Learning to cook a different cuisine can be daunting, especially so if you don’t know where to start!
It doesn't have to be however, and to get you started on your Japanese culinary adventure, we've compiled a list of 10 essential ingredients that are used time and time again in a variety of Japanese recipes. Relatively cheap and readily available from any Asian supermarket, or in the international foods aisle of your local grocery, these items are sure to help spice up your culinary repertoire, no matter whether you’re a novice or a masterchef!
#1 Short-grained Japanese Rice
It’s important where possible to use Japanese rice in Japanese cooking, rather than substituting with either Jasmine or Basmati, both of which you might already have in your pantry. This is because Japanese rice in comparison is completely scentless (compared to Jasmine rice) and sticky (compared to either of Basmati/Jasmine rice), the required consistency to hold sushi together for example without it being too dry or mushy.
#2 Japanese Soy Sauce
You’re probably familiar with the increasingly ubiquitous soy sauce, which is produced by and used by many different countries. For authenticity’s sake however, you might like to try specifically Japan-produced soy sauce as they actually come in two different kinds – Koikuchi (deep black colour) and Usukuchi (lighter-coloured but saltier).
#3 Mirin (Sweet rice wine)
Mirin is a kind of low-alcohol, fortified rice wine consisting of around 50% sugar that imparts a wonderful dimension of flavour to a variety of Japanese dishes. It can be used obviously to sweeten the flavours of a meal, but also to reduce the smell of certain fish dishes as well as give food a shiny appearance. Note that mirin is used exclusively during the cooking process and is never added afterwards in the same way soy sauce often is.
# 4 Sake
Sake probably needs no introduction, and is often used in Japanese cooking in the same way white wines are used in some Western cooking. White wine or a sweet sherry could work as substitutes – but of course sake has its own particular scent and flavour so to ensure the authenticity of your dish, sake is the way to go if you can get your hands on some.
#5 Japanese Rice Vinegar
Milder and sweeter than white wine vinegar, rice wine vinegar is used in delicious and refreshing salad dressings, as well as in some Japanese sauces. You’ve most likely encountered it in your sushi, as both salt and rice vinegar are added to the cooking rice to add flavour.
# 6 Panko (Japanese Breadcrumbs)
Panko breadcrumbs are softer, fluffier versions of the breadcrumbs you may be used to. These are used to make deep fried dishes delightfully light and crispy. If you find that this is particularly pricey, an alternative is to shred white bread yourself.
#7 Potato Starch
Used in the same way corn starch/flour is used in Chinese/Western cooking to thicken sauces, or in deep frying to ensure the meat is especially crispy, as it creates more crisp than normal flour would.
#8 Miso paste (Soybean paste)
There are different kinds of miso available but the “white” (actually a pale browny-yellow) is the most versatile. Most readily available at supermarkets as ready-made paste to make miso soup.
#9 Nori seaweed
Likely familiar to many, nori seaweed is sold in black dried sheets which are used to wrap sushi rolls or shredded as toppings on rice and other dishes. In Japan it is also cooked into a paste to be eaten as an accompaniment to rice.
Many kinds of Japanese noodles exist, but two of the easiest to find in New Zealand are udon and soba, the former of which should be stocked in the noodles aisle of your local supermarket. Udon are thick, chewy white noodles made of wheat and available “fresh” in frozen form. These can be eaten hot or cold. Soba is made of a mix of buckwheat and wheat, and is usually only available dried rather than fresh when outside of Japan. It can be eaten cold, with a flavoured dipping sauce, or hot in broth.