If you were to ask someone the first thing that comes to mind when talking about food in Seattle, chances are that seafood would be the first thing on the list. An item which is a lot less likely to come up in the conversation and yet at the same time perhaps even more prominent in this area is teriyaki. It seems that just about every street corner in some neighborhoods has some sort of teriyaki joint on it (and if you’re slumming in Downtown Bellevue as I seem to be these days, there’s a good chance most of them are going to have sushi as well, or possiblyeven just the sushi with no teriyaki in sight.) The odd thing about this is that even though teriyaki is nominally Japanese, there’s not much Japanese about the stuff you’re going to find around here. It is highly unlikely that you could go anywhere in Japan and find the combination of chicken, rice and vegetables (or salad, depending on where you get it) that typically comprises an order of teriyaki as you typically see here. In fact, it’s surprisingly rare to find a teriyaki place owned by someone of Japanese descent (most of them actuallyseem to be owned by Koreans.) It’s also surprisingly easy to take teriyaki for granted after you’ve been living around here for long enough. I know quite a few former residents of the Seattle metro area who cite the lack of good teriyaki as being one of the things they miss about living here. And although it seems like it would be simple to make it at home, it’s really a lot less straightforward than you might think.
Finding the ingredients for chicken teriyaki in your local supermarket and putting them all together obviously isn’t going to be a problem for most people. Anyone can chop up some chicken, cook it up in a pan with some sauce and end up with something vaguely resembling teriyaki. Then again, if you take that approach, chances are the results are going to end up disappointing. A lot of people seem to assume the problem lies in the sauce, but among all the various teriyaki places I’ve tried around here, I’ve found that generally there’s little to distinguish one place’s sauces from another’s. After all, the basic ingredients that go into the sauce are pretty well-defined, and if you are so inclined finding the stuff in a bottle isn’t too difficult (in fact, some teriyaki places around here bottle up their sauce and sell it separately.) What I have found to be a major distinguishing factor is the way the meat gets cooked. The reason that teriyaki you’re cooking on the stove is turning out flat is that most stoves just can’t put off enough heat to properly brown and carmelize things. When it comes to Chinese stir-fry (for which a lot of the same principles apply) they actually have a term for this: Wok hei. Basically, the idea is that in order to properly stir-fry you need to be cooking in a wok over very high heat (some even go so far as to say that only an open flame is suitable for this) with constant stirring or tossing. While this approach definitely works (and the results can be delicious, there are some Mongolian Grill places in the area which do a great job of this,) if you actually go somewhere that you can watch teriyaki being made you’ll see that they aren’t actually doing this.
The vast majority of teriyaki places around here keep their kitchens out of sight, but most of the ones at the local malls (which often produce better teriyaki than some people might think) do their cooking right in front of the customers. It’s from watching some of these places that I’ve gotten most of the techniques I’m trying to apply when trying to make teriyaki at home. The main thing these places have in common is that they all boast big commercial griddles, with nary a pan in sight. I suspect most of these are electric, but when you start getting into the commercial grade stuff not only is there more precise temperature control than the average home cook is going to get from their stove, but there’s generally a higher range of temperatures to work with as well. Judging from the amount of browning that happens, I’d say these are probably running quite hot (although different zones of the cooktop are probably also set to varying temperatures as well for things like sauce application and holding.) Based on my observations it’s this browning which seems to be one of the major contributing factors that differentiates good teriyaki from mediocre teriyaki. You also notice when you watch that no sauce is applied to the chicken until just before the meat is ready to come off the griddle, presumably because it would interfere with this browning if it was applied too early. With these things in mind, what can you do to replicate this at home? That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out.
Since commercial kitchen equipment is a bit beyond my budget (and quite a bit beyond my available kitchen space) I’ve had to settle for a consumer grade electric griddle of the type you’re going to find in many stores. This is definitely an improvement over the stove for the task, but it also comes with a number of pitfalls: First of all, you’re still going to be a few thousand BTUs short in the heat department, as the temperature control on my griddle only goes up to 400 degrees (even the low-end commercial ones I’ve looked at max out at 700°F.) Second, I have yet to find a non-commercial griddle that doesn’t have non-stick coating on it. Although the stuff is great if you’re trying to cook eggs (something I don’t do much of really,) I suspect it’s more of a hindrance than a help in this process, and also severely limits the tools I can use. In my experience, trying to manipulate stuff with a silicone-covered spatula seems to be the culinary equivalent to typing with boxing gloves on. Well OK, maybe it’s not that bad, but all things considered I’d much rather just use plain old metal utensils any day (it is for this reason that the vast majority of pans in my kitchen have are stainless steel without nonstick coating.) I’m using boneless skinless chicken thighs for the meat. Breasts would probably work as well, but I generally find them a bit too flavorless for my liking. I was originally cutting the chicken up and marinating it in a mixture of mostly soy sauce and pineapple juice, but it quickly became apparent that all this was doing was adding more liquid on the grill which was interfering with browning. I”ve since tried using just a light coating of sesame oil before putting it on the griddle, which works a lot better. I’ve also seen some teriyaki places apply oil to the grill directly, which probably helps prevent sticking on the metal surface.
Using the techniques I’ve picked up from watching the chefs at the griddles and applying them at home, I’ve managed to get the results to look pretty good, but there’s definitely some bugs to work out of the process. For one thing, even though the meat as seen above looks pretty good, it’s still turning out fairly dry. I suspect that what’s happening here is that the lower heat means I need to cook longer to get the proper browning, where the high heat of the commercial griddles prevents this from happening. I’ve also messed around with making my own sauce by combining soy sauce, pineapple juice, Worcestershire Sauce and a small amount of sugar, then reducing it to a glaze on the stove before applying it to the meat near the end of cooking. A more typical Japanese sauce recipe typically also includes a sweetened rice wine called Mirin, but I don’t normally use alcoholic ingredients in my cooking so I haven’t tried this. I’ve seen a mixture of sugar and rice wine vinegar suggested as a substitute, which I might need to try. I’ve also seen mention of a so-called “new mirin” with less than 1% alcohol content which might work as well if I can find it somewhere. Either way, there seems to be no one exact right way to do this. I’ve been thinking I might need to try some sort of brining to allow longer cook time with less drying.
I definitely still have some work to do if I want to figure out how to make teriyaki as good as some of the local restaurants at home, but I’m pretty sure I’m at least on the right track. But when all is said and done though, one question remains: What’s the point? After all, it’s relatively trivial to go get a nice big container of take-out teriyaki for seven or eight bucks and easily make two (or even three) meals out of it. That may be true, but as I’ve noted above, the whole teriyaki phenomenon seems to be mostly local to the Seattle area, and there’s no guarantee that I’m not going to find myself living a thousand miles from the nearest decent teriyaki joint at some point. Even now, I’ve found that the teriyaki options available in downtown Bellevue are somewhat lacking (I will spare you another rehash of my well-worn rant about the lack of late night dining options in the area though.) I’ve also found it’s a lot cheaper to make the stuff yourself. Besides, if you can figure out how to do it yourself, why not? It never hurts to try…