What Is Ponzu Sauce And What Does It Taste Like?

Search for ponzu sauce on Google, and the search engine will proceed to tickle your tastebuds. Hit the keys and browse through a series of articles boasting "sensational sushis" (via San Gabriel Valley Tribune), the "best outdoor dining experiences in LA" (via CSQ), and the "top burgers in the Bay Area" (via San Francisco Chronicle). Ponzu is clearly in vogue on the West Coast. The sauce is, nevertheless, at its truest in its homemade form on the shelves of a Japanese kitchen. 

The best way to describe ponzu is that it tastes like its name: "pon," the Dutch word for "punch" (which made it into 17th century Japanese thanks to the Dutch East India Company) and "su" which means vinegar (via Serious Eats)The Kitchn describes the sauce as "zingy," adding in wonder, "it can be salty, bitter, sweet, and sour all at once." Just One Cook Book says it's "tart-tangy" and "refreshing." The New York Times gushes, "move over vinaigrette," adding that the "smoky and rich" sauce is "at it's best ... complex." Suffice to say, this is no ordinary vinegar-based marinade.

The secret to good ponzu sauce

Many ponzu sauces are made with soy, but soy sauce isn't an absolute must (via Serious Eats and Taste Atlas). At its heart, the sauce that's stolen the heart of California's dining scene is a simmered mix of rice vinegar, mirin (rice wine) which is sometimes substituted with sake, katsuobushi (bonito fish flakes), konbu (seaweed), and a single, defining ingredient. Ponzu sauce finds the punch for which it was named when prepared with the juice of the yuzu fruit.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that yuzu is essential to the soul of the sauce. Serious Eats describes it as "a bitter orange," but that does the fruit a disservice. "Nothing compares to yuzu," writes Helen Rosner for The New Yorker. She describes  the "knobbly-skinned" citrus fruit as "more floral than an orange and nearly as tart as a lime" and compares its scent to  the "Froot-Loops-y honey of a lemon blossom wrapped around an astringent armature of industrial floor cleaner (which is somehow exquisite), then magnified tenfold, then mailed to the moon."  

Of course, yuzu, notes Serious Eats, is expensive and often hard to track down. Many commercially-made ponzu sauces are made with lemon and lime, and if you end up making your own, The New York Times suggests "a bit more lemon than lime."