Essential Pantry Ingredients in the Japanese Kitchen
With Japanese cuisine, everything is designed to appeal to the senses. Flavors, textures, colors, the overall composition and presentation of food on the plate. From precise preparation to artful presentation, no aspect of Japanese cuisine gets overlooked. Here are some of the key ingredients used in Japanese cooking.
Fish: Though Japan is a mountainous country with relatively limited agricultural output, the waters around the archipelago are brimming with sea life. Not surprisingly, seafood dominates Japanese cuisine, along with rice, soy, seaweed, and fresh vegetables and fruits. Try Japanese Miso-Glazed Cod.
Chicken: Chicken is popular sliced in teriyaki preparations or skewered and grilled. Chicken might also be dredged in potato starch and fried or ground and served as dumplings. Try Chicken Katsu.
Tofu: A versatile ingredient, tofu is enjoyed in stir-fries, soups, casseroles, salads, sauces, and sandwiches. It is high in protein and an excellent meat substitute. Tofu is made by pressing curdled soy milk in a process similar to cheese-making. Smooth and creamy, the firmness of tofu varies. It is perishable, and should be refrigerated and eaten within a week of purchase. (Shelf-stable pasteurized varieties are available but are not as fresh-tasting.) Check out 12 Top-Rated Japanese Tofu Recipes.
Green Tea: Tea is a crucial part of Japanese culture. Enjoyed throughout the day, green tea plays a prominent role in every meal. Formal social rituals, cha-do ("the way of tea"), have been built up around tea drinking as a transcendent philosophical experience. Unlike black tea, green tea is made without fermenting the leaves, resulting in light yellow-green color and a flavor similar to the fresh, green tea leaves. Green tea is also loaded with antioxidants and antibacterial properties that help fight cavities and gum disease.
Soy sauce: Japanese soy sauce has a different flavor than Chinese: it is fermented from half roasted, cracked wheat and half soybeans, giving it a sweetness and higher concentration of alcohol that Chinese soy sauce. Tamari is a kind of Japanese soy sauce that, like the Chinese version, is made with little or no wheat and has a rich, dark color and flavor. An incredibly versatile ingredient in Japanese cooking, soy sauce is used to flavor sauces, soups, stir-fries, and braised dishes. It is also used for marinades, for pickling, and as a condiment. Known as shoyu in Japan, soy sauce should be added to dishes at the end of the cooking process to preserve its flavors. Try it with Pork Gyoza.
Sesame oil: Oil derived from tiny white sesame seeds (goya in Japanese), sesame oil has been an ingredient in Japanese cooking for centuries. Most sesame oil used in Japanese cooking is made from toasted seeds and has a rich, nutty flavor and golden color. Use sesame oil sparingly and store in a cool, dry place. Try it in Sesame Seared Tuna.
Rice wine vinegar: An important ingredient in sushi rice. Rice wine vinegar has a mild flavor, but its strong acidity helps slow the growth of food-borne bacteria. Store rice vinegar in the refrigerator or in a cool dry place. Rice vinegar is used primarily in dressings, to make pickles, and in sushi rice. Try it in Japanese Deviled Eggs.
Plum wine: Fermented from green ume plums, plum wine has a pleasantly sweet and sour flavor. Try it in Fast Grilled Chicken Breast Marinade.
Mirin: A slightly sweet rice wine similar to sake but lower in alcohol. Because of its strong flavor, it should be used sparingly in cooking. It is a common ingredient in teriyaki sauce. Try it in Beef Kushiyaki.
Dashi: An important ingredient in Japanese cooking, dashi is a simple soup stock made from boiling water and dried kombu seaweed. Find out how to make your own dashi stock for miso soups. Try it in Nikujaga (Japanese-style meat and potatoes).
Nori Seaweed: These paper-thin sheets of dried seaweed are used for wrapping sushi. The sheets are roasted gently and are high in protein. Sliced thinly, nori makes a terrific garnish or seasoning. Try it with Smoked Salmon Sushi Roll.
Udon noodles: These thick spaghetti-like noodles are made from corn or wheat flour. Available fresh or dried, udon noodles are a mainstay in Japanese soups. Try it in Chicken Udon Noodle Soup.
Ramen noodles: These deep-fried instant noodles are also the name of a dish consisting of noodles in broth with pieces of meat and vegetables. Try this Ramen Bowl.
Tempura batter mix: Tempura was introduced into Japan by the Portuguese in the 16th century. The word comes from quattuor tempora, Portuguese for "Ember Days," the time of year when Catholics abstain from meat. Tempura was the light batter used to fry fish and vegetables. It remains the same today. Make your own Tempura Batter.
Rice: When a Japanese person says, "Let's eat!" what they're actually saying is "Let's eat cooked rice." The expression reveals the importance of rice in Japanese cuisine and culture. Japanese rice is short-grained, but there are many regional variations. There are three kinds of rice: polished white, semi-polished white and unpolished brown. The most popular is the polished white version, though it has the least nutrients. See How to Make Perfect Sushi Rice.
Panko: These jagged breadcrumbs are essential for fried foods, creating a crisp coating; they're coarser than breadcrumbs used in Western cooking. Try it in Tonkatsu (Japanese-Style Crispy Fried Pork Cutlets).
Mayonnaise: Japanese borrowed from the French and made mayonnaise their own. Mayonnaise is used in some sushi preparations and as a condiment for savory omelets (okonomiyaki). Try it with Grilled Chicken Teriyaki Skewers with Miso Ranch. For more about Japanese mayonnaise, check out What Is Kewpie Mayonnaise?
Miso: Miso is a very important flavoring ingredient in Japanese cooking, added to soups, sauces, marinades, dips, salads and main dishes, and provided as a table condiment. It is made from cooked grains (rice, barley or soybeans) that are fermented with a starter. It is then mixed with ground soybeans and aged in barrels for months or even years. Miso paste's depth of flavor comes from its yeasts and lactic acid bacteria: in general, the darker the miso, the stronger the flavor. Miso paste should be stored in the refrigerator. Check out the Best Recipes That Start with Miso Paste.
Sesame seeds: Mild and nut-like, sesame seeds are used to add texture and flavor to a variety of Japanese dishes. Their flavor intensifies when toasted. Try adding them to Quick Sesame Green Beans.
Daikon: A large root with a sweet flavor and crisp texture, daikon are used in salads, in stir-fries, and pickled as a garnish. Try them in Stir-Fried Japanese Ginger Pork.
Japanese Cucumbers: These long, thin cucumbers have thick skins that sport tiny bumps all over them. They are crisp and relatively seedless. Japanese cucumbers originated in the Himalayan region. Try it in Japanese Cucumber Sunomono.
Ginger: Ginger made its way to Japan via China many centuries ago. Slivered or sliced thin, ginger is frequently added to Japanese stir-fries, salads, and soups. Store leftover ginger root in the refrigerator wrapped in plastic wrap. Pickled ginger — paper-thin pink slices — is traditionally eaten with sushi. Because of its antiseptic qualities, pickled ginger is thought to combat potential food-borne bacteria. Try it in Pickled Ginger Asian Pear Coleslaw.
Shiitake mushrooms: Fresh shiitake mushrooms are grilled or served in soups and stir-fries. Dried shiitakes are more flavorful and should be brought back to life in a soak of warm water. Add the soaking liquid to soups and stir-fries. Try it in Beef Sukiyaki.
Enoki mushrooms: Looking a bit like a handful of long white carpentry nails, enoki mushrooms grow in clumps; they have a slightly crunchy texture and mild flavor. Use them in salads or added to soups and other hot dishes at the end of cooking. Try these stir-fried Enoki Mushrooms.
Japanese eggplant: Smaller and thinner than European eggplants, Japanese varieties have thin skins and a delicate flavor. Try them in Nasu Dengaku.
Check out our complete collection of Japanese Recipes.