Does the idea of cooking Japanese food at home seem overwhelming?
While crafting your own sushi can be hard and time-consuming, there are many dishes that are more simple. If you feel intimidated just by looking at a recipe, a good place to start is to make sure your pantry is stocked with the right condiments. The following five key ingredients form the basis of almost all Japanese cooking.
1. Soy Sauce
If you’ve ever had sushi, soy sauce will probably be familiar to you. It is also probably the most essential ingredient in Japanese food. Soy sauce is derived from the fermented paste of soybeans, wheat, salt and water. There are a few different types of soy sauce, but koikuchi is the most common. It is a deep brown color and quite salty in flavor. Soy sauce acts as a flavoring agent for food and serves as the basis of most sauces in Japanese cooking.
Sake is an alcoholic rice-wine beverage that is often used in Japanese cooking as well, just like white wine is often used in Western cooking. When cooking with sake, you want to make sure that you’re using decent quality sake because the flavor of the sake will come through in the dish. Sake’s primary usage in cooking is to enhance the flavor of the food as well as to reduce the smell of raw fish or meat. It can also be used a flavorful alternative to water to soften the ingredients and help them cook through, or as a marinade prior to cooking.
Mirin is a sweet cooking wine with a low alcohol content, also made from rice, like sake, and is made by fermenting the rice with shochu, the national spirit of Japan. Because it is nearly 50-percent sugar, it adds a sweet subtle flavor and a shiny texture to the dishes. Mirin is one of the more ubiquitous ingredients in Japanese cooking. According to the chefs at Wasan Brooklyn, you can substitute mirin with sugar and sake at 1 to 4 ratio. However, the flavor will be slightly different and the dishes will lack the shiny glaze in certain dishes.
4. Sesame Oil
Sesame oil is a light oil made from toasted sesame seeds and has a nice, nutty flavor. Because of this, its primarily use is to add flavor or to make tempura. There is a lighter sesame oil made from raw sesame seeds that is nearly odorless, but this is far less common and mostly used as a cooking oil. It is important that you make sure you purchase specifically Japanese sesame oil, because other types are sometimes sweeter and will change the flavor of the dish.
Miso is another essential base ingredient to a lot of Japanese cooking. Like soy sauce, miso’s main ingredient is fermented soybeans, but with the addition of rice or barley. Red and white miso are the most common types. Red miso has a deeper umami flavor due to its longer aging, while white miso has a lighter, sweeter taste to it. Miso paste is, of course, the base of miso soup, but it is also used in a variety of other dishes to add flavor, or even to thicken a sauce.
With these five condiments, you will be in a good position to pick up any Japanese recipe and get cooking. Sometimes the most challenging part can be compiling the appropriate ingredients to craft the correct flavors. However, with these condiments on hand, you’ll have a head start.