A glimpse inside the Japanese kitchen: the secrets behind the cuisine

by Great British Chefs 4 February 2022

Japanese food can be misunderstood as inaccessible for home cooks – master the basics, however, and it can be surprisingly simple. We take a look at some of the essential elements of the cuisine and how Japan House London is inviting people to learn more.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews as well as access to some of Britain’s greatest chefs. Our posts cover everything we are excited about from the latest openings and hottest food trends to brilliant new producers and exclusive chef interviews.

The Japanese kitchen is one of the most unique, refined and intriguing in existence, from the ingredients right down to the tools and utensils used to prep, cook and serve dishes. This can make it a daunting cuisine to learn to cook yourself – stories of sushi chefs cooking rice for years before they move onto the fish and ramen broths taking days to simmer before they're ready can make Japanese food feel out of reach – but when it's broken down into its core building blocks, it becomes far more accessible than you might think.

Japan House London’s mission is to immerse its visitors in all parts of Japanese culture, both at its base in Kensington and online, but its 'Essentials of the Japanese Kitchen' series specifically aims to tell the story of Japanese cuisine and how it’s prepared. Taking a closer look at everything from the cooking utensils used to some of the most common Japanese ingredients such as daikon, the series features videos from chef Shimizu Akira, accompanied by further tips and insight on the website. Akira is executive chef of his eponymous restaurant at Japan House London, and has spent decades in the industry honing his craft to become a modern master of Japanese food – meaning you’re learning from a true expert. We touch on some of the topics chef Akira covers in the series below, but to fully immerse yourself in his teachings be sure to visit Japan House London's website.

Japanese knives

Across the entire world, Japanese knives (called hōchō in Japan) are renowned for their quality and are favoured by many chefs regardless of cuisine. This is largely due to the incredibly precise nature of many types of Japanese food (slices of sashimi, for example) which demand an equally precise and sharp knife to ensure the perfect texture. Japanese knife-makers are true artisans, and the blades they produce are the result of years of refinement. Some early Japanese knives were even influenced by the traditional samurai sword.

Japanese knives differ from European knives in a few different ways. Most notably, the finest knives in Japan are made from a carbon steel called Hagane rather than stainless steel. While the carbon core is incredibly hard and rigid, the iron steel outer layer is typically softer than stainless steel which ultimately leads to an incredibly sharp edge. The softer nature of the blade does however mean that Japanese knives are more susceptible to rust and chips, meaning that they require a little more maintenance – something which Japanese chefs are taught about early on in their careers.

Another key feature of hōchō in comparison to most European knives is that they tend to be single-beveled; in other words, only one edge of the blade is sharpened. Again, this is to ensure ultimate precision, which is much trickier with the double-beveled knives you find elsewhere.

Find out more about the different types of Japanese knives here.

Japanese kitchen utensils

As is the case with Japanese knives, the kitchen utensils used in Japanese cookery have also been designed and refined specifically for the cuisine. Choosing the right chopping board, for example, is imperative to complement the sharpness of the knife without the risk of chipping or damaging the blade. Hinoki wooden boards are some of the most popular due to their softness but also their resistance to scratches and 'scarring'. Implements such as fish tweezers, meanwhile, are equally important for achieving a high level of precision but have to be handled skilfully to avoid damaging the ingredients.

Many utensils used in the actual cooking of Japanese food are now just as popular in modern kitchens all over the world due to their quality and effectiveness. The compact konro-style barbecue was originally designed purely with yakitori (barbecued chicken skewers) in mind but these days it's found in a number of modern fine dining kitchens, where it’s used to grill both meat and vegetables. Even the dimpled yukihira saucepan is now popular outside of Japan as an alternative to other non-stick pans.

Get tips on how to use Japanese kitchen utensils from chef Akira here.

Essential Japanese flavourings

Japanese cuisine is incredibly varied, but there are certain flavourings or 'bases' which are used in countless different dishes. If you can master making them, you’ll be able to instantly grow your repertoire of Japanese recipes. You’ll almost certainly know about condiments such as soy sauce and mirin and key ingredients such as kombu – but these can be used and even combined to create further, more complex flavourings. These range from the ubiquitous Japanese stock known as dashi, which can be quickly prepared using minimal ingredients and used in sauces, ramen and even as a seasoning, to kaeshi – a rich, sweet and salty sauce often paired with soba (buckwheat) noodles.

These base ingredients, which are often incredibly simple to make, allow you to quickly and easily get a real depth of flavour into Japanese dishes. They're used not only by home cooks in Japan but in pretty much every professional kitchen in some form too. While most of us begin by following a recipe to make dashi or kaeshi, home cooks can eventually start to experiment and create bespoke, unique recipes for these bases (as most restaurants in Japan do), creating a signature style.

Find out how to make your own kaeshi here.

Japan House will be releasing a new Essentials of the Japanese Kitchen video every month from now until October 2022 on the discover section of their website