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I absolutely do not understand, and indeed, sharply denounce, our civic enthusiasm for teriyaki.  An achingly sweet, slightly salty brown sludge that drowns meat in any vaguely Asian restaurant in town, be it Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, and undoubtedly Thai, Americanized teriyaki sauce is a trend that must be stopped.

No, stirfries are not assisted by teriyaki sauce.  Neither are hamburgers.  Or shrimp. Or anything — for the love of god — containing broccoli.

Whenever I visit an establishment that has any ties to the mysterious Orient, I studiously avoid anything that might be served in that orientalist shorthand. But sometimes, like last night, I am tricked.

Imagine my dismay when this order of bulgogi arrives at my table at Sushi Seoul.  I’m singling them out because they were once one of the best places in town to get Korean food cooked well and served with a decent number of kimchi/banchan dishes.  But no more.  Bulgogi is already sweet enough with its soy-sugar-sesame oil-garlic marinade. But doused with teriyaki it is like eating meat candy.

I wiped it off with a napkin, but it was too late.  Even worse, it was served with a jam-like chili sauce instead of the usual chunky, salty, miso-like soybean paste you’ll get in Korean restaurants that aren’t bent on Americanizing their food.  The cabbage below the meat (also a Eugene trick) was saturated and soggy.  Instead of what you’d get at any neighborhood Korean restaurant in a big city — freshly grilled, nicely charred barbecued meat wrapped in lettuce leaves with a tiny bit of salty miso, fresh garlic slivers, and a salad of green onions and romaine lettuce dressed with sesame oil — I had an unappetizing pile of limp, sugary rubber over sweet steamed cabbage and some vaguely Thai pepper jam to put in my lettuce leaves.

Disgusting.

So here’s my plea to all Eugene Asian restaurants:  not all Americans like sweet flavors.  Stop serving teriyaki slop.  Reduce the sugar in ALL your recipes by at least half.  The growing health-conscious movement and high incidence of diabetes in our town make this an ethical choice. At the very least, serve teriyaki as they do it in Japan: as a thin glaze flavored with fresh ginger that colors and caramelizes on grilled meats.  Not a sauce.  Not glopped onto everything.  And a stronger salt and umami side than just a sweet, brown, curdled blandness.

We’ll get used to the new flavors, we promise you.  In fact, I will willingly and widely promote any traditional Asian restaurant that changes its American menu to one that is more authentic if it removes the sugary pap you’re currently serving.

And I’m hoping other people in Eugene will support this initiative by asking their favorite Asian restaurants to do the same.

Need more proof?

A Chowhounder found a recipe for commercial teriyaki sauce, evidently used in Seattle family restaurants:

Commercial/Institutional Recipe for Teriyaki Sauce

7 quarts Soy Sauce
9 quarts sugar (Measure with the same container you would measure liquid quarts with)
18 quarts water
3 three inch sections of ginger, peeled
3 heads garlic, peeled
3 heads lettuce
5 medium apples
2 stalks celery
1 bunch/bundle parsley
3 large white onions, peeled

A summary of the ensuing recipe: the sauce is made by grinding everything up in a blender, then boiling it down for two hours.  The author notes that “[t]here may well be variations like using a couple quarts of pineapple, pear, or apple juice as that is used in many restaurant teriyaki marinades (along with apple juice, black pepper, and light corn syrup).”  And I’ve seen additions like cornstarch, onion and garlic and ginger powder.

How does this translate for the consumer?  Well, there are eight quarts in two gallons, sixteen in four gallons.  So the sauce is a simple syrup of 1:0.8 ratio sugar to soy, cut with over double the amount of water.  The vegetables (and/or canned fruit juices and corn syrup surely used in Eugene to cut costs) mute or sweeten the flavor even more.   Adding onions and parsley and onions would somewhat replace the umami flavor that more soy sauce would add.  The lettuce would add body, plus it’s an excellent way to get rid of aging heads of iceberg.

Say no to commercial/institutional teriyaki.

And if you MUST eat teriyaki, make it at home instead.

Teriyaki Glaze for a Couple Pounds of Grilled Salmon

  • 1/4 cup each Japanese low-salt or light color (usukuchi) soy sauce, sake, water, and sugar. If you only have dark or regular or American soy sauce, add another 1/4 cup of water.
  • A small knob of fresh ginger, grated to make about a tablespoon.

On medium heat in a small saucepan, bring all ingredients to a boil.  Watch it carefully. When sauce begins to reduce and thicken into a glaze, remove from heat.  When salmon is finished, remove from grill and brush on finished teriyaki sauce lightly just before serving.  Also good with grilled tofu.

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