10 Essential Ingredients for Japanese Cooking and Where to Buy Them
When I returned to Ireland over 10 years ago, after living in Japan for 3 years, it was quite difficult and expensive to get Japanese ingredients. You’ll be glad to know this isn’t the case anymore. Nowadays, these ingredients are widely available and less expensive.
Stock up on the ten essential ingredients I’ve listed below and begin your Japanese home-cooking journey, cooking lots of tasty and time friendly Japanese dishes.
All of these ingredients can be found in good Asian grocers like Asia Market on Drury Street, in Dublin’s city centre, and at their Cash & Carry and retail supermarket in Ballymount.
Japanese rice is a type of short-grain rice which sticks easily together when cooked, so it’s perfect for making rice balls and sushi. It’s also easier to eat with chopsticks! The difference between plain Japanese rice and sushi rice is that sushi rice is seasoned with sushi vinegar and used to make sushi.
There’s a variety of noodles used in Japanese cooking, including ramen, udon, soba and somen. Ramen noodles are yellowish, thin and made from wheat. They are well-known as one of the main ingredients in ramen broths. Udon noodles are white, thick and made from wheat flour. This type of noodle is often served in a hot broth, but one of my favourite ways to eat udon noodles is covering them in leftover curry sauce.
Soba noodles are brown-grey, thin and made from buckwheat flour. They have a strong nutty flavour and can be served hot or cold. I love eating them topped with tempura. Somen noodles are white, very thin and made from wheat. They’re often served cold during the hot summer months. Try to source good quality noodles.
Soy sauce is a key ingredient in any Japanese kitchen. A good quality Japanese soy sauce has a delicate taste allowing it to blend easily with other ingredients bringing out the natural umami in food.
It’s a versatile ingredient to have in your kitchen for a simple stir-fry, to add to a casserole or one pot dish. The options are endless!
My family’s favourite way to use soy sauce is mixed with honey to make a tasty teriyaki sauce. Check out Fused by Fiona Uyema, my range of healthy and flavoured soy sauces!
Rice vinegar is mostly used to make sushi rice, Japanese salad dressings and some sauces. It has a very delicate taste compared to other vinegars.
The alcoholic beverage called ‘sake’, Japanese rice wine, is made from polished rice and a type of bacteria culture called koji. Although sake is similar to wine in appearance, the brewing process of sake is more similar to beer. The alcohol content of sake is higher than wine and beer which is usually up to 18%. The Japanese use sake for cooking also, it adds a wonderful flavour to dishes and helps tenderise meat and fish.
Mirin has a lower alcohol content than sake and is used only for cooking in Japan. It adds a nice sweet balance to Japanese dishes.
This wonderful collection of seven spices adds an interesting dimension to the taste of a dish and also adds a nutritional explosion, with each spice boasting different health benefits. This spice mix includes chilli, orange peel, black sesame seeds, white sesame seeds, seaweed, Japanese pepper and ginger.
It’s often added to Japanese dishes to add a little kick and extra taste. At home I sprinkle this over soups, stews and noodle dishes once they are ready to be eaten. It also works really well as a seasoning for meat, fish or seafood. This particular ingredient tends to be only stocked in specialist Asian stores. If you can’t source it you can try my Japanese Seven Spice recipe HERE.
Tofu is low in calories yet high in protein and calcium. There are different types of tofu available in the supermarket including silken tofu which has a soft and delicate texture and is best used in salads and soups, and firm tofu which has a tougher texture and works better in one pot dishes and stir fries. Fresh tofu can be eaten cold straight from the fridge or added to hot dishes. Try to get organic tofu if it’s available.
Miso is made from fermented soybeans, salt, rice or barley, and koji (fermentation starter). There are different types of miso, which vary in colour from light brown to dark red/brown. Generally, the lighter the colour the milder the taste. Once miso is opened it should be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container (it will continue to ferment and become more salty over time). It acts as a great marinade for meat, fish or even vegetables.
Seaweed is filled with vitamins and minerals and is an important part of the Japanese diet, from sushi making to simple stocks and salads. The Irish seaweed I recommend are Sea of Vitality and This is Seaweed (both on Supervalu’s Food Academy Programme) and Wild Irish Seaweed. Here is a list of the seaweeds that I regularly use for cooking:
– kombu (kelp) seaweed
It’s filled with umami (the fifth taste) and one of the main ingredients used to make Japanese cooking stock (dashi). It’s also used for salads and stews.
– nori seaweed
It’s best known for wrapping sushi rolls and onigiri (Japanese rice balls). Nori can be bought as roasted seaweed sheets or milled (aonori). Once opened, nori sheets need to be stored in an airtight container or they will lose their crispy texture. Ao-nori (milled nori) is often sprinkled over dishes such as okonomiyaki and yakisoba just before serving.
– wakame seaweed
It can be bought as small dried pieces. It is added to miso soup and salads. Be careful how much dried wakame you add to a dish as these tiny pieces of seaweed expand once they are in water.
I was first introduced to matcha at a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in Japan. During the ceremony a large bowl of matcha was prepared by the tea master and passed around. I have to mention that matcha prepared at traditional tea ceremonies is very concentrated, especially for someone who has never tasted it before. I’ll never forget the strong and bitter taste of the matcha and pretending to like it as my homestay mother observed my reaction to this nearly sacred drink!
The matcha that I make at home and find served outside of Japan is not as concentrated, so it’s easier to drink, and you acquire a taste for it over time. Matcha is becoming a super drink here in the West due to its health benefits, such as aiding weight loss, aiding digestion, relieving stress and anxiety, boosting energy levels, controlling food cravings and because of its high levels of antioxidants.
A self-taught cook, food-writer and author, Fiona Uyema is one of Ireland’s leading Japanese cooks and cookery instructors. Passionate about bringing the art of Japanese home-cooking into kitchens across the country and further afield, her first book, Japanese Food Made Easy was published in September 2015.
Fiona Uyema’s love of the Japanese language, culture and cuisine began in Dublin City University where she studied Japanese and International Marketing. She then spent three years living in the beautiful village of Nishiyama. After her introduction to her now husband Gilmar, her love of Japan was sealed.
Fiona now lives in Co. Kildare with her husband and two sons where she teaches workshops, provides corporate classes on the art of Japanese cooking, provides consultancy to restaurants and the food industry and blogs about her Japanese food adventures on Fiona’s Japanese Cooking Blog.