When I returned to Ireland over 10 years ago, after living in Japan for several years, it was quite difficult and expensive to get Japanese ingredients. You’ll be glad to know this isn’t the case anymore. Nowadays, these ingredients are widely available and less expensive. Stock up on the ten essential ingredients I’ve listed below and begin your Japanese home-cooking journey, cooking lots of tasty and time friendly Japanese dishes.
1. Soy Sauce 醤油
Soy sauce is a key ingredient in any Japanese kitchen. A good quality Japanese soy sauce has a delicate taste allowing it to blend easily with other ingredients bringing out the natural umami in food. It’s a versatile ingredient to have in your kitchen for a simple stir-fry, to add to a casserole or one pot dish. The options are endless! My family’s favourite way to use soy sauce is mixed with honey to make a tasty teriyaki sauce.
When buying soy sauce be really careful and read the list of ingredients as there are many variations of soy sauce on the market which are loaded with sugar and nasty ingredients. Check out my range of flavoured soy sauces Fused range of real soy sauces which have a light flavour, use non GMO soy beans, no added sugar and are naturally fermented.
2. Japanese White Rice 米
Japanese rice is a type of short-grain rice which sticks easily together when cooked, so it’s perfect for making rice balls and sushi. It’s also easier to eat with chopsticks! The difference between plain Japanese rice and sushi rice is that sushi rice is seasoned with sushi vinegar and used to make sushi. Click here to go to my post “How to prepare and cook Japanese rice”.
I buy the Sun Clad Shinode brand of Japanese white rice. It’s a large 10 kilo bag and costs just under 20 euro which is very reasonable. If you don’t eat a lot of rice then you can buy a smaller 1kg bag.
3. Noodles 麺
There’s a variety of noodles used in Japanese cooking, including ramen, udon, soba and somen. Ramen noodles are yellowish, thin and made from wheat. They are well-known as one of the main ingredients in ramen broths. Udon noodles are white, thick and made from wheat flour. Soba noodles are brown-grey, thin and made from buckwheat flour. They have a strong nutty flavour and can be served hot or cold. I love eating them topped with tempura. Somen noodles are white, very thin and made from wheat. They’re often served cold during the hot summer months.
4. Japanese Rice Vinegar 米酢
5. Japanese Sake
Sake is an alcoholic drink made from rice and adds a nice taste to Japanese dishes. The Japanese use sake the same way as we use wine when cooking in the West. It’s not necessary to buy an expensive bottle if you’re only using it for cooking. You can find sake in Asian supermarkets, O’Briens or Retrovino.
Japanese mirin is a sweet rice wine with a lower alcohol content than sake. It’s used for cooking only in Japan and adds a nice sweet balance to Japanese dishes.
6. Japanese Seven Spice 七味
In Japanese this is called Shichimi Togarashi. This wonderful collection of seven spices adds an interesting dimension to the taste of a dish and also adds a nutritional explosion, with each spice boasting different health benefits. This spice mix includes chilli, orange peel, black sesame seeds, white sesame seeds, seaweed, Japanese pepper and ginger.
It’s often added to Japanese dishes to add a little kick and extra taste. At home I sprinkle this over soups, stews and noodle dishes once they are ready to be eaten. It also works really well as a seasoning for meat, fish or seafood. This particular ingredient tends to be only stocked in specialist Asian stores. If you can’t source it you can try my recipe here.
7. Tofu 豆腐
Tofu is low in calories yet high in protein and calcium. There are different types of tofu available in the supermarket including silken tofu which has a soft and delicate texture and is best used in salads and soups, and firm tofu which has a tougher texture and works better in one pot dishes and stir fries. Fresh tofu can be eaten cold straight from the fridge or added to hot dishes. Try to get organic tofu if it’s available.
8. Japanese Miso 味噌
Miso is made from fermented soybeans, salt, rice or barley, and koji (fermentation starter). There are different types of miso, which vary in colour from light brown to dark red/brown. Generally, the lighter the colour the milder the taste. Once miso is opened it should be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container (it will continue to ferment and become more salty over time). It acts as a great marinade for meat, fish or even vegetables. Here is my miso soup recipe.
A question I get asked often… How long can I leave miso paste in the fridge? It will last up to one year in the fridge!
Seaweed is filled with vitamins and minerals and is an important part of the Japanese diet, from sushi making to simple stocks and salads. The Irish seaweed I recommend are This is Seaweed and Wild Irish Seaweed. Here is a list of the seaweeds that I regularly use for cooking:
– kombu (kelp) seaweed
It’s filled with umami (the fifth taste) and one of the main ingredients used to make Japanese cooking stock (dashi). It’s also used for salads and stews.
– nori seaweed
It’s best known for wrapping sushi rolls and onigiri (Japanese rice balls). Nori can be bought as roasted seaweed sheets or milled (aonori). Once opened, nori sheets need to be stored in an airtight container or they will lose their crispy texture. Ao-nori (milled nori) is often sprinkled over dishes such as okonomiyaki and yakisoba just before serving.
– wakame seaweed
It can be bought as small dried pieces. It is added to miso soup and salads. Be careful how much dried wakame you add to a dish as these tiny pieces of seaweed expand once they are in water.
10. Matcha Powdered Green Tea 抹茶
I was first introduced to matcha at a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in Japan. During the ceremony a large bowl of matcha was prepared by the tea master and passed around. I have to mention that matcha prepared at traditional tea ceremonies is very concentrated, especially for someone who has never tasted it before. I’ll never forget the strong and bitter taste of the matcha and pretending to like it as my homestay mother observed my reaction to this nearly sacred drink!
The matcha that I make at home and find served outside of Japan is not as concentrated, so it’s easier to drink, and you acquire a taste for it over time. Matcha is becoming a super drink here in the West due to its health benefits, such as aiding weight loss, aiding digestion, relieving stress and anxiety, boosting energy levels, controlling food cravings and because of its high levels of antioxidants.