Japanese Essential Pantry Items
Before I start, I need to warn you that this is going to be one long post. I wanted to share my knowledge of some essential ingredients before I start getting into actual recipes. If you’re ready for a challenge, read on.
I love Japanese food. I know I’m biased having been raised in a Japanese household with a mother who’s an incredible home chef. But I could eat it all day every day. So of course when my friends ask me to teach them how to cook, I always say yes. But there’s a reason why after so many years I’ve only taught one person. As easy as it is to cook Japanese dishes at home, there’s a barrier to entry: the pantry items.
I can’t tell you that it’s not a commitment, because it is. I’ve had to restock my pantry a few times (college, post-college, 6 month stint in Argentina) and it’s a pain. The cost adds up and it’s a lot of heavy items to lug home especially if you don’t own a car like most of us in NYC. But I promise it’s worth it. With a few pantry essentials you can whip up hundreds of dishes.
If you’re in the US, my favorite place to stock up is Mitsuwa. There are 9 locations in the US mostly in California and one in Chicago and Jersey. NJ transit #158 can take you to the Jersey location from Manhattan’s Port Authority. If you’re not in any of these cities, you can shop on their online store. Unfortunately shipping is pricey so do a little googling and try to find an Asian grocer nearby, doesn't have to be Japanese. Marukai eStore is also an option for US/Canada/Mexico and they offer free shipping for orders over $120.
So let’s get started with the actual items you’ll need to start cooking.
*Excludes non-Japanese essentials (i.e. sugar, black pepper, canola oil)
Dashi (だし、出し). Dashi is Japanese stock. For a more detailed post on homemade dashi, check out the last post. The flavors are a lot more nuanced when made from scratch, but there are instant alternatives. The most popular kind is hondashi, which contains MSG. Unlike dashi made from scratch, MSG by nature contains a lot of sodium so you would have to adjust the salt level when using it. There are non-MSG options as well, but harder to find unless you have a Japanese grocer nearby. They come very similar to tea bags and you steep it in water for a short period of time. Most Japanese households use hondashi for convenience so it’s actually a very authentic route. But, whenever you are making a dashi heavy dish, I recommend making it from scratch.
Hondashi (Amazon/Mitsuwa/Marukai), MSG-free instant dashi (Amazon/Mitsuwa/Marukai)
Shoyu (しょうゆ、醤油). Japanese soy sauce is made from fermenting boiled soybeans with roasted grain, mold and salt. You can easily substitute with Chinese soy sauce but the flavor does differ from the Japanese variety when compared side by side. Japanese soy sauce is not gluten-free as what it added to the soybeans to develop the flavor. If you have any type of gluten intolerance or Celiac disease, I recommend substituting with Tamari. Kikkoman and Yamasa are both popular brands. If you can get your hands on it, I love the Premium Whole Beans Kikkoman pictured above which comes with a gold cap. Another tip is to check where the soy sauce is made on the back label. When it’s possible I buy the imported stuff.
Imported Kikkoman (Amazon/Mitsuwa/Marukai)
Sake (さけ、酒). Japanese rice wine can really range in price like any other wine. I usually get a large 1.5 liter bottle for $7 at Mitsuwa (the cheapest place I’ve found yet) but you’ll probably have to pay more in a regular liquor store. The other option is to buy cooking sake containing salt, which can be found at any Asian grocery store.
Sake (liquor store), Cooking sake (Amazon/Mitsuwa/Marukai)
Mirin (みりん、味醂). This sweet rice wine comes in 3 types. The best is hon-mirin, which means true mirin. The wine is naturally sweet from the fermentation and has an alcohol content of 14%. It should only contain 3 ingredients: rice, koji and shochu (Japanese distilled alcohol). It is nearly impossible to find this variety in the US even if the label says hon-mirin. Mitoku Mikawa Mirin, if you can get your hands on it, is the real deal. They use all organic and premium ingredients and age their mirin for 200 days. Takara is the most trusted hon-mirin brand in Japan, but unfortunately the ones produced in the US contain high fructose corn syrup (I've heard that all mirin producers in the US are required to include HFCS as they do not hold the proper liquor license). The added benefit to high fructose corn syrup for producers is that it speeds up the fermentation process, cutting the aging process to a couple months. The second best option is ajino-haha mirin which is a respectable substitute for hon-mirin. The brewing process is the same, but salt is added to be considered cooking wine. Eden Foods Mirin is your best bet but it can be pricey. The last type is aji-mirin or mirin-fu, which translate to mirin type seasoning. This type only has 1% alcohol and often sweetened with corn syrup. It has a much flatter flavor than the true mirin and should be avoided. If you can't get your hands on hon-mirin or ajino-haha, avoid the nearly alcohol free aji-mirin and substitute it with a combination of sake and sugar on a 3:1 ratio (so for every 1 tbsp of mirin in a recipe, substitute with 1 tbsp sake mixed with 1 tsp sugar or 2/3 tsp honey).
Hon-mirin (liquor store), ajino-haha (Amazon)
Miso (みそ、味噌). Fermented soy bean paste is made by fermenting soy beans with salt and koji and comes in a wide variety. The most versatile is the awase miso, which is a combination of both the red and white miso. But if you want a little bit more control over your dish, you can buy both the white and red separately and play around with the ratio yourself. Different regions within Japan have specific miso preferences and mine is the white. The white tends to be sweeter and milder while the red miso is much heartier and also higher in sodium (the darker the color the longer the fermentation). Some miso have dashi in it for added convenience. I would stay away from those if you want to avoid MSG. I don't have a preferred brand since I use my mother's homemade miso.
Awase Miso (Amazon) Miso variety (Mitsuwa/Marukai)
Rice Vinegar (酢). This one is pretty straightforward, it’s vinegar made from rice. My preferred brands are the most common: Marukan or Mitsukan/Mizkan (both spellings are the same brand). The flavor is a lot milder than most vinegar and has a hint of sweetness.
Marukan (Amazon/Marukai) Mitsukan (Mitsuwa/Marukai)
Rice (こめ、米). Many households have rice, but the Japanese are especially picky about only eating Japanese short grain rice. Most people have encountered it through eating sushi but the rice is stickier than the long grain variety and glistens when cooked right. If you love rice, do not skimp on price here. My favorite rice brand is the US is Kagayaki and will always always pay a premium for it.
Salt. You probably have salt, I know. But I had to include this since the sodium content on salt by volume can vary widely. For all recipes on this site, I will always use Diamond Kosher Salt. I was trained to feel my salt in culinary school and need the consistency of this mild flakey salt. If you’re always afraid of over salting your food, I highly recommend buying this brand. I’ll have a future post on seasoning with salt, since it’s the key to making your food taste good.
Diamond Kosher Salt (Amazon)
If you have any trouble finding the ingredients or need more guidance, leave a comment below!