Ponzu sauce is a Japanese dressing and marinade that is similar to soy sauce, but has a distinctive tangy, often acidic flavor. Cooks both within Japan and around the world use it in a variety of dishes. On its own, it is a popular dipping sauce for seafood or small appetizers, though it is also used as a glaze for meats, particularly barbecue; as marinade for fish; or as an addition to any number of salads.
Many food experts refer to ponzu sauce as “soy sauce plus,” and for good reason since ponzu’s base is little more than basic soy. Most ponzu sauces are made with bonito, or dried fish flakes, which add saltiness, as well as mirin rice wine which adds a vinegary complexity. Yuzu, an Asian citrus, brings acidity and tang.
Commercial and Home Production
With the right ingredients, it is relatively easy to make the sauce at home. Modern cooks often start by heating commercial soy sauce, then progressively add additional ingredients. Traditionalists will often start with their own soy brews, though this is much more time-consuming. The finished sauce is usually allowed to simmer, then cool for quite some time — often a day or more — before serving. This allows the flavors to percolate and infuse.
Ponzu sauce is also commercially produced, often by the same manufacturers who make soy sauce. Store-bought versions are necessarily a bit different from homemade, since commercial manufacturers usually make very large batches of sauce at once and frequently add preservatives and chemical balances to prolong shelf life. Ready-made sauce is often more practical and convenient, however, particularly for cooks outside of Japan where ingredients like bonito flakes, yuzu, and mirin are not widely available.
Japanese cooks use ponzu sauce as something of an all-purpose flavor booster. A few dashes are often added to soups as they simmer, or to meats before they are cooked. A great many dishes call for small amounts of the sauce, though the sauce can also be served on its own, usually as a dip.
The sauce is by no means limited to use in Japanese dishes, and its commercial availability in most markets has meant that chefs all over the world can use it inventively as an accompaniment to their own cuisines. Marinating a steak in ponzu, for instance, can lend a deliciously tangy flavor; the same is true for adding the sauce to an ordinary salad dressing. Ponzu can be a quick and easy way to add Asian flavor to a variety of different foods.
Substitutions and Alterations
Home cooks can modify the strength and potency of their sauce by controlling the proportion of ingredients. Tartness, saltiness, and general runniness can all be controlled by adding more or less citrus, mirin, or bonito.
Cooks who are unable to find the sauce — and who do not want to try their hand at making it from scratch — can often recreate the basic taste by adding a bit of citrus juice, usually lime, to ordinary soy sauce. Soy sauce is widely available around the world. Simmering the soy with lime and a bit of rice or white vinegar comes even closer to the authentic taste.