A decade ago, sushi, sashimi, sukiyaki, tempura and miso soup were pretty much all I knew about Japanese food. The flavors were rich yet maddeningly mysterious. Basic techniques were easier to learn; getting the flavors right was a different story altogether.
My earliest attempts at cooking home versions of Japanese restaurant food I enjoyed almost always ended in disaster. In fact, one of my daughters’ favorite anecdotes is about an udon dish that no one wanted to eat. Frustrated, I gave it to the dog who, according to the girls, merely barked at the food but refused to even lick it.
How did I start to learn the rudiments of Japanese cooking? To say that it all began with an expensive cookbook would be a lie. I did buy a few Japanese cookbooks, and some were really pricey, but because I didn’t know where to get the ingredients listed in the recipes, I got nowhere.
The real learning began when I started paying attention to the packets, jars and bottles of Japanese ingredients in the neighborhood grocery. Then, we started visiting Japanese groceries that sprouted during the last decade.
I guess you know where I’m going. Cooking Japanese food is half technique and half flavor. And getting the flavor right means you have to have the necessary ingredients.
And just what are these ingredients? There are a lot but there are seven items that we are never without.
When you have dashi, you can cook countless Japanese dishes at home.
Essentially a broth, dashi is made by boiling kombu kelp and bonito flakes. The strained liquid is dashi. It is used to cook miso soup and make tempura dipping sauce, among others.
Soy sauce is a salty condiment / seasoning made by fermenting soy beans, grains, and yeast with brine. It originated in China over 2,000 years ago.
When buying soy sauce for Japanese cooking, get Japanese soy sauce. It is sweeter than Chinese soy sauce and generally less salty with a richer flavor.
Although there are several varieties of Japanese soy sauce (and more brands than you can count), at home, we get by with Kikkoman.
Mirin is a sweet rice wine for cooking. It is often combined with sake. The sugar content (from the decomposed starch of the rice) of mirin gives the cooked food a glossy appearance.
When buying mirin, look for “hon mirin” which is real mirin with high alcohol content.
Like mirin, sake is also a rice wine. Unlike mirin which is meant for cooking, there are two classes of sake: the kind you can drink and cook with (pricey) and the kind that you can use for cooking but not for drinking (more affordable).
Unlike the naturally sweet mirin, sake can by dry, semi-sweet or sweet. Which kind you need depends on the dish you’re cooking. We use “dry” at home since the sweetness is supplied by mirin with which sake is often combined.
Sometimes labeled rice wine vinegar, it is not the same as sake nor mirin. It is vinegar which means it is acidic and sour. Compared, however, to other vinegars (like the ones made with sugar cane or palm), rice vinegar is milder and subtly sweet due to the high starch content of rice.
Salty and slightly tangy with a strong aroma, miso paste comes in various colors. Traditionally made with soy beans, miso paste can also be made from rice or barley.
In our home kitchen, we only use brown miso paste made from soy beans.
Shiitake mushrooms can be be bought fresh or dried. While fresh shiitake mushrooms are more convenient to use (they cook in minutes), dried shiitake gives cooked food better flavor.
How is that possible? Well, for some reason, the flavors of shiitake deepen with drying and gives off what is often referred to as umami.
To use dried shiitake, place in a bowl of hot water and weigh down with a plate to keep every part of each mushroom submerged. Leave to rehydrate for at least 20 minutes (if the mushrooms are small or pre-sliced) or overnight for larger mushrooms. Strain the flavor-packed soaking liquid and add to the dish you’re cooking.