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The secret behind teriyaki dishes

Chicken teriyaki and similar dishes are a staple at Japanese-style restaurants everywhere. They give American diners a more simple option as opposed to sushi and more authentic dishes. It has become the go-to Asian dish for people with picky palettes.

While rich and full of flavor, teriyaki dishes are actually simple and easy to cook. They only require protein and marinade. They can be served on top of white rice with a sautéed vegetable as a side, a generally healthy meal. For this reason, teriyaki should become a staple food for college students everywhere.

History of teriyaki:

Despite its association with Japanese cuisine, Teriyaki is about as inauthentic as it gets. The name actually refers to the cooking method instead of the dish itself. “Teri” means glazed or shiny, as in the appearance of the sugary sauce. “Yaki” means grilled or broiled, as in the method of applying heat.

The origins of the dish are unclear, as is the case with most American-Asian dishes. The popular conception is that the dish was developed by the Japanese who immigrated to Hawaii sometime in the 1960s. There, they mixed ingredients from Japan, such as soy sauce, with native Hawaiian ingredients, such as brown sugar and pineapple juice. This fusion of cultures created teriyaki sauce.

There is no “authentic” version of teriyaki sauce. Sugar and soy sauce have been mixed together since time immemorial, and sweet and salty flavors are a prime pairing. It can be assumed the sauce developed at American-Asian restaurants independently over time due to these facts. Hawaii is considered a possible place of origin due to the amount of Japanese Americans living there.

Making the sauce

Basic teriyaki sauce (“traditional”)

This is a basic recipe that can be found circulated in various forums online. It is a combination of soy sauce, sake, mirin, sugar and a thickener like cornstarch.

Sake and mirin are “rice wines” made from the fermentation of, you guessed it, rice. Sake is a dryer wine and mirin is a sweet wine. When cooking, sugar can be substituted for mirin if you only have sake. You can also exclude sugar in favor of more mirin, although a thickening agent will need to be added in the sugar’s place.

Normally, sugar acts as the main thickener in a Teriyaki sauce. All the ingredients are mixed together and boiled away until the sugar thickens the sauce, creating a reduction. Thickening sauce in this way has the potential to make it too sweet for some. Adding in cornstarch allows the sauce to thicken, without reducing it too much, preventing the over-sweetness.

Note: A common rule of thumb when buying wine or beer to cook with is, if you wouldn’t drink it straight, do not cook with it. 


2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons sake

2 tablespoons mirin

2 tablespoons sugar (change depending on preferred sweetness)

1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed into a slurry with water

Water to dilute to preferred thickness


  1. Mix all ingredients except cornstarch-slurry into a saucepan. Put on low heat and bring to a simmer. Add in cornstarch and whisk furiously until thickened.
  2. If desired, do not add cornstarch and simmer sauce until it reduces, allowing the sugar to thicken it instead. This will create a stronger sauce with a syrup-like consistency.

Renegade teriyaki sauce (developed after a bout of drinking)

This teriyaki sauce is about as inauthentic as it gets, but it’s high in flavor. Some of the combinations may seem odd, but trust me it works.


2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons of a pilsner beer (such as Miller High Life)

2 tablespoons of a dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon of filtered water

½ teaspoon of apple cider vinegar

½  teaspoon of chili paste

1 clove of grated garlic

½ teaspoon grated ginger

1 tablespoon of cornstarch mixed into a slurry with water

1 teaspoon neutral oil (vegetable or canola)


  1. Saute ginger and garlic in a neutral oil in a saucepan on low heat.
  2. Add all wet ingredients except cornstarch into the saucepan. Bring to a simmer on low heat.
  3. Add in cornstarch and whisk furiously until thickened.

Note: Do not cook this recipe without the cornstarch. It does not reduce as nearly as well as the prior recipe. 

The meal

Now that you have the teriyaki sauce, you're all set to cook a variety of dishes. Teriyaki sauce goes well with everything so feel free to experiment. 

The primary usage of teriyaki sauce is to dip meat in after frying or grilling it. However, you can also use it as a marinade before grilling. The sugar and salt will tenderize the protein and moisten it, making it tender and soft. Hamburgers dipped in teriyaki sauce before grilling are great. Also, feel free to use teriyaki sauce as a dipping sauce.

Teriyaki chicken

By far the most common dish that uses teriyaki sauce. “Traditional” teriyaki chicken fries the meat with salt before being dipped in sauce. Many restaurants cut the process in half, using the teriyaki sauce as a marinade instead. These methods don’t provide the same crunchiness and savoriness of the original method, which should be preferred.


2 skin-on chicken thighs (deboned)

Teriyaki sauce

Salt and pepper to taste

Note: In general, any deboned dark meat from the chicken can be used in this process. White meat can also be used, but it's recommended to marinade it and flour the outside first. This is because white meat dries out very quickly in comparison to dark-meat.


  1. Take the salt and pepper and coat the outside of the chicken thighs. Place the thighs in the fridge. This step is to dry the outside of the meat so it crisps more evenly.
  2. On a cold skillet, place the chicken thighs skin side down. Turn the skillet to medium-height heat. The fat in the skin should render, providing cooking oil and also crisping the meat. Flip once one side is browned in order to brown the other side.
  3. Once both sides are browned, keep flipping until the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees. About 8 to 10 minutes. 
  4. Once the chicken is cooked, remove it from the skillet and dip it in teriyaki sauce. Slice the chicken before serving it on top of a bed of rice.

Fun Fact: Rendered chicken fat is called “schmaltz,” a word taken from Jewish cuisine. 

Teriyaki tofu

The blandness of tofu really lets you taste the richness of the teriyaki sauce. This is a great vegan option.


1 block extra firm tofu sliced into 1-inch slabs (water pressed out)

Teriyaki sauce

Salt and Pepper to taste

2 tablespoons neutral oil (vegetable or canola oil)


  1. Take salt and pepper and coat the outside of the tofu slabs. Let it sit for at least 20 minutes. 
  2. In a skillet, preheat oil on high heat.
  3. Add in tofu and cook until one side is browned. Flip and brown the other side.
  4. Take off the skillet, dip in teriyaki sauce, and serve over rice. 

Sauteed Vegetables

The leftover chicken fat makes a great frying oil for any vegetables you may have laying around the house. This makes a great side to add to your protein and rice.


Broccoli, cabbage, green bell pepper, squash or any other vegetable that stands well to frying

Soy sauce to taste

1 clove grated garlic


  1. Heat leftover chicken fat on high heat until just barely smoking.
  2. Immediately add in vegetables, turning rapidly until reaching desired tenderness.
  3. Add in soy sauce and garlic and let cook for 30 seconds before serving. 


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