Simmering: More Thoughts on Seasoning

Simmering: More Thoughts on Seasoning


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?

Posted by Harris Salat in Simmering | Permalink | Comments (5) | Email | Print

Comments (5)

Thanks for this post. Would you mind to tell us the brand of the products in the picture above. It seems difficult in Atlantic Canada to find top quality (highest grade) japanese ingredients. Not to mention organic or localy produced food...... I always end up with a standard mirin which Im sure doesnt help to sublimate my dish... ; - ) Which brand do you recommand for each key ingredients (mirin, shoyu, sake, mushrooms, spices, konyaku, tofu, miso, kombu...) ? I heard of MITOKU exporter ... Thanks for your help. Cheers, Julien
Thanks, Julien. Hard to get good mirin in North America. Mitsuwa Markets in the US has a mail order department, I'm not sure if they send to Canada. The mirin and miso in the picture I brought from Japan. The sake is Itami Onigoroshi, a basic junmai that I use for cooking (cheap and cheerful). -- Harris
Julien check out this site for possible Japanese food stores in your area of Canada

Interesting indeed. I never thought about the "water vs. oil" nature of "Nihon vs. Western" ryori. And the order is a great insight as well. Thanks for that.

Indeed, I often read Japanese recipes and puzzle over the sugar, asking myself: Do I really want to add all that sugar? Now I understand why its there. And there first.

As to Mirin, its also one of the things I buy in Japan: "Hon Mirin" (True Mirin). Blows away the sugar water you get here.

There are some ingredients that you share with us on your blog that I don't find and it's impossible for me to make it exactly like you do it. I'm in San Fransisco and if you know an online shop or a store please let me know. Also if you can put also the store from where you are buying all your stuff would be great.

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