Making Japanese Dishes at Home Is Easy with These 10 Ingredients!
Japanese cuisine is well-loved around the world for its balanced flavors, and its use of fresh, top-notch, and seasonal ingredients. In a survey conducted by YouGov back in 2019, Japanese ranks third in the world’s most popular cuisines, next to Italian and Chinese.
As a longtime fan of Japanese culture and cuisine, I’ve learned that preparing popular Japanese food isn’t actually as complicated as it might seem—it’s a matter of using fresh and seasonal fish, meat, and vegetables, and having essential ingredients on hand.
If you’re looking to try making your own Japanese dishes at home, make sure you have these items in stock:
Rice is a staple for almost any Asian pantry, but when cooking traditional Japanese food, using medium-grain japonica rice is always best. Japanese rice is stickier, more moist, and has a slightly sweeter taste and fragrance compared to long-grain, basmati, or jasmine varieties. Every Japanese household has its own rice cooker, and it’s good to have this in your own kitchen to aid you in cooking rice perfectly.
Japanese rice is eaten together with many types of entrees, and is also a key ingredient for dishes like sushi and onigiri (rice balls).
2. Soy Sauce
Soy sauce is the most basic type of seasoning in Japanese cuisine. It’s used to add saltiness to a dish, but it’s different from salt in a way that it adds the umami flavor to a recipe. Take note that Japanese-style soy sauce (shoyu) is different from other varieties: Chinese-style soy sauce is stronger in flavor, as it is made with 100% soy, whereas Japanese-style soy sauce typically made with equal parts soy and wheat, giving it a lighter taste. Kikkoman and Yamasa are examples of affordable and widely available brands.
Soy sauce also is used as a dipping sauce for entrees, and for making soup broths for dishes like sukiyaki and ramen.
Miso is a fermented soybean paste that adds an umami flavor to Japanese dishes. There are over a thousand varieties of miso, ranging in color, from light brown to dark red. Generally, the darker its color, the stronger its flavor. Outside of Japan, miso can usually be found in two varieties: akamiso (red miso), which is stronger in flavor; shiro miso (white miso), which is lighter in both color and taste.
Miso is used as an ingredient for sauces and dressings; as flavoring for meat, fish, and vegetables; and for making soup broths for dishes like miso soup and ramen.
Sake undergoes a similar fermentation process as beer, but rice is used instead of malt. It’s better known as an alcoholic drink, but there are also varieties of sake specifically made for cooking. Either type of sake will do, as long as it’s still drinkable. As an ingredient, sake balances the strong flavors of ingredients like fish, garlic, and soy sauce.
Sake, as an ingredient, is used to take out the fishy taste of seafood products, or as a component of sauces, dressings, and broths.
Mirin is similar to sake, but has more sugar and a lower alcohol content, giving it a slightly sweet and tangy flavor that helps balance the saltiness of other ingredients.
It’s used as an ingredient for sauces and dressings like teriyaki sauce; as an umami-boosting component for meat, fish and vegetable dishes.
6. Bonito Flakes
Bonito flakes are thin shaved flakes from the dried bonito variety of tuna. It is one of two essential ingredients in making dashi stock. Instant dashi powder is also available and may be easier to find in stores outside of Japan. It’s also used as a topping for dishes, like agedashi tofu.
One of two ingredients used to make dashi stock, kombu is basically dried seaweed kelp. It’s a good source of glutamic acid, which is responsible for umami flavors. It’s also used to add a certain fragrance to steamed rice, and is added to hot pot dishes, soup stock, and simmered dishes.
Wakame is a type of seaweed that can usually be found in miso soup. It is typically bought as a dried product, and is heated in hot water to release its subtle sweet flavor, and pleasant texture. It’s also used for salad, or as a side dish.
Nori sheets are made of dried and pressed seaweed that typically come in plain and toasted varieties. The sheets are either cut up into small pieces to serve as toppings for many kinds of dishes, or used as a wrapper for many types of sushi. It’s also used in snack mixes, rice toppings, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, ramen, or eaten on its own.
10. Sesame Seeds
Sesame seeds are another key ingredient in Japanese cuisine. They come in two types, and there are many ways to use either of them. White sesame seeds are sometimes toasted to further bring out their nutty flavor. They are also used as garnish or toppings for dishes like teriyaki or certain types of sushi. Black sesame seeds, on the other hand, are used as garnish for certain dishes, as a component of spice powders like shichimi togarashi, and as a key ingredient for desserts like ice cream and mochi, or as part of a marinade.
Most of these ingredients are available at Asian groceries, or online. I highly recommend looking up recipes on Just One Cookbook–a fantastic resource for easy-to-follow Japanese food recipes, which also include substitute suggestions for ingredients that may be hard to find outside of Japan.
Have fun cooking!