What are the ingredients a cook should keep in the pantry (and in the fridge) that are essential to many Japanese dishes? Which ingredients be found at the neighborhood grocery store, and for the ones that might require a trip to a specialty market, are there any substitutes which are acceptable?
I consider the following items essential for most Japanese cooking.
Soy sauce is made from soy beans, wheat and salt, and fermented for several months. There is no substitution for soy sauce. For Japanese cooking I would highly recommend to use Japanese soy sauce because I can differentiate Japanese and other kinds of soy sauce. However, if you don’t cook Japanese food often you can substitute with other soy sauce.
Mirin (sweet cooking rice wine) is a sweet and syrupy liquid and it is one of the most important condiments in Japanese cooking. Mirin adds a mild sweetness and has deep body and umami. It also helps mask the smell of fish and seafood and helps the flavors to “sink in” to the dish. It keeps the ingredients from disintegrating during the cooking process because of the sugars and alcohol content. Lastly, mirin adds luster to ingredients which is why it is a key ingredient in teriyaki sauce. You can substitute mirin with sake and white sugar (ratio of sake and sugar is 3 to 1).
Sake (SAH-keh, not saki) is made from rice and water and is made through a brewing process like beer. Sake is often used in marinades for meat and fish to make them more tender, as well as to mask unpleasant taste/smell. It also adds body and flavor to soup stock and sauces. There are many kinds of sake, but for cooking, an inexpensive bottle like Ozeki, Gekkeikan, or Sho Chiku Bai (or use leftover good quality sake too) would be fine. The closest substitute would be dry sherry, although it’s not the same.
Miso is made from soy beans and usually contains rice or barley, which are steamed, then mixed with koji (a fermentation starter) and left to ferment for six months to five years. The longer the fermentation, the darker and richer the miso is. The taste, aroma, texture and appearance of miso all vary by region and we usually categorize miso into three groups: Shiro Miso (“white” miso), Aka Miso (“red” miso), and Awase Miso (“mixed” of red and white miso). There is no ingredient to substitute for miso.
Rice vinegar is made from rice and it is sweeter, milder, and less acidic than white vinegars. It is known for its anti-bacterial properties and it’s an essential ingredient in sushi rice. You can substitute with white wine vinegar/apple cider vinegar; however, non-Japanese vinegars have strong vinegar taste so add a little sugar and water to make it more mild.
Nowadays most of ingredients can be found in Asian isle at in supermarkets, but for some ingredients you might need to check your local Japanese or Asian market. Whole Foods or other premium supermarkets also carry some difficult to find products. You can also order online at Amazon or Japanese supermarkets Mitsuwa and Marukai (both in US only).
You can find more information about Japanese ingredients at my Pantry page.
What are some techniques that cooks should be familiar with to be successful with Japanese cooking?
I’d like to introduce two techniques that the Japanese use often for cooking.
First, we use an otoshibuta (a drop lid) for simmering food. The drop lid ensures that the heat is evenly distributed so the ingredients cook quickly and evenly. The cooking liquid circulates towards the lid and coats the top of the ingredients without having to stir. Also, the drop lid holds ingredients in place so they don’t move around and don’t break apart. You don’t need a wooden otoshibuta (drop lid), you can always make it with aluminum foil and here’s how to make it.
Secondly, we always skim off the scrum and fat when making soups and stocks. It is quite a bit of extra work but it’s the key for the refined taste and it is required to keep the soup/stock liquid clear.
You can read more about some of the (Japanese) cooking techniques at my How To page.
Can you describe the typical flavor profiles in Japanese cuisine? For example, in Western cuisine, it is typical to try to achieve a balance of salt, fat, and acidity. Do these apply in Japanese cuisine, and are there any others you would add?
Traditional Japanese cuisine is all about simplicity of the dish, and using seasonal and fresh ingredients to create harmony.
Simplicity lets the food speak for itself. The Japanese believe that if the dish is prepared with quality fresh ingredients, then there isn’t the need to add many flavors. The rule of thumb is not to kill the natural flavor of the food and include seasonal ingredients as we have four distinct seasons in Japan.
We think about “harmony (wa)” when preparing each dish and meals. The ingredients must be in harmony together to make one dish, and the dish must be in harmony with other dishes to make a meal. Color, texture, and flavor, are some of the important elements when considering harmony.
Are there any shortcuts you use on a day-to-day basis?
Most of Japanese dishes require dashi stock (as you would use chicken/beef/vegetable stock for Western meals). I either prep a large amount of dashi stock in advance (store in the fridge to use over several days) or I use convenient dashi packet which can be prepared in a short time. I consider this method better than dashi granule/powder (some brand contains MSG, but there are MSG-free version available).
Is there anything else you think TDM readers should know?
Japanese cuisine is considered as one of the world’s healthiest cuisines due to its low fat content and small portion. It is nutritionally well-balanced, light, and healthy, which is one of the reasons for the longevity of the Japanese population. The diet is very low in cholesterol, fat, and calories, and high in fiber.
I hope more people are more interested in cooking Japanese food and live happily and healthily.
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