Bacon-Wrapped Shimeji Mushroom Kushiyaki
With Scratch-made Tare Sauce
Grilled meat on a stick. It’s pretty hard to get wrong, but it isn’t the easiest thing in the world to perfect either. Japan has elevated the idea to an art form through the informal, pub-style fare served in izakaya joints. This bacon-wrapped mushroom kushiyaki takes that simple-but-delicious izakaya mantra and runs with it. Kushiyaki is a Japanese word that combines the words for skewer (kushi) and grilled (yaki). In a broad sense, the word is used somewhat interchangeably with yakitori, which means grilled chicken, but if an individual food item doesn’t have any chicken (like this one), kushiyaki is the preferred term.
Alright, semantics out of the way, let’s talk about what makes this so good. Bacon and mushrooms are a classic combination to be sure, but three things come together to make this stand out. The first is thick cut, great quality bacon. Bacon gets talked up a lot these days because, well, it’s delicious obviously. But I feel we’re forgetting that not all bacon is created equal – thin, fatty, overly salted bacon doesn’t do a dish like this any favours. I use a really good, meaty side bacon from my local butcher shop, and I can promise you that it makes a difference. The second factor is the use of shimeji mushrooms. They’ve got a really great texture that can convert even the mushroom averse, and a wonderful flavour when grilled. The third and final factor is also the most important one: good tare sauce.
What’s tare sauce, you ask? Tare (pronounced TAH-ray) is the word we should be using when we talk about teriyaki sauce. Tare sauces in Japan fall into that perennial work-in-progress category; they’re left bubbling beside the grill, continually being used to flavour dishes, which in turn are continually adding drippings and their own flavourings back into the sauce. Because of this some tare sauces can be years old.
Tare, or more accurately teriyaki has crossed culinary borders so successfully that sauces based on it can be found in virtually any grocery store. But as is so often the case, the commercially available varieties pale in comparison to something home-made in a traditional style. Honestly, I have no idea why so many of these preparations cut corners (most are little more than sweetened soy sauce). It’s a ridiculously simple sauce to make, and its easy enough to tweak based on your personal preferences – all you need are a few basic Japanese pantry staples. Trust me, the end result is miles ahead of store-bought teriyaki – subtle, balanced, and generally speaking far less sugary. Plus, it’s a great way to use up the tops of your scallions/green onions after one-too-many recipes have called for you to use the white portions alone.
One last note – this might be one of the few situations where a Japanese-style dish will be better outside of Japan. Bacon in Japan tends to be a different, much leaner cut, and cooked to a point that most North Americans would consider rare. To each their own of course, but I think that this dish might be a candidate for a bit of cultural exchange.
The addition of garlic and onion greens to the sauce is not necessarily common in Japan, but I think it helps to develop the flavour and round things out a little. You can make the tare with or without these ingredients to see what you prefer. If you’re looking to take your tare game a step further, brown some chicken bones (leg bones are best) under a broiler and add them to the sauce.
Mirin is supposed to be a sweet cooking rice wine, but outside of Japan many brands are more like simple syrups. I use a Japanese mirin brand that contains alcohol and a moderate amount of sugar. Many of the more readily available brands in North America don’t have any alcohol in them, but do contain a LOT of sugar. If you’re stuck using one of the more syrupy varieties, reduced the amount of sugar you use (to taste), and add a bit more sake. Alternately, replace the mirin with sweetened sake (for more on this, check out the Diversivore pantry page on mirin).
When grilling these, you’ll probably want to cook on a stovetop grill or in an open barbecue. The amount of fat that renders out of the bacon makes it prone to flaring up on the grill, so you’ll want to be able to watch these carefully.
Note that the nutritional information assumes that you’ll use about half of the tare sauce to make/dip these. If you use a lot more, you’ll need to adjust accordingly.
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