The walk down the “world foods” aisle of the supermarket is an inspiring experience, albeit an overwhelming one. Jars of exotic condiments and packets covered in foreign symbols look tempting but might be disregarded altogether for fear of leaving them untouched at the back of your pantry. So if you’re looking to dive into the world of Japanese cooking, we’ve got you covered with a specially-curated starter kit! These ingredients are a great place to start and we hope this crash course will be helpful to kitchen novices and experts alike.
Konbu is a member of the sea kelp family and can usually be found in its dried form. It is a versatile flavor enhancer in soups and stews as it is high in glutamic acids (the basis of monosodium glutamate, or MSG), adding a savory umami richness to your dishes. Boil it in water and add a dash of soy sauce to make a light veggie broth or easily combine it with katsuobushi (see next entry) to make homemade dashi stock, which is the base of miso soup, ramen, and shabu-shabu. Store konbu in an airtight container, in a cool and dry corner of your kitchen.
Also known as bonito flakes, katsuobushi is made from dried, cured, and smoked katsuo or skipjack tuna. You may be familiar with it if you’ve seen it ‘dancing’ on top of takoyaki. Another one of nature’s sources of umami, katsuobushi features in many Japanese dishes and can be incorporated in home cooking with ease. Aside from being a main component of dashi stock, use it as a topping on tofu, pickled vegetables, or mix it in with rice to spice up onigiri rice balls. You can also try your hand at making okonomiyaki, a savory pancake with shredded cabbage and your choice of protein with bonito flakes sprinkled on top. The subtly salty possibilities are endless! Store katsuobushi in an airtight container away from moisture.
Sake is a traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage made from rice, water, yeast, and koji, a mold culture used in fermentation that converts rice starch into sugars. Sake is categorized according to its “seimaibuai” or polishing rate which is the number percentage you can find on its bottle that denotes how much is left of the rice grain. This figure is handy in deciding what sake to buy since it gives you a clue on what kind of flavor profile to expect. A higher percentage means the rice is polished less, leaving the sake with more fat, protein, and savory qualities. On the other hand, a smaller percentage means that the rice grain is polished nearly to its core of starch called shinpaku, which produces a sweeter and more aromatic sake.
As much as it is enjoyable to drink, sake can be utilized in the kitchen in the same way you would use wine in cooking. It can be added to marinades to tenderize meat or fish, and also lend a natural sweetness and umami flavor to soup stocks, sauces, and grilled dishes.
Mirin is a sweet rice wine that is similar to sake, with more sugar and less alcohol. It is the trusty sidekick of soy sauce when making teriyaki, but is a star of its own when it comes to adding rich sweetness and tang to marinades, sauces, and glazes. Try mirin in a blend of soy, ginger, wasabi, sesame oil, and chili flakes as a glorious salmon or tuna poké sauce or use it as a substitute for white wine in steamed seafood recipes. Along with sake, keep your bottle of mirin in the fridge once opened.
SHIRO MISO (WHITE MISO)
Miso is a fermented soybean seasoning paste found all across Japanese cuisine. Shiro miso is also known as “sweet” or “mellow” miso and is milder than dark varieties as it is fermented for a shorter period of time with lower salt content. The most popular iteration of white miso is arguably miso soup and can be achieved at home by simply dissolving it in dashi broth then adding greens and tofu. However, with its delicate and adaptable flavor, it has so much more potential to liven up your cooking and deserves a prime spot in your fridge. Whisk together with olive oil, rice wine vinegar, honey, sesame oil, and soy sauce for a tasty salad dressing. You can also dilute it with softened butter or vinegar as a delicious chicken marinade. Quicker yet, add a teaspoonful to your favorite instant ramen!
And if you’re an avid baker, why not amplify your desserts and experiment with miso in baked goods? The contrast afforded by adding a sprinkle of flaky sea salt on a sweet and gooey chocolate chip cookie can definitely be emulated by incorporating miso in brownie recipes, cheesecake, or even vanilla ice cream.
AKA MISO (RED MISO)
Aka Miso is aged for up to three years, which makes it saltier and gives it a lot more umami funk than white or yellow miso. It is perfect for heartier dishes like soups and braised meats, but use sparingly as it is pungent and flavorful. Try adding a bit to your next stir fry, or concoct a complex-tasting but easy pan sauce for fried meat or fish with aka miso, a bit of rice wine vinegar, and hot water. Generally, miso can be an interesting salty substitute for plain old salt or soy sauce in certain recipes.
If you’re missing 12/10’s eggplant dish, pair grilled eggplant with a mixture of aka and shiro miso and any herbs you have on-hand for an at-home version.
Dried shiitake mushrooms are another great source of earthy and concentrated… you guessed it: umami flavor that can take your broths, stews, and braises to the next level. The best thing about them is their long life span, keep them in an airtight jar in your cupboard and rehydrate anytime in hot water to later add to congee or risotto. The leftover mushroom stock used to bring them back to life is now a great vegetarian dashi broth when simmered with konbu.
Niboshi are dried infant sardines (sometimes incorrectly translated as anchovies) that are typically used to make flavorful stock. Since it has a bolder taste than a katsuobushi dashi, it is more appropriate for thicker soups like udon or red miso soups. It is also a popular sweet-salty side dish called tsukudani when cooked in a mixture of soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. Additionally, nibbling on niboshi by itself isn’t wholly uncommon but could be even better with some almonds, rice crackers, and dried seaweed as a Friday night (or any night, really) pulutan.
Potato Starch or katakuriko is used in Japanese cooking in the same way cornstarch or flour is used in other cuisines. It is an effective sauce thickener and makes for a crispy coating when frying food—karaage, anyone? If you’re up for a challenge, and can get your hands on some glutinous rice, why not try making mochi? Potato starch plays an important role in ensuring the mochi doesn’t stick to your hands or your cooking surfaces.
RICE WINE VINEGAR
Japanese rice vinegar, also known as rice wine vinegar (not to be confused with rice wine such as sake, mirin, or Chinese Shaoxing rice wine), is milder, a bit sweet, and less acidic than distilled white or malt vinegars. It is made by first fermenting the sugars in rice into alcohol and then into acid. It is delicious and adds subtle sweetness to marinades, salad dressings, and pickled vegetables. Rice vinegar is a handy ingredient to have for these purposes but is most notably added to cooked rice to make sushi. Check the label if it is “seasoned” rice vinegar meaning it has added salt and sugar, which may affect the overall taste of a recipe you are following.
All these essentials are included in our Japanese Pantry Kit. Feel free to get to know them more by incorporating each ingredient into your personal recipes, or by learning Japanese home meal staples. Itadakimasu!