Below is just a little story about my Bachan’s (grandmother’s) “famous-in-our-family” super secret teriyaki sauce recipe.
One sunny autumn day in LA, in a nursing home room brightened by fluorescent lights, an elderly Japanese woman with short silvery hair sat up in her bed, the kind that lifted up into a sitting position at the touch of a button. Bachan, or grandmother, was thin and frail now, as she had endured 3 years of dialysis to treat her end-stage kidney disease. The treatments had taken a toll. But her spirits were high today, because she was expecting a visitor.
Aunty M arrived with a beautiful bouquet of pink roses. She walked into the room with purpose, announced by the staccato clicks her heels made on the linoleum floor. In her mid-50s, her unnaturally black hair was cropped into a stylish pixie cut and gold jewelry adorned her ears, neck, fingers, and wrists. She placed the glass vase of roses onto a nearby table and sat down on a metal chair next to the bed. They chatted. Bachan smiled. Aunty M laughed, then pulled out a small notebook and pen from her black leather designer tote.
Aunty M was triumphant. After years of cajoling, she finally had it — Bachan’s super secret teriyaki sauce recipe was hers.
A few months later, in her expansive kitchen, Aunty M put on her apron, gathered the ingredients, and got to work. A shiny stainless steel stock pot sat on a professional-quality stove with the burner set to simmer and a rich aroma of sweet and salty filled the air. A line of new, freshly washed mason jars sparkled on her tiled kitchen island, ready to be filled. Excitedly, she spooned a small amount of the glossy black sauce onto a plate for a taste. But her smile soon faded and her forehead wrinkled in confusion.
She called Mom and said she thought she must have written the recipe down wrong. They compared notes and yes, there was a discrepancy. The recipes didn’t match, so Mom said she would test her version.
It turned out that both recipes for Bachan’s super secret teriyaki sauce were counterfeits!
Aunty M was disappointed.
Mom was shocked.
Mom called me and spent several minutes ranting about how embarrassed she was, and how she couldn’t believe Bachan – her own mother! – gave her a fake family recipe. She was especially upset because she had already passed the recipe around to her friends. She then asked if she could compare her version to mine.
Of course – I said no.
You see, I was Bachan’s secret-keeper. I knew I had the authentic recipe because we made batches of it together. In real time, I wrote down the ingredients and, more importantly, observed the process of making it.
Bachan and I shared a love of cooking. Like many exceptional home cooks, she rarely measured anything and just relied on her eyes, hands, and sense of taste. She taught me to cook that way too.
In her cramped apartment kitchen, the sauce simmered in large pots scarred with long years of use. We poured it into used sake bottles, soy sauce jugs, and even Best Foods mayonnaise jars – waste was not an option for Bachan, who recycled and reused before it was in vogue.
She gave out the bottles to family and friends. A quick brush of the sauce onto grilled rib-eye steaks yielded a delicious caramelized crust. A drizzle onto sizzling fried rice or a skillet of stir-fried vegetables imparted a rich color and a perfectly balanced salty and sweet flavor. Chicken marinated overnight and broiled the next day became an easy weeknight meal. Everyone wanted the recipe for this versatile sauce, but she always laughed off the requests without divulging her secret.
She fiercely protected her super secret teriyaki sauce recipe. So I was honestly surprised to learn that she had shared it with Aunty M, who had aggressively coveted it for so many years, and with Mom, who could never keep a secret.
But I guess in the end, she hadn’t really given it away to anyone other than me!