Japanese cooking is all about subtlety, simplicity, and the occasional streak of heat. Known worldwide for its exacting technique and unadorned treatment of fresh ingredients, Japanese dishes rely on a core group of pantry essentials to achieve their elegant, flavorful expression.
17 Traditional Japanese Ingredients
To cultivate a better understanding of Japanese cuisine, start with these pantry staples, all of which can be found online or in Asian grocery stores:
- Miso: Miso is the ultimate reference point for the flavor sensation known as umami—the thick paste is deeply savory, with toasty, funky salty-sweet richness. This umami flavor forms the base of a lot of everyday Japanese cooking: Miso is either dissolved directly into a broth (as seen in miso soup recipes and some types of ramen), or used as a spread, dip, or glaze. Use this Japanese ingredient as a marinade with sake and mirin on fish, then finish in the broiler—the nutty flavors in the miso and sugars in the marinade will caramelize nicely. Or, add 1 teaspoon of miso to your next salad dressing, with a little freshly ground ginger paste, 2 tablespoons of sesame oil, and 1 tablespoon of rice vinegar. Miso paste can be found with varying degrees of sweetness and earthiness, from red miso to white miso.
- Soy sauce: Soy sauce is a sauce derived from a blend of cooked soybeans and roasted wheat grain. The paste is added to a salt brine and left to ferment before being pressed to produce the liquid condiment. It is typically fermented with Aspergillus oryzae or sojae molds. Japanese-style soy sauce is often referred to as shōyu, which features a 50/50 blend of soy and wheat, whereas Chinese-style soy sauce is often 100% soy. Another popular Japanese-style soy sauce is tamari, which is the liquid byproduct that is formed during the production of miso paste. Unlike conventional soy sauce, tamari does not contain added wheat and is made with a higher volume of soybeans, resulting in a rich, thick texture and nuanced salinity. Soy sauce, shōyu, and tamari are among the most versatile of ingredients: Use them alone, as a dipping sauce for sushi and sashimi, or as a seasoning in marinades, dressings, and glazes.
- Mirin: Mirin is a sweet rice wine that’s made by fermenting glutinous rice in shōchū, a Japanese distilled spirit with 25% ABV, and used to sweeten savory food. Mirin can help balance salty soy sauce and bring out sweet notes in umami-rich dashi fish broth; when combined with soy sauce, sugar, and ginger, mirin lends its signature tangy sweetness to teriyaki sauce.
- Dashi: Dashi is a simple broth made from kombu (thick sheets of dried kelp) and dried bonito flakes, both of which lend an overall umami flavor. Dried shiitake mushrooms are sometimes used in place of bonito to similar effect. Dashi is used as the foundation for many soups, like ramen and miso soup, and is also mixed into starch bases of fried dishes like okonomiyaki, a savory cabbage-based pancake.
- Kelp: In addition to kombu, Japanese cuisine also utilizes nori, best known as the thin, crispy outer layer of sushi rolls, and crunchy, slippery wakame, which is mostly eaten in seaweed salad topped with sesame seeds.
- Sake: Sake is a traditional alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice. Sake can be enjoyed chilled, warmed, or at room temperature. The alcoholic beverage is also used as a marinade for vegetables and proteins.
- Rice: Japanese rice is used in a variety of forms and preparations throughout the day, like tamago kake gohan, a breakfast porridge featuring an egg whisked into warm rice with soy sauce until it’s frothy and creamy. White rice flour is used to create an airy, crisp batter for tempura. Sushi rice, a mild, short-grain rice that has been steamed and flavored with vinegar, salt, and sugar before forming the base of sushi and onigiri, is made from a type of japonica rice called uruchi mai. There are two other common types of japonica: Genmai, a short-grain brown rice with a nutty flavor that lends itself exceptionally well to genmaicha—green tea mixed with puffed grains of genmai—and mochi gome, or glutinous rice, which is used both to make mirin, and gives mochi desserts their chewy, stretchy texture.
- Rice vinegar: Rice vinegar is made from fermented rice. The result is typically far less acidic and milder than pure distilled white vinegar, or those made from grape-based wine or malt,