Everyone knows about sushi, soy sauce and wasabi, but what about the more common unusual Japanese ingredients, condiments and seasonings that produce those distinctive Japanese flavours? Read my short guide to the Japanese store cupboard and use them with confidence.
A world of flavour
Here in the UK, Japanese food is becoming ever more popular and better understood. Japanese restaurants and takeaways are popping up all over the country where they were previously unknown and stylish Japanese snacks, once so unfamiliar, are now a firm lunchtime favourite.
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This is a far cry from the days of my first job, and my first sushi from Pret a Manger. At the time, sushi, though rarely seen outside London, was the new height of fashion in the city. I was keen to join in.
Foolishly, I assumed the wasabi was something like guacamole. I spread a large dollop onto my first bite and it nearly blew my head off. No one had told me how astonishingly hot this most popular of Japanese condiments would be.
The pain was immediate, with streaming eyes and nose and a red face. My attempt to look sophisticated in front of my colleagues was an abject failure.
That day, I learned a healthy respect for the power of wasabi, a pungent root similar to horseradish. I also began my discovery of a new world of Japanese flavours, with exciting ingredients, seasonings, and condiments that are an essential part of the way I cook now.
Typically, Japanese flavourings consist of soy-based sauces, pickles, fermented foods and sea vegetables as well as the powerful wasabi.
Central to Japanese and other East Asian cuisines is the mould koji (Aspergillus oryzae). The first record of its use dates from around 2,300 years ago. The fungus is used to ferment a soybean base, also known as koji. This is the essential ingredient in soy sauces and miso paste.
Koji is also essential to ferment rice and other grains to make alcoholic drinks such as shochu (a light white spirit drink) and sake, and rice vinegars.
Such is the importance of koji to Japanese cuisine, that the Brewing Society of Japan named it the “national fungus” in 2006.
Japanese soy sauce or shoyu divides into five categories:
Koikuchi is a typical, everyday Japanese dark soy sauce made with both soy and wheat and used as a condiment and in cooking.
Usukuchi is lighter in flavour and colour than koikuchi, and slightly higher in salt. It is used in cooking rather than as a table condiment.
Tamari, which is gluten- and wheat-free, is made only with soy beans. It is darker and thicker than the wheat soy sauces, and particularly delicious.
Saishikomi is double-fermented soy sauce, darker, thicker, richer and less salty than the everyday versions. This is the artisanal soy sauce, brewed slowly in wooden casks just as a fine spirit might be treated and may be matured for several years.
After the initial fermentation, the brewer returns it to the cask again with a fresh addition of koji and more soy sauce instead of brine. The final sauce makes a delicious condiment.
Shiro is extra light soy sauce, made with more roast wheat and only around 10 % soy beans. Pale in colour, it is added to delicate stocks and used with sushi.
Traditional artisanal shoyus and tamaris are made by fermenting whole cooked soy beans (and wheat or barley) with koji for three days and then maturing the sauce in decades-old cedar wood casks for at least 15 months.
Cheaper soy sauces are made by heating soy flour with acid to break down the soy protein, then adding flavours, colourings and salt. There is no brewing or maturing for these sauces.
The difference is unmistakable and the taste comparison is like that of a cheap blended whisky against a 20-year-old malt.
For a more detailed account on how Japanese soy sauce is made, read this article from The Chef Dojo.
Mirin is a sweet sake or rice wine with a low alcohol content, used in cooking to sweeten and add depth of flavour. A distinctive Japanese flavouring, it is one of the main ingredients in teriyaki sauce.
Mikawa mirin is a fortified version. It is made by fermenting rice with koji for two days. Shochu is then added and the mixture is fermented in large vats for three months. The strained mirin will then mature in vats for around 6 to 9 months before being bottling.
Like soy sauce, mirin varies both in style and in quality, according to the fermentation process and how long it takes to mature.
Miso is a savoury paste that is an essential seasoning in Japanese cuisine. It is made by boiling or steaming soya beans and grains such as barley, rice, buckwheat. These are then fermented with Koji.
Traditional artisan miso will undergo a long fermentation in cedarwood casks, while cheaper miso takes just a few days in steel vats.
Miso is rich in protein, vitamins and minerals. There are many different types, from the rich, strong, salty brown rice miso to the subtle sweet white miso.
Miso is most familiar in miso soup, made from a base of miso paste and dashi soup stock.
In Japan, miso soup has always been valued as having amazing health benefits. Some studies suggest there is truth in the tradition and even report that it may be helpful against cancer and radiation poisoning.
The umami factor
Umami has been part of Japanese vocabulary for years. The word roughly translates to ‘delicious savouriness’.
The term was coined in 1908 when Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda realized that the pleasant flavour in his dish of dashi (seaweed broth) came from the amino acid glutamate. Koji, the fungus used to ferment many Japanese foods, produces glutamate.
He discovered that when foods containing ribonucleotides, which also have an umami taste, interact with those containing glutamate, the umami ‘hit’ is far greater.
Many of the world’s great food combinations take advantage of this fact. The Japanese often combine glutamate-rich seaweed with the ribonucleotide in shitake mushrooms. Similarly, a sauce containing Parmesan, mushrooms and tomatoes will have more umami than the ingredients served separately.
The term umami came into use outside of Japan to describe savoury flavours in the 1980s. Now umami is widely thought of as the fifth taste, alongside sweet, sour, salt and bitter flavours.
Kikunae Ikeda went on to establish monosodium glutamate (MSG) as the chemical basis for this flavour and patented a process of extracting it.
While many of us prefer to get that wonderful Japanese umami flavour from combining the right natural ingredients rather than using manufactured MSG, we still owe a debt to the man who helped us to understand how it works.
Pickles, or tsukemono, are very popular in Japan but the Japanese pickle is usually a salt pickle rather than the Western vinegar pickle. They are served as a side dish, as snacks or with rice. Many vegetables are pickled, including daikon (Japanese radish), cucumber, turnip and Chinese cabbage.
Perhaps the most famous Japanese pickle is umeboshi. One of the most iconic Japanese flavours, it is made from ume plums, which are closely related to apricots. The plums are picked before they are ripe, brined, dried and then returning to the brine.
The red colour of umeboshi comes from the addition of red shiso leaves. Shiso is is a member of the mint family, with leaves that look like stinging nettles. Rich in minerals and vitamins, it is anti-inflammatory and commonly used in traditional medicine.
The pickled ume plum is exceedingly sour and salty, and reputed to have excellent medicinal qualities. Many people will start each day with a ume plum or two, a traditional practice for good health. The purée can be used in dips, spreads and dressings, and the seasoning is an excellent alternative to vinegar.
Few cultures have made sea vegetables as central to their diet as that of Japan. Most meals contain some sort of seaweed. Seaweed is rich in glutamate, giving that characteristic Japanese umami flavour.
A sea salad can contain dulse, sea lettuce and nori, all of which can also form a garnish, the base of a stock, or make a tasty addition to soups dressings or stews. Sheets of dried nori are used to wrap sushi or are crumbled and used as a garnish.
Sheets of dried tougher kombu (edible kelp) are the base for dashi, a stock that is central to Japanese cooking and key to miso soup. Cooking beans with kombu is said to make them more digestible.
Furikake is a Japanese seasoning made from sesame seeds, nori and shiso. It is commonly used as a condiment to sprinkle on rice, stir fries and potatoes.
Vegetarians beware, though. Furikake sometimes contains katsuobushi, or bonito flakes. These are made from fermented, dried tuna and are also used as a condiment in much the same way as the furikake mix.
For more information on sea vegetables, Clearspring has an excellent guide.
Macrobiotics – yin and yang
Macrobiotics has been heavily influenced by both Japanese food and thinking. At its most basic, a macrobiotic diet is one based on vegetables and grains. It includes naturally fermented foods, avoiding refined and processed foods, and most animal products.
Foods such as brown rice, vegetables, miso, soy, and sea vegetables are the staples of a Japanese macrobiotic diet. Local and seasonal foods are an important part of this diet.
In Japanese macrobiotics, the yin and yang of food is key. Yin and yang is an ancient Chinese concept of balancing opposing forces that was introduced to Japan about 1500 years ago.
Yin foods are considered light, cold and diffuse. Yang foods are dense heavy and hot. This balance is essential to Japanese food.
Macrobiotic devotees believe in the considerable health benefits of the diet, pointing to the longevity of the people of Okinawa. One of the poorer parts of Japan, the traditional diet and lifestyle on the island lead to remarkable good health in later life.
Tofu is soy bean curd, made in a similar way to cheese, straining the curds from the whey and then pressing them.
First, soy milk is made by grinding soaked soy beans and then boiling and straining them. To make Japanese tofu, nigari is then added to the warm milk. Nigari (bittern) is the dry mineral salts left when table salt is extracted from seawater. This sets the tofu.
Japanese tofu is generally softer than Chinese tofu. The firmest is yaki tofu, which is lightly grilled before packing. Momen tofu is medium set for use in soups and stews. Kinu, or silken tofu is far softer with a custard like consistency and a higher water content.
Tofu is a useful protein, full of nutrients but low in fat and calories. Although packaged tofu is very light in flavour, it makes a great carrier for all sorts of seasonings and marinades. If you ever have the chance to eat it so fresh that it is still warm, it is utterly delicious.
Traditional Japanese noodles are made from a softer flour than the hard durum wheat flour used in Italian pasta. This results in a silkier texture and much shorter cooking time.
Ramen are the thin, yellow, wavy noodles that are often part of Japanese soups.
Udon noodles are thicker, white, silky noodles, served in broth, as a side dish or allowed to chill and dipped in sauce.
Soba noodles contain buckwheat along with wheat flour. Buckwheat noodles are darker brown and have a nutty taste. If you can find soba made entirely with buckwheat, these are a great gluten-free option.
High in protein, buckwheat noodles are thought to help cleanse alcohol from an overburdened liver. Consequently soba noodles are often served at the end of a big party or a night of drinking in Japan!
Japanese rice is always shortgrain and tends to be slightly sticky. This type of rice is called japonica. The varieties of rice grown to make risotto in Italy are forms of japonica rice.
Rice can be part of any meal and any course. Served as rice porridge, alongside robust stews and soups, in dainty sushi and in desserts, it is an essential feature of the Japaense kitchen.
Glutinous or sweet rice is particularly sticky and even chewy. Known as mochigome in Japanese, this is the rice used for sweet rice cakes known as mochi, and in other desserts.
Tea was first brought to Japan from China in the 9th century. A cultural phenomenon as much as a drink, it features in religious and social rituals and as a flavouring in many recipes.
Sencha accounts for at least 80 % of the tea produced in Japan. After harvesting it is briefly steamed and then dried, which gives it is characteristic colour and grassy fresh taste.
The differences between the various Japanese teas result from different processing and harvest times, rather than differences in the plant. Roasting or smoking the harvest can produce very distinct flavours.
The earliest harvest produces shinsha tea, which attracts a premium price. The late harvest is bancha, an everyday tea. With the addition of toasted rice, this makes the popular genmaicha or ‘popcorn’ tea.
Matcha is a powdered tea, made from the highest, greenest, freshest tips of the sencha tea bushes. For several weeks before harvesting, shades protect the tea bushes from the sun. This slows growth and raises the levels of amino acids in the tea, providing the characteristic vivid green colour and sweetness.
The finest matcha is for use in tea ceremonies. Lower grade matcha works as a flavouring and colouring in all sorts of sweets and desserts. The green colour lends a pretty hue to many dishes, along with the extra hit of caffeine that comes from this delicious fragrant powder.
This is, of course, the very briefest of introductions to a long and complex food culture. There is so much more to discover out there, from azuki beans to yuzu fruit. If you haven’t experimented with these amazing flavours yet, please do explore.
For more information on Japanese ingredients and condiments, there is an excellent glossary on Eat Japan.
To buy great Japanese condiments and ingredients I recommend Clearspring, whose whole range (apart from sea vegetables) is organic and largely sourced from small artisan Japanese producers.
The Japan Centre on London’s Regent Street has a comprehensive Japanese supermarket.
Steenbergs have a wide range of organic Japanese teas and matcha.