In my post on simmering kabocha and chicken, I got into some of the underlying ideas behind nimono, or Japanese simmering technique, that Chef Isao Yamada explained to me. I wanted to touch on a few more of Yamada-san's thoughts about nimono.
With nimono, ingredients cook in umami-rich liquids like dashi, soy sauce, sake, and mirin, and balanced further with sugar. Balance. That's a key idea. Think about Western cuisine as a cuisine of impact. Butter, fats, herbs, spices are combined to create a flavor crescendo. Japanese cuisine, on the other hand, is concerned with balance. Sweet balancing salty, sweet balancing tart, seasonings balancing the natural flavors of ingredients. I read this difference described as a cuisine of addition (Western) versus a cuisine of subtraction (Japanese) -- Japanese cuisine being focused on drilling down to the essence of an ingredient's natural flavor (for more on this, read legendary Chef Yoshihiro Murata's outstanding essay in the book Dashi and Umami, in English). I also heard this difference, by the way, described as an oil cuisine (Western) versus a water cuisine (Japanese).
This water, water supercharged with umami-rich seasonings, is what infuses ingredients with flavor when simmering nimono-style. But as Yamada-san explained to me, seasonings aren't added willy nilly. There's a precise and purposeful way to work with them, to make sure they balance each other. (Precision is another hallmark of Japanese cuisine). The key is sa shi su se so, which represents, as I understood it: sugar (and mirin), salt, vinegar, soy sauce and miso. This is the order that seasonings are added. (By the way, you typically cook with either soy sauce or miso, one or the other, not both).
Why this order? Yamada-san explained that sugar molecules are larger than salt molecules, so if you added salt first, it would penetrate an ingredient and leave no room for the sugar molecules. So you always add sugar before adding salt, to achieve the balance of flavors. If you try it the reverse way, say adding soy sauce before mirin, a dish won't taste as good. All this, of course, was discovered eons before modern science came along to explain the actions of molecules.
Nimono fascinates me, and I'm going to speak more with Yamada-san about this technique in the future. If you walk into a French kitchen, the stove is the centerpiece, and the sauté pan its workhorse, cooks sautéing all kinds of ingredients in fats to develop flavor. With nimono, on the other hand, you create irresistible, balanced flavor by simply simmering foods in potent liquids. Interesting, isn't it?