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Basics for Cooking Your Way Around a Japanese Kitchen

Cooking in Japan can seem like a daunting task, but when you want to move on from convenience store bento, here’s how to do it.

By 5 min read

When someone asks you about culture shock in Japan, what’s your go-to? For me, it’s the food. When I first visited as a teenager with my family, I was incredibly picky and turned my nose up at everything. 

Since then, I’ve done a complete 180, and now I love to experiment with cooking. Despite that, shifting to a Japanese kitchen was quite the challenge! After battling with the small space and lack of an oven, I’ve finally managed to get comfortable with cooking on my own in Japan, so here’s how you can, too.

The four magic ingredients

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Soy sauce, mirin, cooking sake, and sugar are used in so many Japanese dishes!

Just as you might find common ingredients across dishes in other cuisines, like the French mirepoix, Japan, too, has its base ingredients. So if you have these four things, they open up an entire world of Japanese cooking!

Those magical four ingredients are soy sauce, sweet rice wine, cooking sake, and sugar.

English Japanese Romaji
Soy sauce 醤油 Shoyu
Sweet rice wine みりん Mirin
Cooking sake 料理酒 Ryori-shu
Sugar 砂糖 Sato

The soy sauce brings the salt. Sugar balances salt and helps glazes thicken, removes unpleasant fishy or meaty odors, and adds depth. Mirin is similar to sake but with a sweetness and adds a glossy finish to glazes and sauces.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll use every single one of these in every Japanese dish, but they do make up the base of most sauces, glazes, and soups.

Some great beginner dishes

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Niku udon is a simple way to get used to noodles and dashi.

Your four magic ingredients will cover the flavor, but of course, you’ll need some base ingredients to use them with. For most dishes, you’ll need protein, some veggies, and rice or noodles.

If you’re a bit worried about names and allergy info at the supermarket, have a quick look at our supermarket guide before getting started.

But I usually find it easier to get groceries when I have dishes in mind first, so here are a few starter ideas. These are all familiar, simple dishes found in our Recipe Adventures series.

Here are some quick and easy recipes:

  • Teriyaki sauce: A sweet and salty glaze that’s super easy to cook with salmon or chicken.
  • Miso soup: A staple that will help you understand the basics of Japanese dashi (simple stock) and miso.
  • Yakisoba: A fried noodle dish to which you can add whatever toppings you wish.
  • Beef udon: A simple noodle soup that uses all of our magic ingredients, combined with a dashi-based soup.
  • Gyudon: A simple beef dish that only needs two main ingredients outside of our magic four.
  • Oyakodon: A chicken and egg dish that will help you understand Japanese dashi (simple stock) used a lot in Japanese cooking.
  • Pork Shogayaki: Pork loin simmered in a ginger-infused sauce.

Cooking methods

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“Yaku” is the all-purpose word for “to cook.”

The almighty yaku, which means “to cook,” refers to most things involving direct heat or semi-direct heat, ranging from frying in a pan to cooking on a grill. Japanese kitchens don’t usually have a full-sized oven, so roasting and oven-based recipes are less common.

As for cooking methods, you’ll likely be familiar with most of them already, as the cooking itself is usually relatively straightforward. Here are the methods most commonly used:

  • Niru (to simmer): This method is used for simple vegetable or meat dishes and soups.
  • Musu (to steam): Less common, but most often used for chawanmushi and steamed buns.
  • Ageru (to deep fry): This has the same meaning the world over, but there are some sub-methods, such as su-age (deep frying without coating), you should know.

Cutting methods

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Different cuts are better for different dishes.

There’s a baffling number of cuts that chefs use in Japan. And probably just as many knives—which you can read about in our guide to Japanese knives.

Still, there is overlap with western cooking and cutting techniques. While there are some I’d had never heard of before, these techniques are what you’ll probably end up using the most, alongside the familiar mincing and dicing used in western recipes:

  • Rangiri (random shape cut): Used most often with carrots, you roll the carrot, cut, roll it, cut, to get some same-sized chunks. I use this a lot for curry (and roasts).
  • Hangetsu giri (half-moon cut): This is used mainly for daikon and carrots and is good for adding some veggies to soups. They cook quickly and look nice and uniform.
  • Sogigiri (angled cut): This can be used on mushrooms and napa cabbage but can also be used for chicken breast to get slices of even thickness.

Must-have kitchen appliances

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Fluffy white rice, every time.

Finally, we have the wonderful world of Japanese cooking appliances. I’m always amazed by the array of kitchen gadgets and gizmos you can find in electronic stores like Bic Camera, but here are some of the mainstays:

  • Rice cooker: Self-explanatory. It cooks rice. But it can also be used for other things like cakes, stews and even bread. Once you’ve started using it, you won’t be able to live without it!
  • Steamer: This is something you can pick up very cheaply in the supermarket or online and is great for making steamed buns and fish dishes. Relatively inexpensive, but you could treat yourself to a fancier-looking bamboo steamer.
  • Fish grill: I was pretty confused by this when I first saw it. It’s the letterbox-shaped grill underneath Japanese stoves, and it’s mainly used for fish. Though mine is probably more often used for toast. 
  • Microwave oven: Most Japanese apartments don’t come with an oven. If you can’t live without one, I recommend buying an obun-renji, or microwave oven. They look like they won’t work as ovens, but trust me—they do everything an oven can. 

With all of those things taking up space in your teeny tiny Japanese kitchen, it can be hard to find a place for everything. Check out our guide to organizing your tiny Japanese kitchen for some tips!

Now go forth and make some salmon teriyaki! Or help out other readers in the comments below if you have any extra kitchen tips and tricks. 

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