Japanese cuisine is wholly unique, involving food customs and cooking processes that may be unfamiliar. Some dishes can get quite complex, requiring a master chef’s artful hand (sushi is just one example)—and yet some of the best Japanese meals are completely simple. Anyone can cook Japanese food, but it’s important to first gain a basic understanding of the essential ingredients.
There are various ingredients that make up and complement the Japanese diet, which primarily consists of rice, soy, fresh fish and seasonal vegetables. Cooking methods are delicate and flavorings subtle, which mean Japanese chefs rely on a handful of important ingredients for savory depth, or umami. Here are 21 Japanese ingredients to start with—and a few ideas for cooking with them.
A Guide to Japanese Ingredients
Bonito is a kind of tuna, which in this preparation, has been smoked, dried, fermented and shaved into delicate flakes. It’s used to add umami to noodle broth, soups, stews, sauces and as a topping on the classic comfort-food, okonomiyaki.
A radish the size of your head? Yes, this white variety grows quite large and is prepared by simmering, pickling or grating and served with oily or fried foods to cut the fat. The taste and texture differs depending on the part of the radish. The sweet and hard section below the leaves is best eaten fresh or grated, while the sweet and soft middle part is good braised in stews and soups. The tangy tip may be grated onto grilled fish or meat.
This fish-based stock (a mix of bonito and kombu) is the backbone for pretty much any simmered dish, including miso soup and ramen broth.
Dried shiitake mushrooms
The intense meaty flavor from this all-vegetarian ingredient enhances the savory flavor of soups or any dish that needs umami. The mushrooms need to be soaked at room temperature for 30 minutes before using, so give yourself a little extra prep time. Try switching out the fresh mushrooms for dried ones in this miso and shiitake ramen and see how it affects the flavor.
Used as a flavor enhancer, this sea kelp is combined with bonito to make dashi stock. It also appears in many other ingredients, including monosodium glutamate (MSG). Kombu is salty and subtly sweet, again, serving to create that umami effect.
This rice wine, made from fermented rice and shochu alcohol, adds a mild sweetness and aroma to dishes. It’s especially good in seafood dishes but can also be used to add a nice luster to sauces (it’s a key ingredient in teriyaki). It’s partly why miso-glazed eggplant looks so mouth-wateringly good.
Used as a base in soups, marinades and condiments, this fermented soybean paste comes in a wide variety of colors (from light to dark) and flavors (from salty to sweet). White miso paste’s mildly earthy and sweet flavor pairs well with flank steak in this beef ramen.
These fermented soy beans are sticky in texture with a strong, unique flavor — definitely an acquired taste. Natto is popular for breakfast mixed with a bit of dashi and mustard and eaten with steamed rice. It’s also sometimes used in sushi rolls or as a topping for noodles.
Essentially Japanese breadcrumbs, these are used to coat foods for frying, like in tempura or tonkatsu dishes. Panko crumbs are lighter and coarser than other varieties, and get extra crispy.
The staple food in a Japanese meal, short-grain rice is stickier than jasmine rice and is always served in a separate bowl, often topped with seasoned seaweed (nori). And though most people equate “sushi” with “raw fish,” the word itself actually refers to the seasoned rice used to make it. Rice vinegar is mixed with salt and sugar to make sushi vinegar, which is used to flavor the rice. Try this vegetarian maki roll that’s filled with crisp cucumber and creamy avocado.
Used in dressings, pickles, marinades, sushi rice and anything else that calls for mild, slightly sweet acidity.
This seasoning pepper is made from the ground berries of the prickly ash tree. Rather than spicy, the flavor is tangy and lemony. Use it to heat up ramen or other noodle soups.
Nori seaweed is commonly used as a wrap for sushi and onigiri rice balls. It is also used as a garnish in noodle dishes and soups.
These tiny seeds give dishes a nutty, delicate crunch, as in this ginger-soy glazed salmon where they contribute texture and contrast to the tangy sauce.
Made with buckwheat flour, these thin spaghetti-like noodles are prepared in both hot and cold dishes. The most basic soba dish is mori soba in which cold soba noodles are eaten with a soya dipping sauce.
Soybeans are one of the central ingredients of Japanese cuisine, and one of the most versatile. They constitute the basis of many distinct Japanese flavors, such as soy sauce, miso and tofu, and are processed into countless other culinary products. Served in their shells, they’re known as edamame.
Made by fermenting soybeans, salt and wheat, this dark translucent liquid, also known as soya, imparts saltiness and is also a chief ingredient for umami.
In a process much like making cheese, pressing soybean curds and soymilk into blocks creates tofu, which can then be used fresh, boiled or fried—an essential vegetarian protein.
These thick, chewy wheat noodles are most often found steeped in hot broth seasoned with soy, dashi and mirin. Our udon noodle soup features Chinese broccoli and seared tempeh.
Also known as Japanese horseradish, this root vegetable is most famous in its green paste form as a condiment for sashimi and sushi. However, wasabi is also eaten with other Japanese dishes, such as soba. Its strong, hot flavor adds zest to otherwise mild foods but dissipates within seconds, leaving no burning sensation in the mouth. While wasabi paste and powder are widely available in supermarkets, most of these products contain very little real wasabi, or none at all. Cultivation of real wasabi is expensive and difficult to come by.
Once you’ve stocked up on the ingredients, try out some of our favorite Japanese-inspired recipes.