10 Essential Ingredients for Japanese Cooking 

Making your start with Japanese cooking can be something of an intimidating endeavour, but once you’ve got the hang of things it is a valuable addition to your culinary repertoire. Before you get started with anything though, you’ll need to make sure that your kitchen is nice and stocked with all the essentials that you’ll be using in your new Japanese cooking. 

You might think that it’ll be hard to find some of these ingredients in the UK, but you’ll actually find a surprising amount in your local supermarket. I usually save on groceries with Groupon, so I can get all the things I need for less. If you have trouble finding any of the ingredients on this list, then you might also want to consider looking at online retailers or paying a visit to an Asian supermarket. 

Mirin 

This is a rice wine that is a little similar to sake, but with a sweeter taste and lower alcohol content. It acts as a base and flavour in lots of Japanese cooking and is an essential condiment. If you’d prefer, you can also pick up varieties with very low alcohol content, but the same flavour, known as shin mirin. 

Soy Sauce 

A staple of Asian cooking, soy sauce plays an important role in the preparation and table dressing of Japanese foods. It can be added to dishes while preparing or as a bowl on the table for dipping. In Japan, soy sauce is never poured directly on to a dish, instead, you should gently dip your food into the separate bowl on the table. 

Bonito Flakes

Bonito flakes are a critical part of flavouring most Japanese dishes. These flakes of dried and smoked tuna contribute to the basic Japanese stock of dashi, along with dried kombu (kelp). They can also be added to the top of hot food for additional flavour. 

Kombu 

As mentioned above, kombu is dried kelp which is used with bonito as the main ingredients to create dashi – a Japanese stock which is used as the base for soups, broths and other dishes. 

Black Sesame Paste 

Not to be confused with tahini, this sesame paste is prepared from black sesame seeds and has a coarser texture. Giving food a roasted nutty flavour, black sesame paste is another important ingredient in most Japanese dishes. It can also be enjoyed as a thin spread on top of bread or toast. 

Dashi (Fish Stock) 

While you might want to try your hand at making your own dashi using bonito flakes and kombu, you can also pick up instant varieties which can serve the same purpose – although you might lose some of the distinct flavours in the process. Think of the difference between your own homemade beef gravy and using oxo cubes. 

Rice Vinegar 

Used for simmering, making marinades and creating pickles, rice vinegar is an important part of cooking many Japanese fish dishes. There are seasoned versions out there as well, which are mixed with sake, salt and sugar. Rice vinegar is used in other Asian cuisines, but there are distinct differences between them, so make sure that you get Japanese rice vinegar. 

Sesame Oil 

This can be used as a cooking aid, for a bit of additional flavour or mixed with chillies to create a spicy paste known as rāyu. Rāyu is often added to dishes while cooking or used on the table as a condiment for dipping. 

Short-Grained Rice 

Japanese rice is actually a few different varieties of short-grained rice that are used for different purposes. Urumachi is the most commonly used variety and you might be able to find it underneath the label of sushi rice. Preparation of rice will vary depending on the type of dish, but it is well worth investing in a rice cooker for most of your prep. 

Fresh Veg 

Just like in most cuisines, vegetables play a large part in all of Japanese cooking. Japanese vegetables might be a little bit different from the ones that you typically pick up in your supermarket shop. A good starting point would be to keep a stock of Japanese yams, Japanese peppers, Japanese mushrooms, wasabi, daikon and spring onions. 

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