It's luaus and pink drinks with umbrellas. It's leis and beach bums. It's all that fried "Polynesian"/Chinese/Japanese American food you love to hate. Welcome to Tiki Week. This week, we'll be featuring a favorite Tiki-bar appetizer every day of the week.
I always found the concept of "Beef Teriyaki Skewers" on Chinese-American menus to be so funny, because not only are they not American, they're not Chinese either. In fact, they're not even Japanese. Of course, putting authenticity aside, the things can still be quite delicious, the key word being can. At their best, they're sweet and savory with a faint aroma of pineapple and tender, meaty, charred beef. More often though, they're dry and salty with a distinct flavor that whispers "reheated".
Here's how to make'em the right way.
A traditional Japanese teriyaki sauce is made by simmering soy sauce, mirin (a sweet Japanese rice wine), sake (another type of rice wine), and sugar, along with a few flavorings—carrots, scallions, mushroom trimmings, whatever the cook feels like really. By slowly reducing it, this tare as its called, become thick, syrupy, and shiny. It's then applied to fatty fish like mackerel, tuna, yellowtail, or freshwater eel (teriyaki sauce on beef is a rare sight in Japan), which gets grilled over charcoal flames while sauce is reapplied a few times during cooking. At the best teriyaki houses, the same batch of sauce is constantly replenished with new soy, mirin, sake, and sugar, so that as the years pass by, the sauce becomes increasingly complex, delivering the distinctive flavor of the house to the food.
In America, on the other hand, the Tiki bar tradition has transformed this recipe into an entirely different beast. The base is still soy, mirin, and sake, but along with the sugar, pineapple juice is a common addition. This is important: not only does pineapple juice add flavor, but it also contains bromelain, a powerful tenderizing enzyme which rapidly breaks down the protein structure of the beef.
Garlic and ginger are not uncommon in Tiki-style teriyaki either.
There are many cuts you can use for this—skirt, sirloin tip, brisket, or hanger are all good options—but the most readily available and easiest to cut is flank steak, a long flat cut with a definite grain. The key to tender slices is to use a very sharp knife and cut perpendicular to the grain on a bias to maximize the surface area of each slice while minimizing the length of the individual meat fibers. I like to let the meat marinate for at least an hour and up to four. Much longer, and it starts to become too mushy from the pineapple juice.
If you've got a small coal-fired hibachi-style grill, you're golden. Just cook these over the open coals until well charred on both sides, brushing it with some of the reduced sauce right at the end. Otherwise, a full-sized gas or coal grill or even a grill pan will work just fine. Broiling is another option, but you're more likely to end up with meat that overcooks before it browns and skewers that catch on fire.
And if you want to get extra luau on your unsuspecting guests, stick a maraschino cherry on the end of each skewer after grilling and serve them on a bed of grilled pineapple rings. Okole maluna!