Nearly everyone who lives in a modern city is familiar with Japanese food, which along with Italian, Chinese and American cuisines is a commonplace part of an international diet. Everyone knows that rice, noodles and tofu, along with chicken, fish and beef and a great variety of vegetables, are familiar Japanese staples.
But what often makes Japanese food pop is the extraordinary number of condiments and ingredients that either inform the flavors of, or add a little extra something to, the finished dishes. Far beyond the basic condiments of many international cuisines – salt, peppers, etc – the variety of Japanese ingredients combine to make Japanese cuisine one of the most distinctive in global gastronomy.
Many of the condiments are familiar to us now, and some – sesame, soy sauce, miso – are central to other cuisines. But others, such as bonito flakes, nori, and dried shiitake mushrooms, are unique to Japanese cuisine. Still others, such as curry powder, are familiar from other cuisines, but are distinctively different in their Japanese form.
There are many dozens to choose from, but to keep things manageable, here are eight of the most common ingredients and condiments that you will find somewhere in nearly every Japanese meal. There are many more to explore, but these constitute a good place to start:
– Shoyu (Japanese soy sauce): Like so many things, soy sauce first came to Japan from China more than a thousand years ago. But shoyu – made from soy beans, wheat, salt and yeast – and its derivatives such as tamari and ponzu shoyu, are different from Chinese soy sauce in being a bit less salty. Still, shoyu provides the same lift to foods, especially when used with that staple of any Japanese meal, medium grain white rice. But whatever you do, do not put shoyu directly on a bowl of white rice – it is considered something close to sacrilege.
– Katsuobushi, or bonito flakes: These flakes of dried and smoked skipjack tuna are a crucial ingredient in dashi, which forms the basis of many broths, which are in turn a part of many Japanese soups, stews and other dishes. As with other dried fish such as anchovies, bonito flakes show up everywhere, imparting the distinctive flavor that prompted a Japanese scientist to name it the world’s “fifth flavor,” after salty, sweet, bitter and sour: umami.
– White miso: An ingredient well known for its many uses, white miso is just one of the pastes made from fermenting a combination of soy beans and barley. Miso is, of course, the base in miso soup (yet another umami-flavored dish), but it is also used in a variety of marinades and salad dressings. White miso takes considerably less time to ferment than red miso, which has a stronger taste and is therefore used somewhat less often.
– Nori: Seaweed is one of Japan’s singular contributions to global cuisine, and its uses and benefits continue to be discovered. One of the most nutritious foods in the world (if your body can absorb it, not all can), seaweed shows up in dozens, even hundreds of Japanese dishes. Nori is just one of many varieties of seaweed (wakame is also useful), but nori is particularly well-known for its role in many varieties of sushi, and it is used as a wrapping on that most popular of Japanese snacks, the rice ball (onigiri). It is also shredded or crushed and used as a condiment sprinkled over many dishes.
– Komezu (rice vinegar): Another condiment that comes in many forms, this fermented liquid does everything from providing a dipping sauce for tempura to serving as a binding agent to hold sushi rice together for nigiri. Whether sweetened or spicy, komezu is considerably less acidic than Western vinegar.
– Toasted sesame oil: Sesame seeds and their oil are a powerful flavor that is used throughout international cuisine, particularly in Asia and the Middle East, but nowhere have the subtleties of this strong flavor been better harnessed than in Japanese food. A flavoring rather than a cooking oil, when used sparingly it imparts a wonderful, nutty aroma.
– Dried shiitake mushrooms: Perhaps the most unique flavor on this list, and yet another source of the fifth flavor, umami, dried shitake mushrooms have a flavor that is unique even among the species known in Japanese as kinoko.
– Furikake: A condiment you will not see in any other cuisine, furikake is a powdered combination of dried and ground fish, sesame seeds, chopped seaweed, sugar and salt, most commonly sprinkled on rice.
Those are a handful of the unique ingredients and condiments common in Japanese food. But there are many others, including unusual tastes such as mirin (rice wine), rayu (chili oil), karashi (powdered mustard), sinus-frying wasabi, citrusy ponzu sauce, and the piquant pickled plums known as umeboshi.