Mirin is a type of liqueur primarily used in cooking. It is made from sweet rice (mochi-gome), the glutinous variety used to make mochi. Other ingredients are koji (a type of mold used in the making of both miso and sake) and distilled spirits (sho-chu), usually made from rice.

A viscous, slightly amber liquid, Mirin has a deep yet mild sweetness with a somewhat sherry-like complexity due to the use of koji. Traditional techniques to make mirin are expensive and time-consuming, so it is no surprise to find that a variety of less-expensive grades and substitutes are now available. The cheapest are essentially concoctions of grain alcohol, sugars and flavorings, and are intended as simple sweeteners in cooking. True mirin is known as hon-mirin and is often more expensive than the best grades of sake.

Mirin is used in sauces, such as for marinating meat and fish, due to its ability to mask strong meat and fish aromas. It is also used in teriyaki dishes for both its mild sweetness and its ability to add a gentle sheen to the surface of the meat. In true teriyaki preparation, the meat or fish is grilled slowly, brushed with layer upon layer of teriyaki sauce (with soy sauce and mirin as main ingredients) to build up a thick, translucent glaze. Unfortunately, most of what is passed off as teriyaki these days is merely meat or fish covered with a thick, sweet sauce without the time-consuming grilling and layering process that makes true teriyaki such a sublime treat.

As a simple sweetener, mirin is added to soups for noodles when a bit of sweetness is called for. It is also a "hidden" ingredient in dressings for vegetables or salads, as well as in savory dipping sauces for tempura and other foods. Not surprisingly, mirin finds its way into a wide range of Japanese desserts.

The alcohol content of authentic mirin is about 17%, roughly the same as that of sake. So do people ever drink it? Practically never, although mirin is the base of a New Year ceremonial drink called otoso, which also contains a mixture of herbs said to ensure good health and longevity. It should be noted that the newer varieties of mirin and their substitutes have less than 1% alcohol.

While true hon-mirin is perhaps the hardest to find, it is easy to make a substitute from regular drinking sake and a bit of sugar, corn syrup or mizu-ame, a rice starch syrup. Mix the sugar or syrup with a little water and boil for a few minutes. When cool, add sake a bit at a time until the desired sweetness and consistency is achieved. While this will not have the true flavor and complexity of authentic mirin, it will usually be as good as any commercially available substitute, particularly when being used as a simple sweetener.


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