One of the best things about Japanese cuisine is that it uses so few ingredients.
With just the six basic seasonings of soy sauce, mirin, sake, sugar and rice vinegar in the pantry, and some miso in the fridge, you can make just about any Japanese dish you can think of.
Mirin is a rice wine used to add sweetness and gloss to many dishes, along with a touch of savoury umami. Much thicker in texture and darker in colour than sake, and with a much sweeter flavour, one cannot be substituted for the other.
- COOKING SAKE
Cooking sakes are produced as a mixture of traditionally fermented sake and distilled alcohol. This gives them a milder flavour and lower acidity than drinking sakes, which can be very useful for cooking. The alcohol helps to carry flavours through a dish. There is no need to buy drinking quality sake for cooking, as the cheaper cooking varieties will serve their purpose perfectly well. Cooking sake is available from Asian grocers for just a few dollars.
- SOY SAUCE
Soy sauce is the most popular seasoning in Japanese cuisine, used for its salty-savoury umami taste. There are many varieties, from nearly colourless ‘white’ versions to thick, strongly flavoured dark sauces (koikuchi). By far the most popular and widely used is the standard light soy sauce (usukuchi). Brands will vary in their flavour and quality, so try to buy soy sauce that is specified as naturally brewed. Soy sauces that are not specified as naturally brewed can be
mixtures of chemical flavour enhancers and colourings, whereas brewed versions will always be the real thing.
- POTATO STARCH
Potato starch, the most common starch used in Japanese cuisine, is used as a coating for fried foods like Agedashi Tofu (page 192), or as a thickening agent for dishes such as Salmon Ankake (page 141). Cornflour is a good substitute.
- SALAD OIL
‘Salad oil’ is the Japanese term given to the blended vegetable oils used for much of Japanese cooking. Neutral in flavour, a simple vegetable oil is fine for cooking most Japanese foods, although I prefer to use grapeseed oil for salads as it has a less oily mouth feel.
Sugar and mirin are the two main sweet seasonings in Japanese cooking. The two are often used in combination, sugar providing a clean sweetness while mirin also provides gloss and a light umami flavour.
- JAPANESE MAYONNAISE
Japanese mayonnaise has a creamier texture and more savoury flavour than many Western mayonnaises. Its low acidity makes it a fantastic complement to many dishes from fried chicken to teriyaki.
- RICE VINEGAR
Rice vinegar is the main source of sourness and astringency in Japanese food. True rice vinegars will often have a strong umami flavour caused by the fermentation of the rice, while cheaper grain vinegars flavoured with rice may be milder. Both may be used, but it is necessary
to understand the difference.
- SESAME OIL
Toasted sesame oil is very commonly used in Japanese cuisine as a flavouring, adding a
toasty and nutty aroma to many dishes. Although cold-pressed sesame oils are used for frying
tempura in the south of Japan, the toasted varieties are used much more sparingly, as their
strong flavour may overwhelm some dishes.
Used in everything from sushi and salads to ramen and tempura, nori sheets are extremely useful, providing a toasty seaweed flavour that can be enhanced by wafting a sheet over an open flame. Nori sheets should not be confused with aonori, which are the dried, bright green seaweed flakes often scattered over dishes like okonomiyaki and takoyaki.
- SHICHIMI TOGARASHI
This seven-spice chilli has no specific recipe, and many different varieties exist. Common
ingredients include chilli powder, nori flakes, orange rind, black and white sesame seeds, sansho (a relative of Sichuan pepper) and hemp seeds. While providing a mild heat, shichimi togarashi is also used for its spicy citrus fragrance, as an aromatic topping for soups or noodle dishes, and as a colourful garnish.
- GREEN TEA POWDER
Japanese green tea powder is a very finely ground powder of tea leaves specially prepared to preserve their vibrant green colour. You cannot substitute other varieties of green teas, as they will differ in flavour and colour. It’s used for making formal, highly bitter tea and is a popular ingredient in desserts. It can also be ground with salt as a dip for fried foods such as tempura.
Kombu is dried kelp that is used widely throughout Japanese cuisine for its savoury umami taste. One of the most popular uses is for making stocks such as ichiban dashi (page 30),
an integral building block for Japanese food.
Miso is a paste made from fermenting steamed soybeans, sometimes with other grains such as barley or rice. There are many varities of miso, ranging from light ‘sweet’ misos that are lower in salt and contain a higher proportion of grains other than soybeans, through to dark red misos made entirely from soybeans. While it’s commonly used for soup, miso is incredibly versatile. It can be used as a seasoning or as a medium for pickling or curing.
- JAPANESE RICE
Japanese short-grain rice varieties such as koshihikari and yumepirika are perfect for serving with Japanese food. Cooked well they are plump, glossy and slightly sticky with a malty and slightly sweet flavour. Refer to page 52 for how to cook rice.
Made from soybean milk set with magnesium salts, tofu can range from a delicate curd to
dense firm cakes. It can also be grilled, fried or flavoured with vegetables. When handling
tofu, it’s important to manage the amount of liquid retained by the tofu as that will dilute flavour. Most tofu will have a better flavour if lightly pressed to remove excess moisture. (See Agedashi Tofu, page 192.)
- RICE BRAN
Toasted rice bran, or nuka, is used for pickling vegetables. Similar to a sourdough starter, the bran is cultivated to create a colony of beneficial bacteria that can pickle vegetables in as little
as a few hours. More on this in Nukazuke Pickles on page 18.
Wasabi is the pungent relative of horseradish often served with sushi. There are a few different varieties of wasabi in Japan but the most prized is the bright green hon-wasabi. Traditionally it is ground on a grater made from shark skin to aerate the grated wasabi. True wasabi has a delicious flavour to match its pungency.
- BONITO FLAKES
Bonito flakes are fine shavings of smoked, fermented and dried bonito. They are one of my favourite ingredients. You can make a stock from them in minutes, use them as a seasoning sprinkled into stirfried dishes, or even just scatter them on top of any food to add flavour.
Brand Manager and Head of the Realm at Hachette Australia Books. Mutant power: Aggressive humour. Lifelong Trekkie (I don’t find that offensive) comic book reader and former proud bookseller. Likes: Literary, contemporary and speculative fiction. Dislikes: Haters. Ideal date: My birthday.