Japanese cooking cannot be done without certain essential staples that are added to most dishes. These are classified into condiments, dry goods and some fresh ingredients. Here is a list of the Japanese cooking staples.
1. Soy Sauce
You likely already have a bottle of soy sauce stocked in the kitchen. As the most basic pantry essential in Japanese and much other Asian cooking, soy sauce or shoyu doesn’t need much introduction. For one, Japanese soy sauce is more delicate in taste and has a complex savory flavor. You’d taste the difference instantly if you used other soy sauce in a Japanese dish.
2. Sake (Japanese Rice Wine)
Japanese use sake in a variety of dishes as the rice wine can do wonder in enhancing the overall flavor of a dish. We use it frequently in meat and fish marinades, and very often, in sauces, soup, and simmered dishes. For those of you who really cannot find sake, a good quality pale, dry sherry can be used as a substitute. You can opt for Chinese rice wine or Shaoxing wine, but you may want to use a lesser amount as the flavor is much more assertive than a sake.
3. Mirin (Japanese Sweet Rice Wine)
Mirin is a sweet syrupy liquid used mainly as a seasoning and glazing agent in Japanese cooking. It is a type of rice wine just like sake, but with lower alcohol content. We use mirin to add luster, help tenderize meat/seafood, and add a distinct sweetness to dishes. You can substitute mirin with sake and sugar, although it won’t be exactly the same.
4. Rice Vinegar
Rice vinegar is milder, sweeter, and less stringent than western vinegar. It can help to lift up a dish by lending a mildly tangy, sourish yet fruity sweetness to the dish. Just like western vinegar, we use rice vinegar in Japanese-style salads, pickles, and various sauces. It is also the most important seasoning to make Sushi Rice.
In Japanese cuisine, miso goes way beyond soup. This versatile condiment can be used in marinades, dressings, sauces, or even in baking! There are many different types of miso out there and each miso varies in taste, aroma, texture, and saltiness. For beginners, start with yellow miso (also known as Awase miso).
6. Dashi (Japanese Soup Stock) – Homemade or Convenient Packet
When people ask me ‘what defines authentic Japanese flavor’? My answer is Dashi. Think of it like a chicken broth, but dashi has a far more important and comprehensive role in our kitchen. It is literally the soul of Japanese cuisine. You’ll need dashi to make Miso Soup, Chawanmushi, Sukiyaki, Tempura dipping sauce, Curry Udon, Oyakodon rice bowl, and the list goes on. It is what gives Japanese dishes the distinctive umami flavor.
7. Mentsuyu (Noodle Soup Base)
We use Mentsuyu or Tsuyu as a basic sauce or broth for many Japanese dishes such as cold noodles, hot noodle soups, donburi rice bowls, and Yaki Udon. You can find Mentsuyu at Japanese or Asian grocery stores. If your local Asian grocery stores don’t carry Mentsuyu, you can make Homemade Mentsuyu from scratch with basic Japanese condiments listed here.
8. Sesame Oil (Roasted/Toasted)
Sesame oil adds an unmissable nutty aroma to dishes in Japanese food. It comes in non-roasted and roasted varieties. When we call for it in recipes, we only use the roasted one. It is often used as a finishing oil or as a flavoring, mainly in salad dressing or in sauteed dishes.
These are the most authentic and essential Japanese cooking staples.