The first time I wanted to make teriyaki with mirin, I was a bit confused about the difference between aji mirin and hon mirin.
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It was right then and there that I decided to first ask Google what the difference was. I bet this is a question that has been asked by many others interested in Japanese cuisine. There are many different types of mirin in the market today. And we don’t want to make a mistake when it comes to using the perfect mirin for our dishes.
The mistake I made even after enquires was to buy a not-so-authentic mirin and to be sincere, I didn’t know it affected the taste of my food until later. This confusion mainly arises when we oftentimes see the different bottles of mirin on the shelf and wonder, aji mirin vs hon mirin, which is it?
So What Exactly is “Mirin” All About?
If you’ve ever traveled to Japan or eaten at an authentic Japanese restaurant, you’ll notice that their very savory umami-flavored dishes, like teriyaki, often have a hint of delicate sweetness. You might be quick to think that sugar has been added to the dish, but that’s not the case, as the flavor you so enjoy comes from a type of sweet rice wine—mirin, to be precise.
This is a sweet cooking-wine with a tangy taste which is the main constituent of sauces in Japanese cuisine. It is sometimes incorrectly referred to as ‘the sweet version of sake,’ or confused with rice vinegar.
Yes, they are both used in flavoring dishes, but they are two entirely different things. Mirin is a slightly thick liquid, amber or golden in color, which possesses distinct qualities that set it apart from both sake and rice vinegar. Mirin is one condiment in Japanese cooking with an importance that cannot be over-emphasized.
It is said that mirin started out as a sweet liqueur for women in medieval Japan, who mixed it up with shochu to produce a sweet, heady drink. Its use became popularized during the Age of the Civil War.
It was originally enjoyed as a luxury-type liqueur (a mixture of sweet rice wine and sweet sticky rice) available only to the rich. During the Edo period, its use as a cooking ingredient was kick-started, and so far, it has been awesome.
Mirin is made by combining glutinous small-grain rice with shochu (a vodka-like spirit) in a vat, halfway through the brewing process. The shochu kills all the fungus in the fermenting rice (Koji) which would otherwise metabolize all the sugars present.
This addition of shochu also gives rise to the formation of complex proteins, while the enzymes present in the Koji rice help decompose the glutinous rice into glucose, complex sugars, and amino acids. In turn, this gives mirin its distinctive sweet taste, umami tang, and golden color.
The mixture is left to ferment for a few months to get the desired product. The alcohol present in mirin is a bit lower than that of sake, with a percentage ranging from 12 to 14.
Mirin has several characteristics particular to it alone. As has been earlier mentioned, it is a clear, golden-tinged liquid that adds a delicate sweetness and nice aroma to Japanese dishes. Each constituent of the liquid has its function. The sweetness of this liquid, fermented rice wine, is gotten from the fermentation process where the rice starch converts to sugar.
The alcohol present also helps to mask the smell of seafood, especially fish, making mirin an ideal ingredient to include in seafood dishes (such as marinades). That’s not all—a nice sheen is also created whenever mirin is mixed with any food item. It gives luster to food. Mirin is for both shine and umami.
Types of Mirin
As mentioned earlier, there are many kinds of mirin available in the market. Furthermore, due to its popularity, there has been an uprising of “fake” mirin in the markets today, both in and out of Japan.
You most definitely don’t want a situation where a recipe calls for a specific type of mirin and you end up using the wrong one because you are confused. Using the fake stuff instead of the real thing will be just as bad as well.
Of the different types of rice wine being sold in stores and markets, mirin is one of the two major types which exist. For those of you who are familiar with this Japanese rice wine, I bet you didn’t know there was another kind aside from the one you normally make use of.
The two main types of mirin that exists are aji mirin, and hon mirin. Most people tend to group aji mirin under mirin-fu chomiryo (mirin-like seasoning), sometimes referred to as shio mirin (new mirin). This is basically flavored corn syrup with little to no alcohol at all. Aji mirin and hon mirin, when translated to English, mean “taste like mirin” and “true mirin,” respectively.
If you have mirin at home, go grab it and look for the ingredient label on the bottle. Chances are that you do not have mirin at all, but mirin-fu chomiryo, or better still, aji mirin. Let’s look at them individually.
What is Aji Mirin?
First of all, know that aji mirin is not mirin at all. Its name says it all—it tastes just mirin but isn’t. It is a commercially produced synthetic form of mirin which is very popular.
It’s a sweetened product that is easy to find in Asian groceries and some supermarkets. It is so easy to find because it contains less alcohol, so it’s exempted from the alcohol tax levy. But one con of using this product is that it doesn’t have the same aroma or properties of true mirin.
Aji mirin is a substitute for real mirin with a lower alcohol percentage and 2% salt. Its ingredient list includes water, corn syrup, alcohol, rice and salt. It is also made like Kotteri mirin (mirin-fu chormiyo) but with higher alcohol content. An example of this is Manjo Aji-Mirin (Kikkoman).
Hon Mirin: Any Different from Aji Mirin?
Hon mirin is fermented rice wine with an alcohol content of about 14 percent. It has a higher alcohol content than aji mirin and is often harder to get as it is the real deal. A comprehensive list of its ingredients includes steamed glutinous rice, rice koji mold, and Shochu, which is mixed and fermented for a period of about 40 to 60 days.
How it works is, the enzymes present in the rice koji decompose the amino acids, organic acids, starch, and proteins of glutinous rice. Various saccharides (sugars) and fragrance ingredients are produced to form the liquid mirin.
Hon mirin has more alcohol (hence the term mirin alcoholic), so it can be stored in a cool place for about 3 months. It is usually more expensive to get than the others. And it is generally more difficult to get than aji mirin.
Hon mirin has no added salt or sugar so it is often sold as regular wine. Expensive, imported hon mirin is found in many Japanese grocery stores, and the most popular hon mirin in Japan include Takaraboshi Hon Mirin, Kankyo Mirin, Isshi Soden Hon Mirin, along with others.
Just as its name tells us, it is a mirin-like seasoning that doesn’t taste like mirin at all and is not made with shochu, but instead, alcohol is added to it. This is seen when one goes through the ingredient list. It basically contains sweeteners (sugar or high fructose corn syrup). It’s also way cheaper and is sold in regular grocery stores.
The ingredient list would look like this—corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, water, fermented rice seasoning, less than 1% sodium benzoate (as a preservative), and vinegar. If it hasn’t been made clear, this drink is basically flavored corn syrup. These mirin flavored corn syrups have no alcohol duty taxes because of their less than 1% alcohol content.
These are the cheapest type of mirin available as they can be found everywhere, but a taste will tell you why, as they sometimes taste like chemicals.
Examples of mirin-like condiments include Honteri, which has no alcohol, Kotteri mirin (Kikkoman), and Kotterin (Kikkoman). Due to their very low alcohol content, these should be stored in the refrigerator and used up within 3 months.
Aji Mirin vs Hon Mirin: Which is Best for Cooking?
When it comes to cooking, special attention must be given to the kind of mirin you use. The addition of hon mirin seasoning to a dish gives it a sweetness with more depth and complexity than ordinary sugar.
Don’t forget that hon mirin has no sugar additives, and the alcohol does a whole lot of good to both cooked and uncooked dishes. It helps to tone down the strong tastes and odors of some foods, like fish, as well as the gaminess of meat and poultry. At the same time, it also brings out the flavors of other ingredients.
However, a synthetic and condiment-like mirin, such as mirin-fu chomiryo or aji mirin, will not be as effective in reducing odors due to the low alcohol content. Also, because aji mirin is not naturally fermented, it has no umami—the complex savoriness found in some Japanese foods.
If you want to buy mirin in the supermarket, take extra care to always check the salt content on the nutrition label, even if the product is labeled hon mirin. Be ready to spend extra cash for a bottle of good mirin, as it is very expensive and sometimes difficult to find outside of Japan. It’s a sacrifice worth making.
If you cannot find hon mirin, you can easily substitute with aji mirin (several other substitutes exist). Though it is not what is used in authentic Japanese cuisines, it would still do some good, depending on the brand you use.
Perhaps the most important difference between aji mirin and hon mirin is that hon mirin is the real deal while aji mirin is not (though it’s next in line).
If you cannot find true mirin, the best choice would be to take aji mirin over anything labeled “mirin seasoning.” What is both frustrating and fascinating is that many mirin companies produce both real mirin and mirin-flavored seasoning. Another confusing fact is that some real mirins don’t call themselves hon mirin.
Now you may ask, how do I know if it’s hon mirin or aji mirin if the type is not written boldly? Well, the best way to decide the real deal is to read the label. If it contains anything other than rice Koji, glutinous rice, and shochu, then it isn’t hon mirin. The second test would be to try it out. The taste never lies.
The difference between aji mirin and hon mirin cannot be overemphasized. As it has already been made clear, both differ in subtle ways, and in cost too, mind you!
To whomever is a lover of aji mirin, know that aji mirin rice wine is a good alternative if you can’t find authentic hon mirin where you are, but be fairly warned that the taste just won’t be the same.
Well, the next time you see a bottle of mirin on the shelf, I trust you will be able to tell the difference between real mirin, the one that tastes like mirin, and just plain mirin-like seasoning. But for now, make your teriyaki sauce only with authentic hon mirin.
So, aji mirin vs hon miring, what’s your choice? Leave a comment below.