say no to teriyaki, eugene

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.


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.

7 thoughts on “say no to teriyaki, eugene

  1. Julia 6 February 2012 / 1:04 pm

    Thank you thank you thank you. I find this type of so-called teriyaki inedible.

    It seems that, in Eugene, teriyaki is the token “safe” menu item for those who don’t like “weird” food. Places like Panda Express and PF Chang’s cater to those palates; I guess the more authentic places want some of those dining dollars, too.

    Have you tried Ume Grill? I hear good things, but not from anyone I really trust.


  2. UME GRILL 28 February 2012 / 10:51 am

    We are the owners of Ume Grill. Unfortunately, for some diners, teriyaki has been reduced to an industrialized, common “sameness” in and around Eugene for quite some time now. That is exactly why we created Ume, to introduce diners to a different teriyaki experience. In fact, for a person who has a food blog – to typecast all teriyaki experiences into one lump sum is a disservice to anyone who actually follows this blog especially since you have never been to Ume Grill to try our menu.

    So let’s get our facts correct, shall we? I assume you are an educated person, correct? In fact I understand that you apparently work at a very good higher education institution.

    So, for your information, we continue to use a recipe of our ancestors; rice wine vinegar, low sodium soy sauce and fresh ginger and garlic and yes, sugar to create a balance of flavors that enhance the caramelize process when grilled. We also use Painted Hills natural sirloin. Interesting enough, when other fine restaurants in town ( assumed fine dining) use sugar, to caramelize onions or to enhance the flavors in their food – I don’t see you ranting or raving about it. We have added other items to our menu to enhance the experience; wasabi cole slaw, tsukemono, and coconut cream mochi.

    I have invited you and your colleagues to come to Ume a few times and have not received a response from anyone to, “taste teriyaki for the first time.”

    And to the reader of this blog, Julia, we hope that you will also trust us that if you are not satisfied with our menu, your meal is free. Please identify yourself next time you consider stopping by Ume Grill. Thanks! Helen and Rayton Takata


  3. Deanna 28 February 2012 / 11:11 am

    I agree with Ume. There are several places in town, Ume most especially, that get teriyaki right and to typecast all Asian restaurants in Eugene under the same umbrella is to me, just as disgusting as the over sweetened teriyaki you loathe. I would def. recommend you do as you stated:

    “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.”

    Though, it should be clarified that Ume has never served “sugary pap”, so they haven’t changed any menu.

    It would be more of a service to your readers to thoroughly investigate the restaurants in Eugene and report on those you find to be the most health-concious and authentic as a POSITIVE way to influence change rather than this overly-negative and generic commentary.

    Also, Ume is very generous and always willing to go the extra mile for their clients and the community.


  4. Eugenia 28 February 2012 / 11:44 am

    Folks, rein it in. It’s not really making me want to visit the restaurant if you’re being rude. But if you read carefully, I make a clear distinction between Japanese teriyaki and the crap that’s served widely in Eugene restaurants. I even provide two recipes to contrast a traditional glaze and institutional teriyaki. Is Ume Grill different? From what you say above, it looks to be the case and I’m sure your customers can speak in support of you. But insinuating I’m stupid or ignorant about the magic of Ume Grill is not going to get you any more customers, that’s for sure.

    The issue for me is *and always is* that much of our restaurant food in Eugene has too much sugar, and I often speak of this on the blog, so you haven’t been reading. And that’s OK. If you don’t agree with the way I write or my sense of humor, you’re free to click that little red X that frees you from the negativity and generality.


  5. Helen Nahoopii 29 February 2012 / 7:44 am

    Responsible journalism begins with research of the facts and is not dependent upon broad generalization and headlines like, “Say no to teriyaki, Eugene”. This is sensationalism. I do not question your intelligence, I just question your motivation.

    Do you realize there is a recession going on right now? That maybe when you make a choice to write your “blather” and use your opinion you may be affecting some small business owners livelihood?

    Our food cart is a way to connect with people in the neighborhood. It is a labor of love. We do not solicit awards, reviews or best of recognition in local rags.

    Broad based generalizations hurt everyone. Please think before you write. Thank you. Ume Grill Owners


  6. Eugenia 29 February 2012 / 9:05 am

    Since there’s nothing in this post that claims Ume Grill is one of the dozens of industrial teriyaki-slinging joints in town and you claim to be doing what I suggest in the post as a solution, I’m not sure why you are taking this post as an attack on your food cart.

    But first and foremost, this is not a marketing blog. To succeed in a recession, small businesses can’t be mediocre. Our food scene in Eugene is moribund for precisely this reason — local media bend over backward to be nice to places with crappy food and terrible service because they’re small businesses laboring in love. So that means the customers can’t count on local reviews. And *that* is bad journalism.

    I’m thrilled to support small restaurants and food carts if they’re unusual and delicious. I have been meaning to go to Ume Grill, but I must say with the personal attacks, I’m losing interest rapidly. Worse yet, you have misunderstood the entire point (a stance which actually would benefit you if you’re unlike the other teriyaki outfits). I’m willing to bet other potential customers are reconsidering their visit, too.


  7. gabriel 18 August 2012 / 8:02 pm

    wasabi cole slaw is as watered down & americanized as it gets….it’s all watered down pap….thanks for your observations, eugenia….


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