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The Global Pantry: Japan

With interest in international cuisine exploding, many home cooks are branching out and experimenting with the new, exotic ingredients they're finding in the supermarket.

Twenty-five Tastes

Creating your own take on international cuisines is easy once you've learned a few things about the core ingredients that build the dominant flavors in these diverse global cuisines.

To help spark your creativity in the kitchen, we've created some handy lists of the 25 most common ingredients you'll find in the pantries of home cooks from all over the world.

The Japanese Pantry

From precise preparation to artful presentation, no aspect of Japanese cuisine gets overlooked. Flavors, textures, colors, the overall composition and presentation of food on the plate--everything is designed to appeal to the senses.

Fish: Though Japan is a mountainous country with relatively limited agricultural output, the waters around the archipelago are brimming with sea life. Not surprisingly, seafood dominates Japanese cuisine, along with rice, soy, seaweed, and fresh vegetables and fruits.

Chicken: Chicken is popular sliced in teriyaki preparations or skewered and grilled. Chicken might also be dredged in potato starch and fried or ground and served as dumplings.

Tofu: A versatile ingredient, tofu is enjoyed in stir-fries, soups, casseroles, salads, sauces, and sandwiches. It is high in protein and an excellent meat substitute. Tofu is made by pressing curdled soy milk in a process similar to cheese-making. Smooth and creamy, the firmness of tofu varies. It is perishable, and should be refrigerated and eaten within a week of purchase. (Shelf-stable pasteurized varieties are available but are not as fresh-tasting.)

Green Tea: Tea is a crucial part of Japanese culture. Enjoyed throughout the day, green tea plays a prominent role in every meal. Formal social rituals, cha-do ("the way of tea"), have been built up around tea drinking as a transcendent philosophical experience. Unlike black tea, green tea is made without fermenting the leaves, resulting in light yellow-green color and a flavor similar to the fresh, green tea leaves. Green tea is also loaded with antioxidants and antibacterial properties that help fight cavities and gum disease.

Soy sauce: Japanese soy sauce has a different flavor than Chinese: it is fermented from half roasted, cracked wheat and half soybeans, giving it a sweetness and higher concentration of alcohol that Chinese soy sauce. Tamari is a kind of Japanese soy sauce that, like the Chinese version, is made with little or no wheat and has a rich, dark color and flavor. An incredibly versatile ingredient in Japanese cooking, soy sauce is used to flavor sauces, soups, stir-fries, and braised dishes. It is also used for marinades, for pickling, and as a condiment. Known as shoyu in Japan, soy sauce should be added to dishes at the end of the cooking process to preserve its flavors.

Sesame oil: Oil derived from tiny white sesame seeds (goya in Japanese), sesame oil has been an ingredient in Japanese cooking for centuries. Most sesame oil used in Japanese cooking is made from toasted seeds and has a rich, nutty flavor and golden color. Use sesame oil sparingly and store in a cool, dry place.

Rice wine vinegar: An important ingredient in sushi rice. Rice wine vinegar has a mild flavor, but its strong acidity helps slow the growth of food-borne bacteria. Store rice vinegar in the refrigerator or in a cool dry place. Rice vinegar is used primarily in dressings, to make pickles, and in sushi rice.

Plum wine: Fermented from green ume plums, plum wine has a pleasantly sweet and sour flavor.

Mirin: A slightly sweet rice wine similar to sake but lower in alcohol. Because of its strong flavor, it should be used sparingly in cooking. It is a common ingredient in teriyaki sauce.

Dashi: An important ingredient in Japanese cooking, dashi is a simple soup stock made from boiling water and dried kombu seaweed.

Nori Seaweed: These paper-thin sheets of dried seaweed are used for wrapping sushi. The sheets are roasted gently and are high in protein. Sliced thinly, nori makes a terrific garnish or seasoning.

Udon noodles: These thick spaghetti-like noodles are made from corn or wheat flour. Available fresh or dried, udon noodles are a mainstay in Japanese soups.

Ramen noodles: These deep-fried instant noodles are also the name of a dish consisting of noodles in broth with pieces of meat and vegetables.

Tempura batter mix: Tempura was introduced into Japan by the Portuguese in the 16th century. The word comes from quattuor tempora, Portuguese for "Ember Days," the time of year when Catholics abstain from meat. Tempura was the light batter used to fry fish and vegetables. It remains the same today.

Rice: When a Japanese person says, "Let's eat!" what they're actually saying is "Let's eat cooked rice." The expression reveals the importance of rice in Japanese cuisine and culture. Japanese rice is short-grained, but there are many regional variations. There are three kinds of rice: polished white, semi-polished white and unpolished brown. The most popular is the polished white version, though it has the least nutrients.

Panko: These jagged breadcrumbs are essential for fried foods, creating a crisp coating; they're coarser than breadcrumbs used in Western cooking.

Mayonnaise: Japanese borrowed from the French and made mayonnaise their own. Mayonnaise is used in some sushi preparations and as a condiment for savory omelets (okonomiyaki).

Miso: Miso is a very important flavoring ingredient in Japanese cooking, added to soups, sauces, marinades, dips, salads and main dishes, and provided as a table condiment. It is made from cooked grains (rice, barley or soybeans) that are fermented with a starter. It is then mixed with ground soybeans and aged in barrels for months or even years. Miso paste's depth of flavor comes from its yeasts and lactic acid bacteria: in general, the darker the miso, the stronger the flavor. Miso paste should be stored in the refrigerator.

Sesame seeds: Mild and nut-like, sesame seeds are used to add texture and flavor to a variety of Japanese dishes. Their flavor intensifies when toasted.

Daikon: A large root with a sweet flavor and crisp texture, daikon are used in salads, in stir-fries, and pickled as a garnish.

Japanese Cucumbers: These long, thin cucumbers have thick skins that sport tiny bumps all over them. They are crisp and relatively seedless. Japanese cucumbers originated in the Himalayan region.

Ginger: Ginger made its way to Japan via China many centuries ago. Slivered or sliced thin, ginger is frequently added to Japanese stir-fries, salads and soups. Store leftover ginger root in the refrigerator wrapped in plastic wrap. Pickled ginger--paper-thin pink slices--is traditionally eaten with sushi. Because of its antiseptic qualities, pickled ginger is thought to combat potential food-borne bacteria.

Shiitake mushrooms: Fresh shiitake mushrooms are grilled or served in soups and stir-fries. Dried shiitakes are more flavorful and should be brought back to life in a soak of warm water. Add the soaking liquid to soups and stir-fries.

Enoki mushrooms: Looking a bit like a handful of long white carpentry nails, enoki mushrooms grow in clumps; they have a slightly crunchy texture and mild flavor. Use them in salads or added to soups and other hot dishes at the end of cooking.

Japanese eggplant: Smaller and thinner than European eggplants, Japanese varieties have thin skins and a delicate flavor.

Sep. 11, 2009 8:28 am
Actually, dashi is a soup stock made from katsuobushi as the primary flavor and kombu. Katsuobushi is dried flakes of bonito fish. It makes every Japanese dish more delicious.
Sep. 17, 2009 2:38 pm
From what I understand, there are several kinds of dashi... the most common by far is the kombu/katsuobushi combination, but it can also be made just with katsuobushi, though the texture suffers somewhat (the kombu makes it a bit more "velvety"). You can also make it with dried baby sardines. Personally, I make it from a box ^_^.
Dec. 20, 2009 10:47 am
I love learning something new! Thank you for your note above regarding "Want to save this link to your recipe box?" This is a wish come true! I have a pantry FULL of cookbooks but I always come back to this site when I need a recipe or information. It just keeps getting better and better!
Apr. 10, 2010 10:17 am
Ramen noodle is hardly the fried instant type this article suggests. The real thing is served freshly made from wheat flour, water, salt and alkaline mineral water. They are usually found in the refigered or frozen sections in Asian markets.
Jul. 11, 2010 1:09 pm
There is a tiny typo under the mayonnaise section. The savory omletes are called 'okomomiyaki' which literally translates to 'cooked how you like it' and is a famous dish in Osaka and the Kansai region. It is a must-try if you visit Japan. They make it slightly differently in Hiroshima, and the version in Tokyo is not as delicious. It was my favorite dish when I lived in Japan :)
Oct. 15, 2010 12:59 am
White sesame is actually goma. Goya is a bitter vegetable that is tasty and useful in cooking in it's own way.
Nov. 25, 2010 6:30 pm
Interestiong article for me.(Japanese)I suggest to add "colors"in "miso"section.There are several colors,and taste is very different.When I am reading some cookbook written in English,color of miso is specified,so I think several colors are available in your place(especially in US.)White miso is very sweet,commonly used in western miso is used in central Japan,and it's taste can fit western dishes.common miso(not a exact name)is brown and best known,salty taste. >addition for rachmaree :) Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima is one of best food in Japan(personally.)and if you come to Japan,you can find good okonomiyaki(also called Hiroshimayaki)good place to eat in Tokyo. (similer one originally eaten in Tokyo is called "monjayaki",and It's not for everyone.(I like it,though)it's made by lots of water and flour,very waterly one)Sorry about my English.
Apr. 20, 2011 2:27 pm
Hi rachmaree! Thanks for pointing out the typo. Consider it fixed. Cheers!
Aug. 24, 2012 2:46 am
Just wanted to second Cynthia and trepto about the dashi ingredients--yep, more often than not it contains fish. I have some vegetarian friends and dashi is a sort of "hidden meat" that makes Japanese food tricky for them.
Oct. 30, 2012 2:55 pm
I expected a bigger list, but thanks though!
Jan. 25, 2013 7:33 am
When I stayed with my home family in Japan, nobody made Dashi with just water and seaweed. And Nori is not just for sushi. My home Mom used it on so many things, she even would put them on toast with cheese! And she wasn't the only one, Japanese housewives use Nori in many creative ways :) I enjoyed my stay in Japan, and learned SO much about food and cooking methods. I relished the moments my house Mom would teach me her "secrets". And now that I am older, I use them in my kitchen on a daily basis! I'm lucky to still keep in touch with the whole family and Kayoko.
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