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All you need to start cooking Japanese food at home

All you need to start cooking Japanese food at home

by Great British Chefs 21 September 2018

With the right ingredients at your disposal, cooking authentic, healthy Japanese dishes couldn’t be simpler. From rice and noodles to miso and mirin, get to know the most important facets of Japanese food and create something delicious in minutes.

Our knowledge of Japanese food has come on leaps and bounds since the boom of sushi restaurants in the ‘80s and ‘90s. We now know about the gastronomic delights of properly made ramen; love nothing more than a piping hot tonkatsu doused in sweet curry sauce and find few things more refreshing than a small bowl of Japanese pickles in the summer whilst warming ourselves with a nourishing miso soup in the winter.

But when it comes to preparing these dishes at home, some cooks can be intimidated by the list of unusual or unfamiliar ingredients required to create them. Shopping for Japanese products can be daunting if you don’t know what you’re looking for, and the beauty of some Japanese dishes (especially those made by sushi masters and top chefs) can make them appear difficult to create. However, the majority of Japanese food is actually incredibly simple to prepare, with speedy cooking times, a short list of ingredients and basic cooking techniques. The fact that it’s also one of the healthiest cuisines in the world means we should all be cooking it a lot more often.

As with any of the world’s famous cuisines, there is a group of fundamental ingredients that find their way into the vast majority of Japanese dishes. If your pantry or fridge is stocked with the following, then the world of Japanese food is open to you. Take a look at the most important ingredients of Japan’s cuisine and find out how they’re used below. You’ll be whipping up stir-fries, salads, sushi, soups and sauces in no time!

Rice

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Rice is the most important staple in Japan and forms the basis of a vast array of dishes (not just sushi), so it’s one of the first things you should master when cooking Japanese food. Unlike the long-grain varieties associated with India or the medium grains usually found in China, the Japanese use short-grain rice, which tends to be slightly translucent and pebble-shaped. Once it is cooked, the grains tend to stick together due to the starch that’s released, which is why you’ll often see it formed into balls or mounds which can easily be picked up with chopsticks. It’s usually served plain as an accompaniment to other ingredients, formed into sushi and topped with raw fish, or garnished with things like seaweed, sesame or umeboshi (a type of Japanese pickled plum).

Noodles

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If rice is the most important staple of Japan, noodles are a close second. There are several different varieties to choose from, each of which are best suited to a specific type of dish. Ramen has become an international phenomenon in recent years, with its noodles (either fresh or dried in packets) made from wheat and originally invented in China. There are soba noodles, which are made from buckwheat and served either in hot broths or chilled with a sauce on the side. Udon, a very thick, round, white wheat noodle, is usually served in soups during the winter or cold in the summer, while sōmen noodles are a much thinner version made in a similar way.

There are many other, less common noodles too, eaten in certain parts of Japan or created specifically for one type of dish. Konjac (or shirataki) noodles, for example, have become very popular recently. These very thin translucent noodles are made from yam and contain hardly any calories, being added to soups and stir-fries. More modern varieties of noodles are made out of soybeans, offering a gluten-free and healthy alternative.

Nori

Another essential ingredient when making sushi, nori also appears in everything from ramen soups to salads. It is a type of seaweed that’s shredded, dried and formed into crisp, paper-thin sheets that are then cut to size and kept dry (once they start absorbing moisture they can become sticky). Sheets of nori are used to roll sushi, sliced into thin strips to garnish or added to dishes such as miso soup for a hit of umami-rich, irony flavour. It also happens to be a very healthy ingredient, as seaweed is full of nutrients. It is packed with vitamins B12 and C, and is one of the many foods responsible for Japan’s very healthy diet.

Sesame

Sesame seeds are a common sight in Japanese cuisine, being scattered over the top of dishes just before serving. But they’re much more than a pretty garnish – their unmistakable taste is championed in the country, making Japan the largest consumer of sesame in the world. The seeds are often lightly toasted to unlock their flavours, and are also made into all manner of pastes and oils for cooking with. White sesame seeds are the most common and have the subtlest taste, but there are also black sesame seeds (which are a lot nuttier and bold) and golden sesame seeds (which are less common and an ingredient in furikake, a Japanese spice mix containing ground nori).

Edamame

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These bright green beans are a common star of Japanese salads, although they taste fantastic on their own simply steamed and served with a sprinkling of salt. They are in fact young, soft soybeans which are picked whilst still in their pods, full of protein and amino acids. As well as being enjoyed on their own, edamame beans are made into dips, noodles or used to stuff dumplings such as gyoza.

Rice vinegar

In Japan, rice vinegar is used as a seasoning, much like we might use salt and pepper to emphasise the flavour of a dish in the UK. It is much milder in taste than European vinegars made from malt and wine, which is why it’s used with aplomb to add a subtle tang to soups, sauces and rice (sushi rice is always seasoned with a mixture of rice vinegar, salt, sugar and sometimes kombu seaweed). It’s also used to create Japanese pickles, and is lauded for its health benefits – in Japan, rice vinegar is a digestion aid and is known to boost the immune system thanks to all the amino acids it contains.

Soy sauce

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We use soy sauce in all sorts of cuisines, but bottles produced in Japan (known as shoyu) are different to those from China and other Asian countries. It is regarded as an artisanal product which takes months (or even years) to develop and mature, with soybeans (and sometimes roasted wheat kernels) being fermented with koji (a specific Japanese starter culture) in brine. Once drained and filtered, the resulting liquid unlocks a huge amount of umami flavour, which is then used to season and flavour all sorts of dishes. Keep an eye out for tamari too – a naturally gluten-free variety of Japanese soy sauce which contains no wheat.

Not all Japanese soy sauces are the same, as different amounts of salt, soybeans and wheat can impact the final flavour. Different strains of koji produce different results as well, as does the length of time the sauce is allowed to mature before being bottled.

Wasabi

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Most of us know what wasabi is – that bright green paste that comes with a box of sushi that, if not administered carefully, gets right up our nose with its mustard-like white heat. The paste is created from the wasabi root, a type of plant that grows in fast-flowing water (a little like watercress). The root is grated and mixed with water and oil to create the paste, which is then used as a condiment for sushi and other dishes. The root is closely related to horseradish (which has a similar, white-hot flavour) and is full of antioxidants.

Sake

Japan’s national drink isn’t just confined to the izakaya drinking dens of the country – it’s also an important ingredient when cooking. An alcoholic drink made from rice that’s a bit like a fortified wine but brewed like beer, there are dozens of different varieties and styles of sake from every corner of Japan. When cooking Japanese food, it’s often used as part of a marinade or stirred into soups and sauces, as it has that much-loved sweet, umami flavour from the fermented rice and can help tenderise meat and fish.

Mirin

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At first glance you might not think there’s much difference between sake and mirin – after all, they’re both alcoholic and made from fermented rice. But mirin is much sweeter than sake, which means it contrasts well with saltier condiments such as soy sauce, and it is also lower in alcohol. You’d also enjoy a cup of sake as a drink, whereas mirin is only ever used in cooking.

Mirin is an important ingredient in Japanese cooking because, unlike sake, it can be added at the end of cooking as a seasoning (sake, on the other hand, has to be added earlier so the alcohol can boil off). It adds a subtle sweetness to sauces and soups.

Miso

Until a few years ago, miso was a bit of an unknown ingredient outside of Japan. We knew it was an important ingredient in miso soup, but suddenly it’s cropping up in everything from stir-fry sauces to ice cream and caramel. In Japan it is a very important product, made in a similar way to soy sauce (soybeans fermented with salt and koji) but is a thick paste rather than a liquid and has a much more complex flavour.

There are dozens of different kinds of miso (red miso and white miso being the most common), each with their own flavour profiles. Some include rice malt and/or barley as well as soy beans. Stronger red miso is generally used for heartier dishes consumed in the winter, as it has a more prominent fermented taste, whereas white miso is lighter (and the variety of miso used in miso soup). However, all miso can be described as tasting salty, slightly sweet and absolutely packed with umami goodness. It’s also full of bacteria that are very good for your gut.

Panko

Panko is generally regarded as the king of breadcrumbs, as it has a particularly flaky, crunchy texture that’s ideal for coating and deep-frying. While regular breadcrumbs are dense and prone to absorbing oil, panko is light and airy thanks to the variety of crust-free Hokkaido bread it is made from and the way the loaf is cooked, using a special oven. It’s an essential ingredient when preparing tonkatsu (a dish of panko-covered pork or chicken slathered in a Japanese curry sauce), and is used much like breadcrumbs in all sorts of other dishes.

Japanese curry

A more modern addition to the Japanese culinary canon, curry sauce is thought of, strangely, as a Western dish as it was introduced to the country via the UK. Often sweet and flavoured with curry powder, it is an integral part of katsu, but is also used to make curry rice and added to stews for a quick and easy way to add plenty of flavour to dishes. It’s almost always sold ready-made, either in powdered form or in a pouch to be reheated, and has become one of the most popular dishes in Japan.

Tofu

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Tofu has an unfair reputation for being bland and boring, but when cooked right and flavoured with other ingredients it can be a wonderful addition to soups, stir-fries and plenty of other Japanese favourites. Made from curdled soy milk which is then pressed and formed into a solid block (a lot like cheesemaking), it is full of protein and a fantastic vegan, gluten-free ingredient to base dishes around. There are many different varieties, ranging from soft and silken to firm, fermented and even freeze-dried. It can be eaten as-is, hot, cold, grilled, deep-fried, boiled, braised – pretty much every cooking technique under the sun can be used to prepare tofu.

Once you have these essentials in your kitchen, you have the ability to cook countless different Japanese dishes. Just get a few fresh ingredients and you can cook katsu curries, teriyaki, all sorts of sushi and much more. Take a look at our Japanese recipe collection for some inspiration.

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