Go to your local Asian store (or good supermarket) and read the labels on a few bottles. Formulas vary — there are different types of ponzu, some lighter in color or brighter in flavor than others — but a typical one includes juice from several citrus fruits, including yuzu, as well as soy sauce (preferably naturally brewed), mirin (based on sweetened sake), bonito flakes and dried mushrooms (often shiitakes). Sometimes there’s a hit of MSG in there, too, and I have no problem with that, though you may prefer to avoid it.
What do many of those ingredients share? Umami — savoriness — a handy thing when you’re cooking. But ponzu’s umami is nicely perked up with all that citrus flavor.
True, when tasted on its own ponzu has a flavor we associate with Japanese food. But used judiciously, it will not make everything it touches taste the same, much less taste Asian.
Here’s an example from a recent dinner for four at our house: The idea was to make a kind of corn hash and top it with skillet-crisped porgy fillets, not an unusual plan around here. Once I’d cut the kernels from enough corn to yield 1 1/2 cups and scraped the juice and starch into a little bowl, I put a 12-inch skillet over medium-low heat and sweated 2/3 cup of fine-diced onions in butter. When they were almost done, I added a medium red bell pepper and a small green one, both diced small, some fresh tarragon and salt and pepper, then continued to cook, now over medium-high heat, until the peppers were done but still crisp. This I set aside until dinner time.
Just before putting the fish (salted and peppered on both sides and lightly floured on the skin side) in to cook, I reheated the onion-pepper mixture over medium-high heat and added the corn. After two minutes, when the corn was warmed through (it doesn’t need to be cooked too much more than that), I added the corn juices, more freshly chopped tarragon, two tablespoons of cream and a 1/4 cup of ponzu. This cooked for another couple of minutes, during which time I started the fish, which didn’t take more than three or four minutes to cook (on side A until the skin was crisp, then for no more than 30 seconds on side B).
To serve, I put the corn mixture on plates and the fish on the corn mixture. If I had wanted something more saucelike, I’d have whisked butter into the ponzu in a separate pan and drizzled this over the corn mixture on each dinner plate. But the beautiful summer vegetables were so moist that a real sauce would have been redundant.
The addition of ponzu worked magic. Yes, the mixture would have been delicious without it — our first really ripe peppers of the season were heart-breakingly flavorful — but those four tablespoons of umami added an entirely new dimension to the dish. It did not taste of soy sauce; it did not taste of Japan. It just tasted great.