In my many years of trying to replicate Japanese food in my own kitchen, I've gained a special appreciation for how the Japanese flavor their food. Ever wondered how the rice in bento, or Japanese lunch boxes, gets its savory flair? Or why authentic takoyaki (fried octopus balls) are so good? The answer lies in Japanese spices—so let's explore the secret ingredients that make Japanese food so criminally irresistible.
Here are some Japanese pantry staples with the power to perk up your cooking:
Perhaps the most essential Japanese spice, the shichimi togarashi spice blend is commonly used to enhance the flavor of countless Japanese dishes, from udon to grilled meat to onigiri rice balls. This Japanese seven spice blend consists of red chili pepper, roasted orange peel, sesame seeds, ground ginger, seaweed flakes, poppy seeds, and more, representing a common cross-section of traditional Japanese flavors. Sprinkle it over almost any recipe, including soups, noodles, and rice bowls, to give it a slightly spicy Japanese kick.
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If you're familiar with any condiment on this list, it's probably wasabi. Wasabi is well-known for being the intimidatingly hot green paste that accompanies sushi, historically thought to have medicinal properties when eaten with raw fish. But you can also use it to garnish soba noodles, or even make a wasabi dressing for sushi bowls and cooked fish.
Ever wondered what the thin strips of paper doing the wave on top of your takoyaki are? They're actually katsuobushi, or bonito flakes, made of dried and fermented skipjack tuna. You can find these smoky flakes in a large portion of Japanese cuisine, used to make dashi soup stock that flavors everything from miso soup to boiled nimono dishes. You can also simply use it to garnish okonomiyaki, takoyaki, tofu, stir fry, and any other dish that could benefit from some savory fishiness.
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Perhaps the Japanese condiment with the most hype around it, Japanese mayonnaise (especially the common household brand, Kewpie mayonnaise) is an absolute staple. Its flavor is richer and creamier than that of Western mayonnaise, as it contains only egg yolks instead of whole eggs and uses a special vinegar blend. Use it to make your own tuna mayo onigiri, decorate your homemade okonomiyaki, and garnish your yakisoba, salads, sandwiches, and even sushi.
Need more onigiri flavor ideas? Check out our Beginner's Guide to Common Onigiri Fillings.
Kyushu's local specialty spice, yuzu kosho, is made of the peel of the Asian citrus yuzu, salt, and chili pepper. You can commonly find it as a tube or jar of yellow paste in Japanese supermarkets. Traditionally used in nabe, or Japanese hotpot, yuzu kosho also pairs wonderfully with miso, tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), yakitori (grilled meat skewers), sashimi, and all manner of Japanese noodle dishes.
Tonkatsu sauce is a rich, savory Japanese sauce that mainly contains fruits and vegetables such as apples, lemon juice, tomatoes, onions, carrots, and more. This tangy condiment goes great on top of fried pork cutlet (tonkatsu), of course, but can also add zest to other fried foods like fried shrimp, croquettes (korokke), and even takoyaki. Try making a close approximation at home by combining soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, and sugar.
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Ponzu is the citrus sauce that even those who hate citrus will love. Made from the juice of any citrus fruit (yuzu is often used), soy sauce, mirin (rice wine), and dashi (Japanese soup stock), this tangy vinaigrette-like sauce can brighten the flavor of your gyoza, stir-fry, marinated meats, and tofu dishes. Add bonito flakes and kombu (kelp) to the ponzu for extra umami savoriness!
Commonly found in Japanese-style Chinese food, rayu is a chili oil made with sesame oil, garlic, ginger, onion, spices, and sometimes sesame seeds. You may have seen this signature red oil available at the tables of most ramen shops. It also serves as a great dipping sauce for potstickers and can spice up any regular bowl of rice, noodles, or tofu.
Furikake is a broad term that applies to any dry Japanese spices made to be sprinkled over cooked rice. Common varieties might include salmon flakes, bits of dried omelet, sesame seeds, wasabi, seaweed flakes, bonito flakes, and nearly any other Japanese seasoning you can think of! You can try out special prefectural varieties, or simply stick with safe old seaweed flavor to spice up your rice, noodles, fried chicken, or salads.
Aonori, or dried seaweed flakes, are a ubiquitous Japanese seasoning that lends its familiar earthy flavor to much of Japanese cuisine. Traditionally, it goes atop takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and yakisoba. But feel free to explore this seasoning's impressive range—believe it or not, foods like fried chicken, popcorn, and even spaghetti could benefit from some little bits of seaweed!
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Commonly found alongside natto (fermented soy beans) and oden (a variety of Japanese winter hotpot), karashi is Japanese mustard that well exceeds Western mustard's spiciness. Its peppery flavor mirrors the sharpness of horseradish. Enjoy it as a hot dipping sauce for dumplings, or mix its powdered form with hot water to create your own karashi paste.
Believe it or not, Japan also has its own special kind of pepper seasoning: sansho pepper, widely available in Japanese supermarkets. Unlike the black pepper you may be used to, sansho pepper has a tangy, citrus-like flavor. But much like black pepper, this spice goes with most anything, particularly enhancing sushi and Japanese noodle recipes.
You'll find a lot of these ingredients in standard Japanese cooking, so definitely venture outside your comfort zone with some traditional (and incredible) Japanese dishes. But the colorful world of Japanese spices and condiments also has plenty of room for experimentation! Try adding some tonkatsu sauce to your fried chicken or furikake to your noodles at dinner. A little Japanese influence can take your recipes a long way!
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