10 Basic Ingredients To Get You Started In Your Japanese Kitchen
By Fiona Uyema
As a foreigner living in Japan going to the supermarket can be quite a daunting experience. These 10 ingredients will help you stock up on the basic ingredients in your Japanese store cupboard to allow you to easily cook lots of tasty and time friendly Japanese dishes.
Japanese rice is a type of short-grain rice which sticks easily together when cooked, so it’s perfect for making rice balls and sushi. It’s also easier to eat with chopsticks! The difference between plain Japanese rice and sushi rice is that sushi rice is seasoned with sushi vinegar and used to make sushi.
The price of Japanese rice can vary dramatically however the average person would pay about 1500 yen for a 5 kilo bag of Japanese rice.
There’s a variety of noodles used in Japanese cooking, including ramen, udon, soba and somen. Ramen noodles are yellowish, thin and made from wheat. They are well known as one of the main ingredients in ramen broths. Udon noodles are white, thick and made from wheat flour. This type of noodle is often served in a hot broth, but one of my favourite ways to eat udon noodles is covering them in leftover curry sauce.
Soba noodles are brown-grey, thin and made from buckwheat flour. They have a strong nutty flavour and can be served hot or cold. I love eating them topped with tempura. Somen noodles are white, very thin and made from wheat. They’re often served cold during the hot summer months.
Soy Sauce 醤油
Soy sauce is a key ingredient in any Japanese kitchen. A good quality Japanese soy sauce has a delicate taste allowing it to blend easily with other ingredients bringing out the natural umami in food.
It’s a versatile ingredient to have in your kitchen for a simple stir-fry, to add to a casserole or one pot dish. The options are endless! My family’s favourite way to use soy sauce is mixed with honey to make a tasty teriyaki sauce.
Rice Vinegar 米酢
Rice vinegar is mostly used to make sushi rice, Japanese salad dressings and some sauces. It has a very delicate taste compared to other vinegars.
Rice Wine 酒
The alcoholic beverage called ‘sake’, Japanese rice wine, is made from polished rice and a type of bacteria culture called koji. Although sake is similar to wine in appearance, the brewing process of sake is more similar to beer.
The alcohol content of sake is higher than wine and beer which is usually up to 18%.The Japanese use sake for cooking also, it adds a wonderful flavour to dishes and helps tenderise meat and fish.
Sweet Rice Wine 味醂
Mirin has a lower alcohol content than sake and is used only for cooking in Japan. It adds a nice sweet balance to Japanese dishes.
Japanese Seven Spice 七味
This wonderful collection of seven spices adds an interesting dimension to the taste of a dish and also adds a nutritional explosion, with each spice boasting different health benefits. This spice mix includes chilli, orange peel, black sesame seeds, white sesame seeds, seaweed, Japanese pepper and ginger.
It’s often added to Japanese dishes to add a little kick and extra taste. At home I sprinkle this over soups, stews and noodle dishes once they are ready to be eaten. It also works really well as a seasoning for meat, fish or seafood.
Tofu is low in calories yet high in protein and calcium. There are different types of tofu available in the supermarket including “silken tofu” which has a soft and delicate texture and is best used in salads and soups, and “firm tofu” which has a tougher texture and works better in one pot dishes and stir fries. Fresh tofu can be eaten cold straight from the fridge or added to hot dishes.
Miso Paste 味噌
Miso is made from fermented soybeans, salt, rice or barley, and koji (fermentation starter). There are different types of miso, which vary in colour from light brown to dark red/brown. Generally, the lighter the colour the milder the taste. Once miso is opened it should be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container (it will continue to ferment and become more salty over time). It acts as a great marinade for meat, fish or even vegetables.
Seaweed is filled with vitamins and minerals and is an important part of the Japanese diet, from sushi making to simple stocks and salads. Here is a list of the seaweeds that I regularly use for cooking:
– kombu (kelp) seaweed
It’s filled with umami (the fifth taste) and one of the main ingredients used to make Japanese cooking stock (dashi). It’s also used for salads and stews.
– nori seaweed
It’s best known for wrapping sushi rolls and onigiri (Japanese rice balls). Nori can be bought as roasted seaweed sheets or milled (aonori). Once opened, nori sheets need to be stored in an airtight container or they will lose their crispy texture. Ao-nori (milled nori) is often sprinkled over dishes such as okonomiyaki and yakisoba just before serving.
– wakame seaweed
It can be bought as small dried pieces. It is added to miso soup and salads. Be careful how much dried wakame you add to a dish as these tiny pieces of seaweed expand once they are in water.