I have a friend who is a Japan and China scholar. (What an over-achieving combination, eh?) One time she invited us to her home and served what she called chicken teriyaki – it was cooked in a skillet, just the way she learned to do it in Japan, she said. I was incredulous because it wasn’t like the versions I’d eaten at Japanese restaurants in the United States. Those renditions, which I considered definitive, where grilled and brushed with a sticky sweet brown sauce.
I shelved that experience for years until last week, when I suddenly had a hankering for chicken teriyaki. Maybe it was because I’d made the batch of pickled ginger that I had Japanese food on my mind, which wandered to what I figured was an iconic dish of Japanese cuisine. I learned some interesting things.
One, teriyaki is not as popular in Japan as it is outside of Japan, according to my friend Hiroko Shimbo in her amazing book, The Japanese Kitchen. I amokay with that because chicken teriyaki probably sold well with Japanese restaurant owners outside of Japan. Call it the kung pao chicken syndrome. Moreover, she explains that “teri” means gloss and “yaki” means to broil or grill. Made from mirin, sake, soy sauce and sometimes sugar, teriyaki sauce is a finishing sauce meant to glaze. That made sense but why cook it in a skillet?
Shizuo Tsuji went into further details in Japanese Cooking: “Many foods that are grilled also can be pan-broiled over high heat in their own fat or with a film of oil in the pan, or quickly browned and sauteed. Since the use of a pan or grilled also is defined by the verb yaki, such cooking is part of the wide yakimono (“grilled things”) category.”
So it’s a language thing. Tsuji goes on to say that while cooking over charcoal is the orthodox Japanese approach, a pan is often employed, even though it’s a stepchild kind of technique. He notes that certain things are cooked in a skillet only. While neither Tsuji or Shimbo say so, both of their recipes for chicken teriyaki call for cooking in a skillet, then finishing the chicken with the sauce to coat it with color and flavor.
I tried it out and there was a nice chicken flavor in the meat that was cooked in a skillet; the chicken juices were recooked into the flesh. The color is gorgeous. I cooked two thighs but call for four in the recipe below to scale the recipe up for a regular-size family.
For fun, we tried grilling the chicken with the skin on and brushing on the teriyaki sauce at the end like a glaze. My husband liked it grilled, I liked it cooked in the skillet. We ate most of it up. Try both out and make up your own mind. Either way, make the teriyaki sauce yourself. It’s ridiculously easy.
True Chicken Teriyaki
Yields: 4 servings
- 1/2 cup mirin, storebought or homemade
- 1/4 cup sake
- 1/4 cup Japanese soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 4 large boneless skinless chicken thighs
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper
- Canola oil
- 1 green onion, green part only, cut into rings and/or ground sansho pepper
- Combine the mirin and sake in a small saucepan. Heat over medium-low for 5 minutes, then add the soy sauce and sugar. Stir until dissolved. Adjust the heat to simmer for 20 to 25 minutes, until reduced by about a third and thickened. There should be a very generous 1/2 cup. Set aside to cool and concentrate. Use or store in a jar in the fridge for a week. Return to room temperature before using.
- Rinse and pat the thighs dry with paper towel. Poke it with a toothpick or fork to let flavors penetrate. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat a medium skillet over medium heat. Add a small splash of oil. Cook the thighs, smooth side down, for 3 minutes, or until a little golden underneath. Turn each piece over, lower the heat to medium-low or low, then cover; you want a gently hiss. Cook for 8 minutes, or until just cooked through.
- Add about 2 tablespoons of the sauce. Turn to coat the chicken, increase the heat to medium. Let the chicken cook in the bubbling sauce for 3 to 5 minutes, turning often, until the sauce has coated the chicken with a reddish-brown gloss. The pan will be have some fat from the chicken as well as the cooked down dark-colored teriyaki sauce.
- Transfer the chicken to a plate and let cool for 5 to 10 minutes. Cut across the grain, arrange on a plate and garnish with a sprinkling of green onion and/or sansho pepper. Serve with rice.