In Japanese tradition, the number five represents harmony with nature: five earth elements, five temples guarding Tokyo, five tiers to a pagoda. Even the fish-shaped kites flown each May 5 on Children’s Day have five fluttering ribbons.
It’s no different in the kitchen, where cooks aim to balance the five tastes: salty, sweet, bitter, sour and savory. “Every Japanese cook has the five ways in the back of their mind,” says California-based chef Sonoko Sakai, author of “Japanese Home Cooking.”
We discovered the delicious results of this pattern in Sakai’s recipe for broiled chicken thighs, a bold orchestration that punches up the five flavors, with a particular emphasis on savory. She begins by salting skin-on thighs, then marinating them with sesame oil and lightly pungent ginger juice. As it cooks, the meat then is basted with umami-rich shoyu tare, one of the mother sauces of Japanese cooking. At its most basic, it’s a mix of soy sauce simmered with sugar and mirin, a slightly sweet rice wine. During cooking, that sauce turns to a rich glaze as the skin crisps, producing a wonderful textural contrast to the tender meat. The final flourish is the sour, which Sakai offers with a finishing brush of lemon juice.
We easily adapted Sakai’s recipe to the grill, but ran into two issues. The recipe relies on boldly savory soy sauce, but we wanted an even more umami-packed tare—one that could stand up to the smokiness of the grill. So we boosted our tare by simmering soy sauce with shiitake mushrooms, ginger, garlic, brown sugar and sake. The latter lent acidity while also pulling out more of the alcohol-soluble flavor compounds from the mushrooms and ginger.
Finally, we know that seasonings rarely penetrate deeply into meat. So instead of rubbing the meat with the ginger juice and oil, we cut deep slashes into bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, creating more surface area for the basting liquid to cling to and allowing it to penetrate deeper into the meat, rather than simply glaze the exterior.
Once the skin was lightly charred and richly glazed, a sprinkle of chopped scallions and a squeeze of lemon blended with the chicken juices and tare to create a succulent main dish, all simply and perfectly balanced.