Let's Go! A Summary of Popular Japanese Food and Condiments Part 4: Basic Condiments (Sauces, Herbs, Flavorings)


2024.05.05

NAVITIME TRAVEL EDITOR

Let's Go! A Summary of Popular Japanese Food and Condiments Part 4: Basic Condiments (Sauces, Herbs, Flavorings)

This article focuses on the numerous sauces, herbs, and flavorings used to give traditional Japanese food its distinctive taste and characteristics. In listing all these seasonings, we have categorized them by their basic characteristics such as liquid, grated, fresh herbs, dry, etc. Some of the seasonings are not only well known outside of Japan but also even used in the cuisines of other countries. Some examples of these are ginger, soy sauce, chili flakes, and chili oil that are used in many Chinese, Korean, and Southeast Asian dishes. And of course, common ingredients such as sugar, salt, and vinegar are used in food eaten all over the world. However, some of the herbs and sauces described here are distinctively Japanese and are not widely known outside of Japan and might be difficult to obtain in some areas. Nevertheless, for everyone who loves Japanese food, this will be a good source of information on not only what seasonings are used but also on how they are used. And especially for readers interested in cooking Japanese food themselves, this hopefully will help in terms of learning more about Japanese food and know what condiments and seasons are used to create traditional and delicious Japanese dishes.

While travelers to Japan might not have access to cooking facilities while they are visiting the country, they can easily find these sauces and flavorings and buy them while in Japan to take home. Depending on the items, they can be bought at supermarkets, department stores, grocery stores, convenient stores, and even large drug stores. So, if visitors want to try to create their own Japanese food at home, they can buy these ingredients and pack them in their suitcases. The good news is that some of these items are sold in small bottles, packets, and even non-breakable, plastic tubes, so they are lightweight and not too bulky. The only items that might not be found at home, and which cannot be brought home, are the fresh herbs such as shiso, mitsuba, and kaiware daikon.

  • 01

    Liquids

    1) Soy sauce (shoyu)

    Soy sauce

    Soy sauce

    If there is one condiment in the whole wide world of Japanese cuisine that defines the flavor of Japanese food, it is without a doubt soy sauce. It is almost impossible to find any Japanese food that does not contain at least a drop of soy sauce. While everyone everywhere knows the general term “soy sauce”, many people might not be aware that there are several types of soy sauces, and each one has its own specific flavor and use. For example, the different soy sauces used in Japanese food alone include all-purpose soy sauce, tamari soy sauce, low-sodium soy sauce, light-tasting soy sauce, and sashimi-sushi soy sauce.

    (1) All-purpose soy sauce: koikuchi shoyu (most common type used, 80% of all soy sauce consumed)

    (2) Light-tasting soy sauce: usukuchi shoyu (lighter color but saltier)

    (3) Low-sodium soy sauce: gen-en shoyu (less salty taste but more additives to add taste and account for the lack of salt/sodium)

    (4) Sashimi/Sushi soy sauce: saishikomi shoyu (actually in English, this is called “refermented soy sauce” because it has been brewed two times so more water has been evaporated. As a result, this creates an intense flavor good for dipping sashimi and sushi. Also, it is not overly salty, and has balanced flavor elements, i.e., saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, acidity, and umami)

    (5) Tamari soy sauce (liquid left from producing miso paste, darker in color, richer taste, less salty flavor, usually does not contain wheat)

    (6) Extra light-color soy sauce: shiro shoyu (pale color, practically translucent, good for ingredients that need to preserve their original color, but need soy-sauce taste)

    2) Ponzu (citrusy-soy sauce)

    Seared bonito (katsuo no tataki) eaten with ponzu

    Seared bonito (katsuo no tataki) eaten with ponzu

    This sauce has a slightly acidic but delightfully mild, sour taste because it contains juice from a citrus fruit called a kabosu (or lemon) as well rice vinegar. To add complexity, soy sauce, mirin sweet cooking-sake, and bonito and kelp stocks are added to ponzu. It is used mostly as a dipping sauce for many nabe hotpot meals. Basically, nabe are hotpots in which a variety of items are all cooked together in a very lightly seasoned broth made from kombu kelp or dashi fish stock. The items cooked in the pot vary according to the type of hotpot being made. For example, the ingredients can be chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, squid, octopus, and fish, which are boiled with vegetables such as hakusai cabbage, negi green onions, bean sprouts, mushrooms, shungiku chrysanthemum leaves, and in addition tofu. While these ingredients are very healthy and all good, they don’t have much taste on their own when boiled in the hotpot. So, once all of these ingredients are cooked in the broth, they are dipped in ponzu sauce before being eaten. Ponzu, because it is a light, citrusy, vinegary, soy-sauce tasting liquid that adds a heaping amount of flavor, it is also a great dipping sauce for tataki sashimi (sashimi that has been lightly seared).

    3) Mentsuyu (noodle broth)

    Ready-made mentsuyu sold in stores have gained popularity as a condiment due to its ease in use

    Ready-made mentsuyu sold in stores have gained popularity as a condiment due to its ease in use

    Mentsuyu is made from soy sauce, mirin, sake, sugar, and dashi (soup stock). It’s the go-to broth for noodles such as soba, udon, and somen whether they are eaten hot or cold. And while the name of this sauce is mentsuyu, i.e., noodle broth, it is used as a flavor base for many non-noodle dishes such as katsudon (pork cutlet with beaten egg served over rice), oyakodon (chicken and beaten egg served over rice), beef bowl (gyudon), stir-fried vegetables, buta kimchee (pork sauté with kimchee), and others. Nowadays, many varieties of mentsuyu are sold in supermarkets and department stores, so it is more common nowadays to buy mentsuyu rather than make it at home. Some mentsuyu are made with fish stock, some are made with konbu kelp broth, and some are made with both.

    Some of the mentsuyu that are sold in stores are already made and ready to be used “as is” without any need to dilute them with water. On the other hand, some are concentrated, so you need to dilute the mentsuyu concentrate with water. However, both kinds are very popular. The “straight type” (the kind requiring nothing more than opening the bottle of mentsuyu and pouring it into a small bowl) is the easiest to use because there is no need to dilute it with water. This type is mainly used for noodles. The concentrated-type mentsuyu is easy too because all you need to do is measure the amount of water needed in proportion to the amount of mentsuyu required, depending on what you are making. The concentrated mentsuyu is used not only for noodles but for other dishes too.

    For example, dipping sauces for cold noodles need less water because the concentrated mentsuyu shouldn’t be diluted so much that is loses its taste. And then, hot soba and udon noodles covered with mentsuyu are eaten in hot broth with just the right amount of flavor. Mentsuyu broth for hot noodles should be diluted with water because the broth should not have a very strong, salty taste. Directions on how much water to use in relation to how much mentsuyu to use are written on the labels of bottled, concentrated mentsuyu. For example: for oyakodon, the ratio is one part mentsuyu to three parts water.

    4) Tonkatsu sauce (the sauce poured over breaded/deep-fried pork cutlet)

    To eat tonkatsu as it should be eaten, nothing but tonkatsu sauce will work to make tonkatsu taste like tonkatsu should taste. Tonkatsu sauce is modeled after English Worcestershire sauce, except it is sweeter and thicker. The sweetness comes from dates, raisins, prunes, apples, tomatoes, onions and many other ingredients to give the sauce its own, unique Japanese taste. In addition to pouring tonkatsu sauce over tonkatsu itself, it is poured over breaded and deep-fried chicken (chikin katsu), breaded and deep-fried shrimp (ebi furai), menchi katsu (minced-meat katsu), croquettes and others. And interesting enough, tonkatsu sauce cooked with katsup (and butter and red wine if wanted), makes a delicious sauce to pour over Japanese-style hamburger steaks.

    5) Rayu (hot chili oil)

    Rayu is frequently sold in this cute little bottle.

    Rayu is frequently sold in this cute little bottle.

    This spicy oil has been infused with chili so it imparts a “hot bite on the tongue” if too much is used. It’s a very popular condiment and a little goes a long way, so it is sold in small bottles that have push-spouts so you can add the oil in drops. It is a mixture of corn and sesame oils along with chili and sometimes paprika to give it a red-hot chili look. While rayu is very popular as a spicy condiment, it is usually not used in traditional Japanese food. Instead, it is mostly used for Chinese-inspired dishes, especially gyoza pot stickers. Also, some people like to put it in ramen for a little heat. And for people who like to add heat to their food, it can be used on tofu, stir-fried vegetables, egg dishes, soups, stews, and other kinds of dumplings such as pork, crab, or shrimp shumai.

    6) Su or Osu (vinegar)

    Sweetened vinegar is added to hot rice to make rice for sushi

    Sweetened vinegar is added to hot rice to make rice for sushi

    While practically every type of vinegar is available in Japan, the most commonly used vinegar is based on rice only. Vinegar plays a large part in the Japanese diet because from long ago it was known for its food-preserving qualities, and these were extremely important in the days when modern refrigeration was not available, as it is nowadays. Compared to other vinegars such as grape-wine, malt, or sugar-cane vinegars common in other countries’ cuisines, rice-wine vinegar is more mellow and mild tasting . Some vinegars in Japan are made from a combination of rice and other grains such as barley and corn. A dark vinegar is produced from brown rice and barley. While it is produced from “brown rice”, the Japanese have named this vinegar “kurozu”, literally “black vinegar”, because of its very dark color. Since the entire grain of rice is used in kurozu as is, including the germ and bran, kurozu contains many more nutrients, so brown rice vinegar is be better for you in terms of nutrition compared to white-rice vinegar (or so it is said). However, brown-rice vinegar is not used very often. One reason is the dark color imparts a dark finished to the cooked food. And in fact, when it is used, it is used mostly in stir-fried or Chinese-inspired dishes that can handle a strong flavor and brownish look. Examples of dishes in which kurozu is added include chicken and vegetable stir-fries (asparagus, green pepper, broccoli, etc.) and sweet and sour pork.

    Then there are infused vinegars that include yuzu, kabosu, sudachi (varieties of citrus fruits). One popular vinegar that helps busy cooks is sushi vinegar. It’s basically rice vinegar that incorporates the other two ingredients needed to make sushi rice, i.e., sugar and salt, in the right proportions. It’s so simple to make good-tasting sushi rice because you only need to pour the correct amount of this vinegar in proportion to the amount of steamed rice. And while it is sold as “sushi vinegar”, smart cooks know that it makes a great base for homemade salad dressings too. In addition, vinegar in Japan is given status as a health food, so it is often drunk when diluted with water or water and a sweetener such as honey and fruit juices. Some flavors of popular drinking vinegars are brown-rice , strawberry, blueberry, and apple.

    7) Sake (rice wine)

    Sake is a basic condiment for cooking at home

    Sake is a basic condiment for cooking at home

    Sake is one of the national drinks of Japan, in addition to shochu, but it also works amazingly well as a seasoning in Japanese cuisine. In fact, it is used in a large number of Japanese dishes, from sukiyaki and teriyaki up to ginger pork. Japanese cooking without sake would not impart its unique taste. If soy sauce is the king of Japanese flavor, then sake surely is the queen. Most all seasoning mixtures used in Japanese food always include a certain amount of sake, even if that means a spoonful or two. In the same way that grape wine is used in French and Italian cooking, Japanese sake is used in Japanese food. From long ago, people learned that alcohol, when added to stews and slow-cooked foods, makes the ingredients not only tasty but also tender.

    8) Mirin (sweet cooking sake)

    Recipe for teriyaki sauce is 2 tbsp each of mirin, sake, soy sauce, and 1 tbsp sugar. Easy!

    Recipe for teriyaki sauce is 2 tbsp each of mirin, sake, soy sauce, and 1 tbsp sugar. Easy!

    Mirin, which is basically a cooking sake that has been sweetened, is used in a lot of Japanese cooking either on its own, or in combination with both sake and sugar. It might seem to be redundant to add sugar and sake and also mirin too. However, mirin adds another depth of flavor because it is not only sake and sugar but also made from sticky rice, rice koji, and even shochu. While hon mirin (true mirin) is fermenting, the natural umami flavors and various kinds of sweeteners develop naturally. There is a product called mirin fumi chomiryo (mirin-like flavoring) that is similar to hon mirin, but it is a mixture of already made glucose sugar and alcohol that have been mixed together. While it is similar and a cheaper alternative to hon mirin, good cooks choose to use hon mirin. Mirin is used in a variety of different dishes such as pork-wrapped asparagus, Chinese cabbage and ground chicken stew, pork and bamboo-shoot stir-fry, garlic scrapes and tofu sweet and spicy stir-fry, and similar protein/vegetable stir-fry dishes.

    Chikuzenni, another household favorite, is made of 2 tbsp mirin and soy sauce, 1 tbsp sugar, and 200 ml water or dashi (broth).

    Chikuzenni, another household favorite, is made of 2 tbsp mirin and soy sauce, 1 tbsp sugar, and 200 ml water or dashi (broth).

  • 02

    Grated

    9) Grated radish (daikon oroshi)

    Daikon radish often accompanies grilled fish

    Daikon radish often accompanies grilled fish

    Daikon is a very popular vegetable regularly eaten in Japan. It is often cooked in stews and boiled dishes, as well eaten raw in salads, especially when featured as the main ingredient in daikon salad. Another way that daikon is used at meal time is when it has been grated. It is commonly added to ponzu dipping sauce used for nabe hotpot meals as another flavor element. In addition, a small amount of daikon radish often accompanies grilled, salted fish, and with that, sometimes a small squeeze of lemon juice and soy sauce are poured on top. Also, grated radish is added to tempura dipping-sauce. Without it, tempura would not taste right and would be bland.

    10) Momiji oroshi (spicy grated daikon radish with red chili powder)

    This is simply as described. It is grated daikon mixed with powdered red chili such as ichimi (one spice chili powder) and is not eaten “as is”. Instead, it is a supplemental condiment that is added to other sauces such as ponzu dipping-sauce for hotpot nabe meals or added to sesame dipping-sauce used for shabushabu to add heat. In addition some people add it to tempura and soba dipping-sauces. Momiji oroshi has other uses too because it can be added to fried noodles and vegetable side dishes. And it’s interesting that momiji oroshi goes well with oysters on the half shell or as an added condiment for breaded and deep-fried oysters. It can be made easily at home with a food processor, blender, or fine grater.

    However, nowadays most cooks buy commercially prepared momiji oroshi, which certainly saves time. However, some commercially prepared momiji oroshi contain a lot of extra ingredients, some of which are not necessarily needed for downhome cooks, when momiji oroshi fundamentally is such a simple, plain, and no frills condiment. If you are a label reader you will find the following ingredients included in bottled or squeeze-tube momiji oroshi: carrot powder, corn starch, vinegar, tofu fiber, souring agents, amino acids, thickeners, and artificial colors.

    11) Grated ginger (oroshi shoga)

    Everyone is familiar with ginger that has been chopped, sliced, or minced. Another way ginger is used in Japanese cooking is grated as a condiment. Many kinds of fish and seafood sashimi, before being eaten, are dipped in a mixture of soy sauce and grated ginger. So, instead of eating sashimi with soy sauce and wasabi, you can try dipping it in soy sauce with grated ginger. This is a wonderfully flavored dipping sauce that goes perfectly with strong fish-tasting sashimi such as bonito and horse mackerel. In fact, some sushi are served already topped with grated radish. Grated ginger has many uses when mixed with soy sauce. For example, a favorite food in Japan is hiyayakko, which is basically a block of cold tofu topped with grated ginger and soy sauce. Sometimes bonito flakes and chopped chives or green onions are also put on top. And then, grated ginger and soy sauce is a great combination when eating dumplings and tempura too. Or, in addition, a little bit of grated ginger is added to tempura dipping-sauce, elevating tempura into a super delicious dish.

  • 03

    Pastes and Creams

    12) Miso

    Misoshiru (miso soup)

    Misoshiru (miso soup)

    Miso is one of the most commonly used ingredients in Japanese cooking. Everyone knows and loves misoshiru (miso soup), in which miso is the star ingredient. But more than being the star ingredient for soup, miso can be added to mashed potatoes, mayonnaise, mustard, and salad dressings, to develop the taste you want. It is used in glazes and brushed on salmon, chicken, or pork before they are roasted or grilled. You can make miso butter and spread it on corn on the cob, broccoli, green beans, or asparagus. And one of the most popular fish dishes cooked in home kitchens and served in restaurants is miso saba (miso mackerel), which is mackerel cooked in a sauce made of miso, ginger, soy sauce, sake, mirin sweet cooking sake, sugar, and a little water.

    Not all miso is equal. There are several different kinds of miso, and each one is made from different ingredients and their use varies by region. Actually, over a thousand kinds of miso are made in Japan because there are so many producers, each with their own ideas on the ingredients and ratios of one ingredient to the other.

    From left to right: Shiro miso, aka miso, and mame miso

    From left to right: Shiro miso, aka miso, and mame miso

    Shiro miso (white miso) and aka miso (red miso): The two most common types of miso are white and red. Even though they look different, hence the difference in the names, they both are made from the same ingredients, namely soybeans, koji (a beneficial fungus), rice, and salt, albeit in varying proportions. The longer period of time miso ferments, the darker it becomes and the deeper it becomes in terms of flavor. Shiro miso has a sweet, mild taste and light color, which is the result of a higher proportion of rice to soybeans and a shorter fermentation period of three months to one year. Shiro miso is used more in the Kansai region. Aka (red) miso on the other hand is darker in color and has a higher proportion of soybeans to rice and is fermented from six months to a year. Aka miso is more popular in the Kanto region.

    Miso nikomi is a popular dish in the Aichi area, made from hatcho miso.

    Miso nikomi is a popular dish in the Aichi area, made from hatcho miso.

    Other kinds of miso include mame miso, which is made from steamed soybeans, koji, water, and salt. Mame miso is dark in color and has a very strong, earthy taste. And then there is hatcho miso, which is a very special type of mame miso that has been made in Okazaki, Aichi prefecture for more than 800 years. What makes this miso special is not only its three-ingredient recipe, which means steamed soybeans, koij, and salt, but also the requirement that it be fermented at least 24 months. This means it must be fermented two summers and two winters before it can be called hatcho miso. It is not made with any rice at all. It has a very earthy, smokey taste and smell. Additionally there is genmai miso and mugi miso, which are made from brown-rice instead of polished, white rice; and barley instead of white rice, respectively.

    13) Wasabi (horseradish)

    Wasabi is grated using a board with shark skin

    Wasabi is grated using a board with shark skin

    Anyone who knows and loves sushi knows all about wasabi, commonly translated as “horseradish” for ease of explanation. However, wasabi, compared to western horseradish is naturally green in color (not white) and is extremely overpowering, giving a strong a punch of flavor that can be so powerful as to draw tears and cause a bit of sinus discomfort if too much is eaten in one bite. In addition, wasabi, along with a little sugar, salt, and vinegar is added to steamed, green-leaf vegetables such as spinach and kale to make a small and bright, green side dish.

    14) Karashi (hot mustard)

    Karashi with shumai

    Karashi with shumai

    Hot mustard is used a lot in Japan as a condiment as well as a seasoning. Traditional hot mustard is easily made at home by mixing mustard powder and hot water, and letting it set for at least 15 minutes. A tiny amount is used “as is” on shumai dumplings; cold, Chinese summer noodles, and pan-fried noodles. One interesting way karashi is used is on ham sandwiches, Japanese style. To make these sandwiches is simple, all you need to do is mix a tiny amount of karashi with mayonnaise and spread it on buttered bread and add the ham. Finally, karashi is an ingredient used in vegetable side dishes. For example, karashi can be mixed with rapeseed leaves (nanohana), bean sprouts, cucumbers, cabbage, eggplant, etc. To complete the vegetable side dish, other condiments such as vinegar, mayonnaise, ground or whole-seed mustard, sugar, soy sauce, salt, or sesame oil are added according to one’s own taste.

    15) Yuzu kosho (Yusu-flavored chili paste)

    Very flavorful and spicy

    Very flavorful and spicy

    This is a simple but very flavorful and spicy chili paste traditionally made in Oita Prefecture on Kyushu Island. The best ones have only three ingredients that are mixed into a smooth paste: green chili peppers, yuzu peel, and salt---nothing more. That’s all that is needed. Its flavor is so simple but oh so delicious when spread on simple grilled foods such as grilled chicken, especially when the skin has turned crispy. But be careful, because you need to use only a very small amount. It’s very powerful and spicy hot. Test it before eating. Yuzu kosho is best used on plain foods that are not flavored with other seasonings and sauces, except for a little salt. For example, it’s delicious on hiyayakko cold tofu that has been sprinkled with a little soy sauce and shaved bonito flakes. It’s delicious on salt-and-peppered steak, pork, lamb, and chicken that have been grilled, roasted, or pan fried. A little is all you need to elevate the taste of juicy cuts of meat. But you can use it on anything you want. Once you start using it, it becomes a habit and a regular table item at meal times, so definitely try this if you enjoy some heat in your food. The good news is that yuzu kosho is sold in tiny bottles and plastic packets in 30-50 gram sizes, so it’s small and easy to pack and carry.

  • 04

    Pickled

    16) Pickled ginger (beni shoga)

    Beni shoga on gyudon

    Beni shoga on gyudon

    Pickled ginger is usually died red or pink and is a favorite condiment put on a variety of dishes. (You should note than benishoga is not the pickled-ginger slices eaten with sushi.) Beni shoga has a very definite ginger taste and while the ginger is pickled with vinegar, it doesn’t have a very strong vinegar taste, so it goes well as a topping with beef bowl (gyudon) especially. It is a fact that every beef-bowl shop has beni shoga in small jars or covered bowls placed on counters and tables. In addition, benishoga is an essential topping on yakisoba (Japanese fried noodles) that cannot be forgotten. In addition, benishoga becomes a great accompaniment to Japanese curry. And it goes so well with onigiri, especially inarizushi (seasoned tofu pockets filled with sushi rice).

    17) Umeboshi (pickled plum)

    Just looking at umeboshi makes your mouth water!

    Just looking at umeboshi makes your mouth water!

    Japanese pickled plums can be an acquired taste for some people. That is because umeboshi have a strong, salty taste as well as a particularly strong, sour taste. However, they do have a very healthy taste! Homemade umeboshi, which need to ferment on their own, have to have time to air outdoors in the sun too. They have only two ingredients besides the plums, and they are salt and the red-leaf variety of shiso perilla leaves. The ratio of salt to plums ranges from 20% to 8% or even as low as 5%. While those made with 20% are extremely salty and sour, they are the most natural and traditional. Nowadays, since people are more conscience about their salt intake, umeboshi made with 8% to 5% are becoming more common. However, salt is a natural preservative. In fact, historians have found umeboshi from a site in Nara, which were made in the Nara period (8th century), and they are still edible to this day. Salt is a miracle pickling agent for sure. What this means; however, is umeboshi with only a ratio of 5% or so require more artificial preservatives, and this detracts from their natural goodness.

    Making umeboshi

    Making umeboshi

    The plum season starts in June, so the pickling/salting begins in the middle of June. The plums are salted and left for one week. After that the red shiso leaves are added, and the plums go through other processes, including being sun dried in the day for three days and brought inside for three nights. The whole process of making umeboshi from start to finish takes about one month.

    Umeboshi's red color comes from red shiso

    Umeboshi's red color comes from red shiso

    Nowadays, many commercial producers of umeboshi also include not-so-natural ingredients such as artificial sweeteners, coloring agents, preservatives, and food additives to offset the lower salt content in their umeboshi. While these ingredients help preserve the umeboshi, they also make them easier to eat because of the sweeteners and additives, especially. Nevertheless, consumers are offered a wide selection of umeboshi from which to choose and which will suit their food preferences.

    All types of umeboshi can be found in abundance at supermarkets, departments stores, specialty pickle shops, and even in convenient stores. Generally speaking, umeboshi traditionally are eaten on their own with rice, such as at the dinner table, or when stuffed in rice balls, or packed into bento boxed lunches. However, they are used in a variety of Japanese foods for flavor, such as a topping in ochazuke (a tea and rice soup). They are often mashed when used in food and sauce preparations. In fact, mashed umeboshi (which is more commonly referred to as umeboshi paste) is commercially made and sold in bottles, jars, and squeeze tubes for convenient use. For example, the mashed umeboshi can be mixed with other ingredients and poured as a sauce over fried chicken. They can be used as an ingredient in dipping sauces for cold noodles. Sometimes they are mixed with cucumbers, mixed with mountain yam, and mixed with chicken breast and udon noodles and shiso perilla leaves. And mashed umeboshi is spread on yakitori chicken breast before being grilled.

  • 05

    General Household Ingredients

    18) Sato (sugar)

    Everyone knows sugar (and most people love it too!). Compared to cuisines in the West, Japanese cuisine often includes the use of sugar in main dishes such as sukiyaki, teriyaki chicken, sushi rice, and even gyudon. It’s probably not an overstatement to say that in western cooking sugar is used only, or at least practically only, in sweets.

    19) Shio (salt)

    Arajio, or unrefined sea salt, is frequently used in cooking

    Arajio, or unrefined sea salt, is frequently used in cooking

    While salt and its use needs no introduction regardless of which ethnic cuisine you make, salt in Japan is widely used in main dishes to compliment soy sauce, meaning salt prevents the food from having too strong a taste of soy-sauce. It does go without saying that salt makes food salty so it must be used in moderation. On the other hand, too much soy sauce makes food taste not only heavy but also too salty. Soy sauce, when too much is used, also adds a lot of color to dishes. So that is why salt is commonly added to main dishes along with soy sauce. Honestly speaking, many basic recipes require not only soy sauce, mirin (sweet cooking sake), sake, and salt but also water to reduce the salty taste and make the fool milder and more mellow. One favorite food based on the aforementioned sauce mixture with salt and water is shoga-yaki (ginger pork).

  • 06

    Fresh herbs

    20) Shiso (aoba) Beefsteak plant/perilla leaf

    One of the unique herbs used in Japan is beefsteak or perilla leaf. It’s sometimes given the upscale name of “Japanese basil” to make it sound like a fancy ingredient, but after tasting it, it’s difficult to believe it resembles basil. While needed a big imagination to call it “basil”, that name probably does work in the end. Shiso can fit into many dishes that use regular basil. For example, it can be added to cooked dishes that use ground meat such as chicken, pork, or beef. A great-tasting food with shiso is Japanese gyoza dumplings, a different version from the original that doesn’t include shiso. Japanese-style chicken meatballs used in nabe hotpot dishes include shiso. Shiso can be added to pasta in order to create Japanese-style pasta dishes, which might include soy sauce, and nori seaweed too.

    Shiso adds color as well as taste and is frequently served with sashimi

    Shiso adds color as well as taste and is frequently served with sashimi

    Also, shiso is not only cooked in food but also is eaten raw. One interesting way to eat shiso is to add a few leaves to tuna-salad sandwiches. And then when mixed with mentsuyu noodle sauce, it adds a great flavor to cold noodles eaten “as is” or mixed in a salad with some mayonnaise, mentsuyu, and chopped chives. And then, shiso is used as a garnish on plates of sashimi to add color. Shiso fans often eat the shiso too together with the slices of sashimi.

    21) Mitsuba (Japanese parsley)

    Mitsuba decorates many familiar dishes

    Mitsuba decorates many familiar dishes

    Mitsuba is a leafy green herb that somewhat resembles clover in looks and resembles parsley in taste. It is used mostly as a garnish on top of clear-broth (dashi) soups to give a little touch of freshness, color, and flavor. In the same way, it is added to ochazuke (tea-soup) that is topped with grilled salmon, or umeboshi (pickled plum), or soy-sauce kombu (kelp). And to make the taste of katsudon taste perfect ( which is a bowl of rice topped with breaded/deep fried pork cutlet cooked with onions and egg), a few sprigs of mitsuba must be added on top at the end of cooking. The flavor combination of the breaded pork cutlet, semi-scrambled egg, onions, and mitsuba garnish cooked together in soy-sauce, mirin, and sake is absolutely delicious. When eaten all together, katsudon with a little mitsuba on top is one of the authentic and unique taste treats of Japan. It is surely going to be one of your favorite dishes.

    Katsudon with mitsuba on top

    Katsudon with mitsuba on top

    22) Kaiware daikon (daikon radish sprouts)

    These sprouts are usually sprinkled on salads as a supplemental element to give a little bit of mild radish flavor and dark-green color. Fully grown daikon radish can be eaten raw in salads as one of the main ingredients, but care must be given because mature daikon can have a mustard-like spiciness or hot flavor. However, since daikon radish sprouts are small green plants, i.e., sprouts, their flavor is mild. They add a nice accent to salads, especially when dressed with Japanese-style dressing that has a soy-sauce base.

  • 07

    Dried Ingredients

    23) Shichimi (7-flavors spice mix)

    As the name implies, this spice mix contains seven spices, which are ground red chili pepper, green seaweed, powdered Japanese pepper, black sesame seeds, white sesame seeds, dried perilla leaves, and hemp seeds. Even though it has seven spices, it is quite spicy because the red chili pepper is overwhelmingly the dominant spice. The other spices serve as flavor elements. Basically, people who enjoy a little heat from chili flakes will enjoy sprinkling a small amount of shichimi on their food. It’s almost a “must” to sprinkle shichimi on yakitori. And it is always present on the counters of gyudon shops, since practically everyone sprinkles some on gyudon before eating. Also, it is customary to sprinkle shichimi on bowls of hot soba and udon noodles, as well as on tonjiru, which is a pork and vegetable miso soup. In addition, it can be sprinkled on Japanese-style pasta dishes, and added to various types of salad dressings. It use is endless if you like to add heat to your food.

    24) Ichimi (1-flavor spice =chili powder)

    The literal translation of “ichimi” means “one-flavor spice”; however, “one flavor” doesn’t tell the story of which “one spice” is used in ichimi. So to clarify this right now, ichimi is pure chili powder or flakes. Its taste is full-power hot and spicy, so ichimi must be used carefully to ensure that you enjoy just the right amount of heat, and assure that you don’t suffer from too much heat. Ichimi is the heat source in mabo dofu and chili shrimp, and can be sprinkled on pizza and curry rice too. So, considering that there is both ichimi and shichimi, which one do you use? The standard answer is: Ichimi is added for heat, just as chili is added for heat in any of the great dishes served around the world. On the other hand, shichimi, thanks to the six additional spices, provides a little addition of other flavor elements on top of the basic chili-powder taste and heat, and these seven spices together develop a deeper flavor when compared to the one-dimensional flavor of ichimi.

    25) Nori (seaweed)

    The standard size for a sheet of nori is 21cm×19cm

    The standard size for a sheet of nori is 21cm×19cm

    One of the food items Japanese like to eat often is nori seaweed made into sheets, squares, strips, and flakes, depending on the food with which it is eaten. For large sushi rolls (norimaki or futomaki), big sheets are used and covered with sushi rice and sushi ingredients.

    For example, the ingredients put into norimaki are slices of omelet, cucumbers, shiitake mushrooms, flavored gourd, imitation crab, boiled shrimp, canned tuna with mayo, cooked spinach and others. Another shape of nori is a rectangular strip that is used to cover rice balls (onigiri), which are always popular for school lunches, picnics, and as food to eat when in a hurry. Some examples of onigiri rice balls are tenmusubi (rice balls with tempura), tuna mayo rice balls, grilled salmon rice balls, spam musubi (spam rice balls), and umeboshi (pickled plum) rice balls.

    In addition, rectangular strips of nori become the foundation for hand-rolled sushi, and are perfect when hosting “roll-your-own“ sushi parties. All you need to do is get the correct size of nori ready. Then make sushi rice and gather all the sushi ingredients you want: omelet, sliced cucumber strips, shiso (perilla leaf), umeboshi (pickled plum), toasted sesame seeds, shredded daikon radish, and then all kinds of sashimi such as tuna, squid, seabream, yellow tail, boiled shrimp, salmon, etc. All you need to do is wrap whatever you want in a strip of nori covered with sushi rice, dip into soy sauce, and eat. Also, nori strips taste great when placed on ramen because they add another dimension to the steaming bowls of delicious noodles.

    Hand rolled sushi is fun and easy to make at home

    Hand rolled sushi is fun and easy to make at home

    And another way to eat nori is to shred it by hand into small bite-size pieces and sprinkle them on top of various foods such as ochazuke (tea soup with rice). In addition, hand-shredded nori is a great addition to bowls of rice topped with, for example, chicken and egg, or sashimi, or seafood, or poke.

    Ochazuke topped with nori, umeboshi, mitsuba, and shiso

    Ochazuke topped with nori, umeboshi, mitsuba, and shiso

    Written by Ronald Pompeo

Click here for a summary article including this article