Whether you’re a seasoned MasterChef or simply an entry-level Japanese cooking enthusiast, there are certain essential Japanese pantry items you should keep in your kitchen at all times to whip up a washoku (Japanese cuisine) dish at a moment's notice.
From soy sauce to cooking sake to nori (seaweed) sheets, check out our 23 essential Japanese ingredients to keep on your Japanese pantry staples list. Stockpile these ingredients in your cupboard to give your Japanese home cooking an authentic flavor and flair.
While it’s a key ingredient, Japanese recipes tend to call for more than just soy sauce! With all your essential Japanese ingredients being readily available at your nearest Japanese grocery store, you just need to know what to look for. So to help you get familiar with what is needed for Japanese cooking, keep reading for our tips on how to stock a Japanese pantry.
To make your shopping list easy, you will find our Japanese pantry staples split up into two sections covering key Japanese condiments and essential dry ingredients.
Starting off with classic Japanese condiments, here is a comprehensive list of the most essential Japanese pantry items that your kitchen can’t go without when it comes to making Japanese food at home!
1. Soy Sauce
Made from fermented soybeans and wheat, soy sauce or shoyu is the number one Japanese pantry staple ingredient you should always keep stock of in your kitchen. Whether it's just a splash served alongside your sushi, or it's the main component giving your sweet sukiyaki hotpot a salty kick, you will find that soy sauce is used in almost every savory Japanese recipe.
Japanese soy sauce is lighter than soy sauce products from other countries, with a distinctively delicate yet clean and complex flavor to it. As it is used in almost all savory Japanese recipes, it is a good idea to buy a high-quality Japanese soy sauce.
2. Miso Paste
Miso is thick, fermented soybean paste that comes in different varieties including shiro (white), aka (red or dark), and awase (mixed). Each type of miso gives different flavors and intensities.
Not just for making traditional miso soup, miso paste is used for lots of different sauces, marinades, and even dressings. It can be used in a range of Japanese dishes, such as making a broth for miso ramen or as a glaze for miso eggplant.
3. Toasted Sesame Oil
Toasted sesame oil is a rich, golden oil that gives a lot of Japanese dishes an intense, nutty essence and flavor. While it can be used for stir-fry dishes, often it is used just as a finishing oil, like for adding extra flavor into a hot bowl of ramen. However, toasted sesame oil is used in many salad dressings as well.
4. Rice Vinegar
In comparison to Western vinegar, rice vinegar or rice wine vinegar is sweeter and milder in flavor with a significantly less punchy essence. It is a vinegar that is made from fermented rice, and it is generally used to season rice used for sushi or onigiri rice balls. Other common uses in Japanese cuisine are pickling, salad dressings, and sauces.
5. Chili Oil
Japanese chili oil (also known as rayu) is a spicy oil condiment that has been infused with chili pepper flakes. You will find it commonly used in Japanese-style Chinese dishes. You can pour some into your ramen to give it a bit of a spicy kick, or dip crunchy gyoza dumplings into it for extra flavor.
Check out these gyoza cooking classes in Japan and learn how to make your own Japanese dumplings from scratch!
6. Cooking Sake
Almost as essential as soy sauce, is Japanese rice wine (Japanese sake). Cooking sake is a lower grade of cooking alcohol that is used to enhance and intensify the flavor of a range of Japanese dishes. It is incredibly versatile as it can be used in soups and simmered dishes, as well as marinades for meat, fish, and even more heartily-flavored Japanese foods.
More like syrup in viscosity, mirin is a sweet condiment that is commonly used in Japanese cooking. It is part of the rice wine family, like sake is, but its alcohol content is lower and it is used more typically as a seasoning. It is used to help tenderize meat and seafood, and to add a distinctive sweetness to some Japanese dishes in the cooking process. Due to its higher sugar content, mirin is often used as a glazing agent.
8. Tonkatsu Sauce
Tonkatsu sauce is a thick, sweet-savory sauce with a distinctive and iconic Worcestershire-meets-barbeque sauce flavor. This flavorful condiment pairs perfectly with classic deep-fried dishes from Japan such as crispy tonkatsu (fried pork cutlets) or ebi furai (fried prawn cutlets). Just pour it on top or dip it, and voila!
9. Japanese Mayo
Creamy, morish, and distinctively wiggly when squeezed out of the tube, Japanese mayonnaise is an essential and delicious condiment that goes with a lot of Japanese dishes. For example, you will find Japanese mayo decorating steaming takoyaki balls and okonomiyaki pancake slabs. Or, it makes an irresistible dipping sauce for deep-fried karaage. Kewpie is the most famous Japanese mayonnaise with its white bottle and red cap.
10. Furikake Rice Seasoning
From the Japanese word meaning to "sprinkle," furikake rice seasoning is a rice topping made from a combination of dried chili pepper flakes, seaweed flakes, sesame seeds, and other Japanese spices. The ingredients are dried and mixed together and can easily be shaken over the top of your rice to give it some extra flavor.
11. Shichimi Togarashi
Also known as “Japanese seven spice,” shichimi togarashi is another key Japanese pantry item to give a little spice to your homemade Japanese dishes. As in the name, it is made up of a blend of seven dried aromatic spices that make it both hot in flavor and citrusy. This includes chili flakes, ginger, nori, sesame seeds, shiso, dried orange peel, and Sichuan pepper (with room for some other spice mix variants, depending on the brand).
12. Wasabi Powder (or Wasabi Paste)
As real wasabi is incredibly expensive and difficult to come by even in Japan, bright green wasabi powder or wasabi paste is the answer to getting a hit of Japanese horseradish in your hometown. Both wasabi powder and wasabi paste are imitations of fresh wasabi with just a small concentration of the real thing, however, you can still use it for adding to sushi or udon dishes.
Join a wasabi farm tour in Okutama, Tokyo to learn firsthand about the cultivation of one of Japan's most expensive crops!
13. White Pepper
As opposed to black pepper which is more commonly used in Western countries, when it comes to Japanese cuisine, white pepper is used as an alternative. It's a bit hotter on the tongue than black pepper, yet also milder in flavor to better suit the delicate nature of Japanese dishes. It can be used in dishes like Japanese ramen, fried rice and stir-fries, as well as for seasoning meat and vegetables.
So once you have your Japanese condiments sorted, you should arm your Japanese pantry with these essential dry goods as a basic foundation for Japanese home cooking.
1. White Rice
Sometimes labeled as “sushi rice,” Japanese short-grain rice is what you need to stock your pantry with. This type of rice is short and plump, with a sticky yet fluffy texture that is iconic when it comes to Japanese cuisine. It is used in sushi (obviously), or it can accompany almost any Japanese dish.
2. Bonito Flakes
Bonito flakes, or katsuobushi in Japanese, are finely shaved dried fish flakes. These are the wiggling brown flakes you might see sprinkled on top of takoyaki or okonomiyaki. Bonito flakes are used in broths and are a key ingredient for making dashi (Japanese soup stock) which is used in soups, sauces, and as the base of many other Japanese dishes.
Join the Dashi Workshop and Katsuobushi Factory Tour in Kagoshima to see firsthand how this product is made!
Wakame is a type of Japanese seaweed that is also an essential ingredient used to flavor various dashi soup stocks. Wakame can be bought as a dried product from a Japanese supermarket that is easily rehydrated to become wiggly and a bit slimy. Just soak it in water and after about 5 minutes you can squeeze the liquid out of it. It is then ready to be used in miso soup or traditional Japanese salads.
Kombu is another type of Japanese seaweed, a type of edible kelp that can be bought as a dry pantry good. It is typically used as a dashi soup stock ingredient, and is responsible for imparting a deep and indispensable umami flavor (derived from glutamic acids) in many Japanese dishes. Kombu is often used in hotpots and Japanese noodle soups.
5. Shiitake Mushrooms
There are a lot of other types of mushrooms like shimeiji or enoki which are commonly used in Japanese cuisine, but shiitake mushrooms are great as they are available both fresh and dried. Dried shiitake mushrooms can be kept on your cupboard shelf and rehydrated for use in simmered dishes or Japanese soups. Shiitake mushrooms are responsible for giving many Japanese dishes a rich texture and complex flavor and make for great fish substitutes in vegan or vegetarian Japanese cooking.
What a surprise, another seaweed! That’s right, seaweed is very important in traditional Japanese food culture as it is nutritious and healthy. In this case, dried nori seaweed can be in the form of either a flat sheet, shredded into strips, or as seaweed flakes (called aonori). Nori sheets are ideal for encasing sushi rolls, and aonori is a classic topping for yakisoba noodles and okonomiyaki.
7. Panko Breadcrumbs
Literally translating to “bread powder,” Japanese breadcrumbs or panko are mainly used for crumbing deep-fried foods in Japan. The difference between more standard Western breadcrumbs and panko is that panko breadcrumbs are larger, lighter flakes, and they don’t absorb as much grease as standard breadcrumbs. Panko can also be used as a binder or in bakes.
8. Sesame Seeds
Available as black or white seeds, sesame seeds, or goma, are a classic garnish when it comes to Japanese cuisine. Used liberally and with great versatility, white sesame seeds are frequently used as a dusting for donburi or stir-fries, and they are also used in sauces and even sweets!
9. Potato Starch
Also known as katakuriko, potato starch is used as a thickening agent to make Japanese sauces. This is often the case when cooking chuka-ryori (Japanese style Chinese food). It is lighter than wheat flours, meaning that potato starch makes for a great coating when making fried food like karaage (Japanese fried chicken), and it can also prevent sticking when making Japanese sweets such as chewy mochi. Cornstarch can also be used in a similar way but with varying textures.
10. Green Tea
Much like soy sauce, matcha, a type of Japanese green tea, is an essential Japanese pantry item you should always have. Slightly bitter and powerful in flavor, matcha is powdered green tea which is great to have with Japanese wagashi sweets. Loose-leaf green tea makes for a traditional accompaniment for any homemade Japanese meal! Both drinks you can easily buy at an Asian or Japanese supermarket near you!
Learn how Japanese green tea is produced and make your own tea blend during this Shizuoka Tea Farm Tour!
So, were you wondering what is needed for Japanese cooking? For anyone who loves cooking Japanese food, these are the 23 most important condiments and dry ingredients that are essential for stocking a Japanese pantry. Plan on purchasing your Japanese ingredients like soy sauce, seaweed, sauces, and Japanese rice so you can create an authentic Japanese dish anytime!