There are several reasons that chefs, and seemingly every person in Japan, are obsessed with Kewpie mayonnaise and its brethren: It comes in a soft-squeeze bottle with a fine tip for zigzagging artfully across okonomiyaki, a bowl of rice, or an oversized fine-dining plate. It’s tangy, rich, and salty-sweet. And it’s packed with umami (not to mention fat).
That irresistible umami flavor is due to a lot of MSG, and gums and fillers help with the perfectly creamy texture. A homemade version will never be exactly like one off the shelf, but just like Hellmann's has its roots in a humble homemade sauce, so does Kewpie.
So what differentiates Japanese mayo, even in its humbler homemade incarnation? It uses only egg yolks as opposed to whole eggs (which commercial American mayo uses). The oil is a neutral-flavored one, such as canola—never olive oil like you might use for aioli. And instead of lemon juice for tang, it relies on vinegar. It’s a little sweet, too, but never as cloying as Miracle Whip.
I wanted to give you a recipe that won't require a trip to a specialty market or mail-ordering obscure ingredients. I do suggest using dashi to add umami without MSG (which, though not necessarily harmful, I consider cheating)—but you can omit it and still have a great mayonnaise. (Nancy Singleton Hachisu—whose books you should buy if you want to learn Japanese home-cooking—has a recipe for a version that’s as simple as egg yolk, oil, rice vinegar, and a touch of salt and sugar.)
To concentrate the tang and umami in my recipe without thinning out the mayonnaise too much, I cook down the vinegar and dashi. It only takes a few minutes and makes all the difference between ordinary and fantastic mayo! You might instinctively reach for rice wine vinegar when making Japanese food, but cider vinegar gets you closer to the taste of Kewpie.
Here’s a recipe that gets damn close to Kewpie, using simple home-cooking ingredients. Put this in a squeeze bottle and you’re ready to go!
Helpful tools for this recipe:
- Pewter Measuring Spoons
- Five Two Essential Saucepan
- Silicone Grip Whisk
- Prep time 10 minutes
- Cook time 10 minutes
- Makes About 1 cup
plus 1 teaspoon cider vinegar
dashi, homemade or instant (optional)
large egg yolk
- In a small saucepan over high heat, bring the cider vinegar and dashi, if using, to a simmer (if you aren't using dashi, just simmer the vinegar). Cook, adjusting the heat to keep it simmering, not boiling, for 3 to 5 minutes, until reduced to about 1 tablespoon.
- Transfer the vinegar-dashi concentrate to a small bowl. Form a ring with a damp dish towel to rest your bowl on—this will keep it stable. Add the egg yolk and mustard and whisk to combine.
- Whisking constantly, very gradually drip in the oil down the side of the bowl into the yolk mixture. The mixture should emulsify and thicken.* You can drizzle a bit more quickly once the mixture is very thick.
- When all the oil has been incorporated, mix in the sugar and salt. You can add a little dashi or water to thin the mayonnaise so it will easily flow from a squeeze bottle but still hold its shape. It will thicken slightly once refrigerated. Transfer the mayo to a squeeze bottle. Refrigerate and use within 1 week.
- *If at any point the mixture breaks and separates instead of getting thick and creamy, don’t despair. Put a fresh egg yolk in a bowl and slowly whisk the broken mixture into it, as if it were the oil.