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Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Taste Now & Then Sunday Punch Letters


meet Ponzu
To know this perky, quirky little sauce is to love it
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With its blend of sweet, sour and salt, ponzu sauce is as adaptable as it is enticing and exciting. Here it's served with salmon topped with frizzled leeks and citrus zest.
Some dishes are hard to translate. Other dishes seem to speak some sort of culinary lingua franca, appealing to almost anyone anywhere. Take poi, for instance. Hawaiians find this traditional taro-root paste nearly irresistible, but most of the rest of us just can't quite accept it. On the other hand, we bring home Hawaii's chocolate-covered macadamia nuts by the boxload. OK, maybe they're not a traditional dish, but they make a lot more sense to us than poi.

Still other dishes fall into a third category: If only they were more widely known they might be more dearly loved. Consider ponzu. Traditionally made with the juice of an obscure Asian citrus fruit called yuzu, it's none too familiar to most people outside of Japan but, like the chocolate-covered macadamia nut, it has a certain appeal.

At once sweet, sour, salty and even a little bitter, ponzu sauce is a veritable flavor extravaganza. It's chameleon-like in its ability to conform to the peculiar flavor contours of any dish it accompanies. With a grilled steak, it's as apropos as a splash of Worcestershire. With plain rice, it's like an elixir. A little drizzle on top of a cold oyster trembling in its shell will take on a thickness you never would have noticed with the rice or the steak. And as a foil to the opulent oils so abundant in wild salmon, it is bracing, even invigorating; every bite entices you to take another.

Did I mention the smell? A good ponzu sauce smells like wine and flowers and caramelized butter all at once. It is infinitely appetizing.

But what do I know? I've never even tasted a real ponzu sauce.

Thumbnail Ponzu Salmon & Pacific Northwest Ponzu Sauce
Oh sure, you can buy the stuff in bottles in any good Asian grocery store, but bottled ponzu sauce lacks vitality. Thin and sharp, it tastes like nothing more than lemon juice and soy sauce — not bad, but not exciting, either. The challenge is getting juice from a good yuzu. Yuzu fruits, when they appear in western markets at all, are exorbitantly expensive, and not even very good.

Once I tried making ponzu sauce from bottled yuzu juice, but it tasted like ReaLemon, the bottled lemon juice I knew and loathed as a child. Both are typically preserved with something called sodium benzoate, a chemical with an aroma so distinctive and so repugnant that I can never enjoy anything in which it's found.

So how do I know anything about ponzu sauce at all? I started with a recipe from Hiroko Shimbo's "The Japanese Kitchen" (The Harvard Common Press, 2000), the most reliable source of information on Japanese food I know. And then I went wild. Shimbo's recipe is one of several she describes as "Komezu-Based Dressings," simple sauces made with rice vinegar. Her formula for ponzu is simply rice vinegar, mirin (sweet cooking wine), yuzu, soy sauce and dashi (Japanese fish stock).

Instead of using sweet cooking wine, I caramelized a little sugar in a dry pan to add complexity and viscosity to the sauce. Then I experimented with combinations of citrus fruit to replace the enigmatic yuzu, and settled on a mixture of grapefruit, orange and lime. Somehow, I let go of the dashi altogether. Like poi, I'm afraid that fish stock is something of an acquired taste. In all honesty, I suppose my version of ponzu is pretty far removed from the classic original, but I have to say, I like it a lot.

Greg Atkinson is chef at IslandWood on Bainbridge Island. He is also author of "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (Sasquatch Books, 1999). Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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