Japanese cooking can be a daunting enterprise for a western cook with its exotic array of ingredients, methods, and tools. We can’t explain all of that today, but we can give you a crash course on the top 12 flavors you should definitely know to get started!
To our dismay, you are unlikely to find a spice rack in a traditional Japanese kitchen. Japanese chefs use very few dried herbs or spices, instead developing flavors from fresh ingredients, seaweeds, pastes, and liquid condiments. That being said, there are a few critical dried materials that have become essential to any Japanese Kitchen and can be creatively worked into any type of cooking.
A variable mixture of ingredients from seaweed and shrimp to egg and sesame seed, this ever-present condiment could fairly be called “rice seasoning” and certainly gets many college students though school without knowing how to cook anything but rice!
Recently a very trendy flavor in ice creams, candies, coffees, or whatever else they can jam this into, Matcha was traditionally developed for the Japanese tea Ceremony and is nothing more than finely ground green tea leaves. The exciting color, rich, but lively flavor, and minor kick of caffeine make it a no brainer for many sweets.
#3 Sansho Pepper
Related to more well-known Sichuan peppercorn (Zanthoxylum piperitum), Sansho Pepper has a much sharper or stinging flavor in comparison to our common black pepper (piper nigrum) which is unrelated botanically.
Sesame is ubiquitous in Japanese cooking in the form of sesame oil or one of these seed preparations. The striking color of white or black sesame seeds makes them and excellent garnish, but the toasted seeds will definitely give you the best flavor!
- Gomashio – Essentially a mix of toasted sesame seeds and salt used as a condiment.
#5 Shichimi Togarashi
Literally “Seven Flavor Chili Pepper,” this mixed condiment can have as few as 5 or as many as 10 ingredients, but these are the usual suspects:
- Red chili pepper
- Sansho Pepper
- Orange peel, Tangerine/yuzu
- Sesame Seed (Black and White)
- Hemp seeds
- Ground ginger
Dashi is at the core of nearly every Japanese meal and at the core of dashi are two simple ingredients who deserve special mention:
#6 Kombu (Kelp)
Dried sheets of kelp are the primary source of the umami flavor in Japanese cooking and a great source of salty, oceanic flavor that round out the stock when boiled. The cooked seaweed is often tossed, but can be chopped and eaten as a very healthy condiment or side.
#7 Katsuo Bushi (bonito)
The second ingredient of dashi stock is the wholly underrated Katsuo Bushi. Katsuo is slipjack tuna dried to the consistency of wood and then shaved on a sharp plane to create flakes of wonderfully smoky and fishy flavor to the stock or used as a condiment on dishes such as Okonomiyaki.
Fresh or Pickled Ingredients:
I would be remiss to leave out these essential ingredient that, while not generally used dry, might be found in a dry form or can be kept for months in the fridge.
#8 Ginger (Gari/Shōga)
This picked form of ginger is very familiar as a sidekick to sushi, but should not be neglected as a garnish for soba or along side meat to balance the savory richness.
This fermented soy product is not only for miso soup! Use a little in a sauce or rub for meat or veggies to add some depth and for the health benefits.
Also known as Japanese Parsley, this herb is little known in the US, but is definitely distinct from parsley, so worth hunting down if possible. Or take a hand at growing it for a fresh supply!
#11 Shiso (Perilla)
More available than Mitsuba, Shiso is also more distinct and hard to replace with a wester equivalent. The sharp, but minty flavor is an excellent counterpoint to oily, rich, or starchy foods and is often fried along with tempura.
We all know wasabi, right?! Well, probably not. The “wasabi” most people know is actually horseradish died green and served with sushi, while true wasabi is a yellow to pale-green root with a much more subtle flavor. But don’t fret, many Japanese even prefer the horseradish imposter for its sinus-awakening bite!