When I moved to Japan in 2005, I was surprised to discover how utterly simple the food was. The sticky, salty sauces and over-the-top sushi rolls I knew from Japanese restaurants back home were as American as hamburgers and French fries, I realized. Japanese food, and especially Japanese home cooking, was actually subtle, nuanced and basically simple, creating a myriad of dishes with a handful of basic pantry staples and the freshest, tastiest produce and proteins available. This salmon teriyaki is a perfect example — lightly glazed and deeply flavorful, it's made with just four ingredients.
Salmon teriyaki was the first fish dish I cooked on my own in Japan. I was determined to start cooking authentic Japanese food as soon as possible after moving into my apartment and was tempted by the beautiful (and shockingly affordable) pieces of fish in the supermarket across the street, but I was confused by how Japanese people cooked their fish. I had a two-burner gas stove that sat on top of the counter and was one step above a camp stove. I had a weird, tiny microwave-convection oven hybrid that only operated as a microwave because the guy who had sold it to me had thrown away the racks. And I had a rice cooker, of course. How did people cook their fish?
"In the fish grill," said my supervisor at work, in a tone of voice you might use with someone who just asked how to put on a hat.
"The fish grill?"
I thought perhaps the apartment hadn't come with one. But no, my supervisor said, it was there in the middle of my stove. And when I got home that evening I realized she was right: it was a little drawer outfitted with a rack, just wide and long enough to accommodate several portions of fish or one long fillet. It was like a small broiler, with a gas flame above that perfectly cooked a piece of salmon in a little over five minutes.
From there the sky was the limit, but it all started with salmon teriyaki, which quickly became a favorite. A simple marinade of soy sauce, mirin and sugar lightly glazed the fish as it broiled, infusing it with a flavor that was a little sweet and deeply savory. With a bowl of hot rice and a few sliced cucumbers or pickled greens, it was the perfect weeknight meal. Even now — far away from my old kitchen and with no fish grill in sight — it still is.
1 pound salmon
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons mirin
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon vegetable oil (optional)
Cut the salmon into 4 portions. In a shallow container large enough to hold the salmon pieces, mix the soy sauce, mirin and sugar until the sugar dissolves. Coat both sides of the salmon with the mixture and arrange pieces skin side up in the container. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Arrange your oven racks so that the skillet you will be cooking in is as close as possible to the broiler flame. Turn on the broiler. Preheat a cast iron or other ovenproof skillet over high heat on the stove until very hot. Remove the salmon from the marinade and brush both sides with the oil. (If your pan is well-seasoned, you can skip this step.) Place the salmon skin side up in the skillet and transfer the pan to the broiler. Cook for 1-2 minutes and check for doneness. If it isn't done, flip and cook for 1 minute more.
• Depending on the size of your skillet, you may need to cook the salmon in batches.
• If you are in a rush, the marinating time can be reduced to as little as 15 minutes, but the salmon won't be quite as flavorful.
Related: How to Make Smoked Salmon, Two Ways
(Images: Anjali Prasertong)