Japanese cuisine has taken the culinary landscape by storm. With its unique mastery of flavours and delicate combination of sweet and savoury, it’s no wonder Japanese recipes are so popular. From sushi to ramen, Japanese and Japanese-inspired dishes can be found everywhere, including your own kitchen! You don’t need to be a master chef to bring home the exquisite flavours of Japanese cuisine.
Before you embark on your culinary adventure, consider expanding your pantry and investing in a few staple ingredients. Below are a few common seasonings used in Japanese cooking. Most can be found at your local grocery store and are generally inexpensive.
Miso. Miso is a paste made with fermented soybeans, or occasionally other ingredients like rice or barley. Commonly used as the base in miso soup, it also serves as an easy seasoning for sauces and marinades. Miso comes in many different varieties depending on the ingredients used, all with slightly different flavours. As a general rule, the darker the miso, the more intense the flavour will be. So if you’re unsure about the flavour, start with a lighter variety.
Soy sauce / tamari. Soy sauce, and its gluten-free cousin, tamari, are originally of Chinese origin but have been widely adopted in many different Asian cuisines. They are made with fermented soy and, in the case of soy sauce, roasted grain. Both sauces pack a strong umami flavour, making them a common base for sauces and seasonings. You can usually choose between light or dark soy sauce or tamari, depending on the intensity of flavour you’re looking for.
Sake. Sake, also known as Japanese rice wine, is an alcoholic beverage made with fermented rice. It is often used the same way white wine would be used in North American cuisine. If you prefer not to cook with alcohol, sake can usually be substituted with water, broth or some watered down rice vinegar.
Mirin. Mirin is a condiment similar to sake, but with a higher sugar content and sweeter taste. It is used primarily in sauces, dressings, broths and marinades. Mirin may be a little more difficult to come by in its purest form. If you can’t find any, you can substitute with white wine or vinegar. Be sure to add a little sugar to make up for the sweetness of mirin, about ½ teaspoon for every 1 tablespoon of wine or vinegar that you use.
Rice vinegar. Rice vinegar, or rice wine vinegar, is made from sake, which comes from fermented rice. Rice vinegar is less acidic than white vinegar and has a mildly sweet flavour. If you don’t have rice vinegar on hand, you can substitute with apple cider vinegar or white vinegar. Be sure to add a little extra sugar to match the sweetness of rice vinegar.
Sesame seeds. Sesame seeds are often used as a garnish or to create a crispy coating on meat. They come in two varieties, black or white, which have a similar taste but make a difference aesthetically. They are high in fiber and are a good source of copper, magnesium, calcium, zinc and vitamin B.
In terms of equipment, you can get by with your average North American set up, but if you want to make stir-frys easier, a wok is a great investment. The high edges of the wok make it easy to load up with lots of ingredients, and move them around quickly for even cooking at high temperatures.