then flavour, but you can add sugar or honey at one teaspoon per tablespoon of water for added sweetness.
Kombucha has similar acidity levels to mirin, and where it lacks sweetness, you can add sugar or honey to taste. Use plain or ginger flavoured kombucha to best complement Japanese cooking.
If you’re looking for some mirin recipes to experiment with, teriyaki sauce is a great place to start. A true Japanese classic, teriyaki is the perfect balance of sweet mirin with the umami flavour of soy sauce. It goes with poultry, seafood, tofu and vegetables, and can be used as a glaze for meat, or to add flavour to your favourite stir-fry. Teriyaki salmon with pak choi and basmati rice makes a healthy well-balanced lunch with classic Asian flavours in this simple recipe.
These simple but delicious yakitori skewers are another great introduction to Japanese cooking. Made from sliced chicken breast and cheese and coated in a savoury-sweet glaze of poultry stock, soy sauce and mirin, this irresistible appetiser is sure to be a real crowd-pleaser at your next barbecue.
Eggs might not be the first thing that springs to mind when you think about Japanese cuisine, but tamagoyaki (literally 'grilled fried egg') is a special kind of Japanese layered omelette. It takes plenty of patience and skill to make and often includes mirin in its recipe – find out more here.