With its beautiful presentation and fresh, delicate flavours, Japanese cuisine can seem intimidating at first glance, due to its unique ingredients and meticulous preparation methods. However, with sushi, ramen and tonkotsu taking the world by storm, it’s becoming clear that with just a handful of quality Japanese ingredients, whipping up such dishes might be easier than it looks!
Here's my recommendations of the best Japanese ingredients that I believe should be in every kitchen.
Condiments and sauces
#1 Soy Sauce (Shoyu)
Did you know that it’s best to use only Japanese soy sauce for Japanese cooking?
This is because Japanese soy sauce, known as 'shoyu', is not just any old Asian sauce. It has a more delicate and less salty flavour than its Chinese counterpart as it’s made from equal measures of soybeans and wheat. Shoyu is used in Japanese cooking to season everything, from marinades to dressings to dipping sauces. Personally I struggle to see what Japanese food would taste like without it.
#2 Japanese Rice Wine (Sake)
Sake is an alcoholic beverage that is widely used in Japan for both drinking and cooking. This Japanese ingredient is made by fermenting rice that has been polished to remove the bran. Cooking sake is different from drinking sake as it has less alcohol content and a more concentrated flavour. I love using sake in a variety of ways, including to tenderise meat and remove odour. It is also great in simmered dishes and soups.
#3 Rice Vinegar (Komezu)
Japanese rice vinegar is a colourless or pale liquid that is mellower and less acidic compared to its Western counterparts. It’s used to add a tangy sweetness to salad dressings, pickles and sauces and is also an integral component to making sushi rice.
#4 Sesame Oil (Goma Abura)
Sesame oil is made by roasting and crushing sesame seeds and is used primarily as a finishing oil drizzled at the end of cooking or in dressings or dipping sauces. When sesame oil is mixed with red peppers, it becomes a popular chilli oil used for dipping gyoza (dumplings)
#5 Japanese Noodle Soup Base (Mentsuyu)
Mentsuyu is a soy-sauce based ingredient used to make soup bases for udon and soba noodle dishes. Made from a combination of soy sauce, sake, mirin and dashi, its sweet, umami flavour also makes it great in dishes such as oyakodon and as a tempura dipping sauce.
#6 Miso Paste
Miso paste is an earthy, salty, umami-rich paste made by fermenting soybeans and grains (such as rice or barley) with koji (a type of culinary fungus). Rich in vitamins and minerals, this Japanese cooking ingredient is one of my favourite Japanese ingredients and is used as a fundamental flavouring for soups, sauces, dressings and marinades.
#7 Wasabi Paste
Japanese horseradish or wasabi is a root vegetable that will deliver a pungent and spicy kick to your senses. Most commonly grated into a green paste and used to complement sushi and sashimi, wasabi can also be used in salad dressings or as a condiment for soba.
Noodles are a staple in any Japanese pantry, with noodles such as ramen, soba and udon having already made a name for themselves worldwide. In Japanese cuisine, noodles are commonly eaten with hot broth such as in Tonkotsu Ramen or Kake Udon. Alternatively they are consumed cold such as with Zaru Soba, where noodles are chilled and eaten with a dipping sauce and tempura.
Tofu is made from curdled soy milk and comes in varieties such as silken, firm or deep-fried. Tofu is used widely in Japanese dishes like miso soup, nabe (hot pot) and my personal favourite, agedashi tofu. When deep-fried, tofu can also be found in pouches to make inari sushi or added as a chewy topping for kitsune udon.
#10 Short Grain Rice (Gohan)
Japanese cuisine favours short grain rice because it's fluffy and sticky, making it perfect for moulding into sushi rice or onigiri. Short grain rice is also used as the base for Japanese curry and donburi rice bowls. Look out for short grain rice of the Koshikikari variety.
#11 Curry Blocks
Japanese curry is a popular Japanese comfort food and is unique compared to curries from other regions due to its sweeter, mellower flavour. Japanese curry is made with onions, potatoes, carrots and meat and is often eaten with rice or poured over noodles. Japanese instant curry blocks were first introduced in the 1950s and are the foundations behind one of my favourite meals, Japanese chicken curry.
#12 Japanese Soup Stock (Dashi)
Dashi is as universal in Japanese cuisine as chicken soup stock is in Western cuisine! This essential Japanese ingredient is commonly made from a combination of kelp and bonito fish flakes. Dashi stock often forms the base of popular Japanese dishes such as miso soup, okonomiyaki and chawanmushi.
#13 Ginger (Shoga) and Garlic (Nin'niku)
Freshly grated ginger is often used in Japanese cooking to rid meat of its gamy quality and to add a light, fragrant aroma to dishes. On the other hand, Japanese cuisine goes lighter on garlic compared to other cuisines, but is also known to boast popular garlic dishes such as Japanese garlic fried rice. These days, it’s common in Japanese households for fresh ginger and garlic to come in ready, easy to use tubes!
#14 Green Onion (Negi)
Negi is a green onion with elongated white stalks and hollow green tops. It most closely resembles the Western leek but with a more delicate texture and sweeter flavour. The white part of negi is used in simmering soups and nabe (hot pot) whereas the green parts are used as aromatic toppings, such as in rice bowls. In Japan, negi is also eaten kushiyaki style i.e. skewered and grilled over an open flame.
#15 Japanese Breadcrumbs (Panko)
Panko is a Japanese ingredient made from crustless white bread to produce lighter and crunchier fried food compared to regular breadcrumbs. In my opinion, Panko is one of the most fun Japanese ingredients and is used to coat popular Japanese dishes such as tonkatsu, chicken katsu, and korokke (mashed potato cakes).
Seaweed is a foundational Japanese ingredient, much loved for its nutritional benefits as well as the umami flavour it adds to dishes. There are many varieties of seaweed used in Japanese cuisine, with well-known ones including nori (i.e seaweed wrapped around sushi), kombu (i.e. seaweed used to make dashi) and wakame (i.e. seaweed sprinkled in soups or salads). If you're like me, you may also like to try dried seaweed snacks.
#17 Sesame Seeds (Iri Goma)
Sesame seeds are widely used in Japanese cuisine to add a savoury nuttiness to dishes. They come in three varieties – white, black and golden – with white sesame seeds being the most commonly used. White sesame seeds are often found in salad dressings and garnishing while black sesame seeds are used in marinades or crushed into a paste for desserts. Golden sesame, on the other hand, is used for kaiseki or Japanese traditional ceremonial cuisine due to its luxurious flavour and aroma.
#18 Seven Spice (Shichimi Togarashi)
Seven spice is one of the most famous, traditional Japanese ingredients and popular Asian spice that can be found in almost all Japanese restaurants and homes. Used as a condiment to add spicy, citrusy flavour to noodles and rice bowls, seven spice typically includes a blend of red chilli pepper, sansho pepper, sesame seeds, nori and citrus peels.
Are you ready to try your hand at making some of the best Japanese dishes including sushi or katsu curry? Stock up on these basic Japanese ingredients and you’ll have your friends and family saying ‘Itadakimasu’ and thanking you for the delicious food in no time!