Perhaps you can remember the scene in the cult classic The Breakfast Club when Bender and Claire have a little back-and-forth over some tuna sushi rolls. "You won't accept a guy's tongue in your mouth, and you're gonna eat that?" he asks incredulously. Well, America, we've come a long way since 1985. If you have more than beer and old takeout in your refrigerator, you probably have a bottle of soy sauce in your cupboard. Then again, navigating the Japanese grocery hasn't become much easier. Between kanji-only packaging, uneven labeling, and rows of unfamiliar condiments, it's the paradox of choice in seaweed-and-rice form.
I've been making my way around New York's Japanese food stores since my parents shipped me off to college from Massachusetts with a rice cooker. But, to help build an upgraded Japanese pantry, I turned to some real gurus: cooking instructor Elizabeth Andoh, author of Washoku; cookbook author Nancy Singleton Hachisu, whose most recent work is Preserving the Japanese Way; and Chef Niki Nakayama of Los Angeles kaiseki restaurant n/naka.
Before we get into brands and all that, it is worth noting that if you're puzzling in front of a shelf of products, there are generally three indicators for higher-quality stuff: a clean ingredient list, nice packaging, and—sorry!—price. Many of the products we get in the US are the same ones that came about in the hard times of Japan's postwar era, and they contain harsh additives. If there's corn syrup in a mirin or a flavor enhancer in a miso, you can bet that the manufacturer took a quickie route to make it on the cheap, and it shows in the final product. Thankfully, there's always an English-language ingredient list—turn over the package and use it.
As opposed to the spice-heavy Indian pantry or the minimalist French cupboard, the Japanese pantry is distinctive in that it depends largely on foods that are fermented, contain glutamates, or both. Many of the staple dried foods, including seaweed, fish, and mushrooms, have naturally occurring glutamates, the magic amino acids that act as flavor megaphones when paired with other ingredients. The core Japanese packaged products—soy sauce, miso, sake, mirin, and vinegar—get their complex flavors from fermentation, and some of them, like miso and soy sauce, also have glutamates. Just like salt, these strong, often funky foods can be used as a subtle seasoning, such as the lightest swipe of soy sauce on a fatty piece of raw fish. Or, for deep, rounded flavors, they can be layered together in heartier dishes, like miso ramen, which is built from the Japanese stock dashi and chicken broth, miso and soy sauce, and often a topping of the crispy seaweed nori.
In the context of the larger Japanese meal, these ingredients are part of a loftier endeavor to achieve harmony, known in some corners of Japanese cookery as the "rule of five." When making a meal, the ideal is to use five colors, five flavors, and five cooking techniques, and to appeal to all five senses. Take the simple bento box: It might include pickles brightened with rice vinegar, rich miso soup, dashi-simmered vegetables, a piece of crispy fried chicken or sticky teriyaki salmon, and steamed white rice with a sprinkling of crunchy toasted black sesame seeds. While Japan hasn't been immune to convenience foods, the core philosophy for serious cooks has long remained the same: coaxing the best flavor out of high-quality seasonal ingredients. The pantry staples below are fundamental to augmenting these ingredients, lending balance to Japan's most iconic dishes and meals.
Now on to the list.
Shoyu (Soy Sauce)
One of my first kitchen purchases as a semi-adult was a handle of Kikkoman shoyu. But, while it's a perfectly fine cooking soy sauce—Shizuo Tsuji recommends it in Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art—I've since learned that there are better, more nuanced options out there, plenty of which are now available in the US.
Traditionally, soy sauce is made by fermenting cooked soybeans and wheat with Aspergillus spores for at least a couple of months and up to a few years. But depending on its ingredient list, a soy sauce will fall into one of three main categories: the dark koikuchi, the light usukuchi, and the milder tamari, originally the liquid by-product that formed on top of miso. Confusingly enough, the lighter-colored usukuchi is actually saltier than the darker-hued koikuchi. But, unless you're looking to amass a mini soy sauce collection, you're best off sticking with koikuchi, the all-purpose variety you'll find in most stores.
While soy sauce often provides saltiness in dishes like pork and cabbage gyoza and udon with a soy-mushroom broth, that salinity should be a supporting flavor in a good shoyu—not the main event. With the sodium in check, you might taste rich, meaty tones or a gentle soybean sweetness. For cooking purposes, Nakayama prefers the Yamasa brand, which is less salty and a tad more complex than Kikkoman. According to Hachisu, Eden offers an excellent soy sauce, but her favorite is the aged, unpasteurized shoyu made by Yamaki Jozo and bottled by Ohsawa Japan as Nama Shoyu. Full-bodied and complex, it's been called "the Champagne of soy sauces," but, at around $12 for five ounces, it won't break the bank. Whether or not you opt for a fancy shoyu, buy it in small quantities, and store it in the refrigerator once opened—it's ideally used within three or four months of opening, after which its flavors and aromas start to fade.
Miso (Fermented Bean Paste)
You've doubtless encountered miso paste in countless Japanese dishes, from its namesake soup to hearty stews and delicate glazes. But if you've never bought a package of the product itself, you're in for a treat. Deeply savory, with a soft, spreadable consistency, miso paste is typically made from rice and soybeans and fermented with the help of Aspergillus oryzae mold. From there, though, variations in base ingredients and length of aging abound, and you'll find a vast range of misos, each with its own character and purpose. Arguably the five commonest are shiro (the mellower white rice miso); shinshu (the slightly longer-aged yellow rice miso); aka (the saltier red rice miso); mugi (the mild, gently sweet barley miso); and hatcho (the quite pungent soybean miso).
If you'd like to start with just one, consider whether you would like a light or dark variety and what you're making—white miso works well in dressings, sauces, and lighter soups, while red miso is best in heavier dishes, like braises. Either will work for glazing quick-broiled fish, like cod or salmon, so, if you want to experiment or you're going to go nuts making miso soup, miso butter, and miso risotto, get both a white miso and a more robust miso, such as aka or mugi. Andoh and Hachisu both say South River Miso is the best brand available in the US (and I agree). "The climate in South River is similar to Hokkaido," Andoh says. But if you can't find it locally, opt for another organic brand, like Miso Master, or one that just doesn't have weird things in the ingredient list (Aspergillus oryzae is cool; the flavor enhancer hydrolyzed protein, not so much). Hachisu's favored local brand in Japan, Yamaki Jozo, will soon be available in the US through Gold Mine Natural Food Co.—look out for it. Miso will not spoil, but it starts to lose flavor and aroma over time and is best used within a few months of opening.
"Kombu is an absolute necessity," says Andoh of the dried sea kelp, which is most commonly used to flavor the Japanese stock dashi. It lends a vegetal flavor to the broth, but more importantly, its rich glutamates are released into the liquid, along with vitamins and minerals. You can sometimes see a fine white powder of glutamic acid crystals on the surface of the dark, stiff sea vegetable, which turns a lighter military green when softened in water. Kombu-laced dashi is arguably the most important building block in Japanese cuisine, underpinning a wide swath of preparations: salad dressings, dipping sauces for soba and udon noodles, simmered one-pot dishes, and soups. It's so crucial and carefully engineered that in Japan, according to Andoh, hardcore cooks choose the type of kombu they use based on whether they have soft water (the higher-glutamate ma-kombu) or hard water (hidaka-kombu). But in the US, labeling is usually not that specific. Nakayama recommends choosing packages with large kelp pieces that are evenly colored and aren't covered with too much white powder. Dried kombu should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
Katsuobushi (Shaved Dried Bonito Flakes)
The papery, pinkish-brown shavings known as katsuobushi, or dried bonito (skipjack tuna) flakes, are just as essential to dashi as kombu (although other dried fish, such as the tiny dried sardines niboshi, are often used instead). But the slightly smoky, fragrant flakes are also deployed as a stand-alone ingredient—used as a topping, they'll flutter as if alive on hot dishes, such as fried tofu or okonomiyaki, or add a bit of texture and aroma to cold dishes.
For dashi, Nakayama recommends seeking out larger shavings with bright yellow and orange hues; for simmered dishes or for sprinkling onto finished dishes as a garnish, choose the finely shaved bonito. Once opened, the bonito flakes should be kept in the refrigerator. "The flavor is only optimal for four to six weeks," says Andoh. "So, unless you're making dashi several times a week, buy the smaller packets instead of the larger bags. The big brand is Ninben—they're good and well distributed."
Sake (Rice Alcohol)
Although often referred to as rice wine, sake is actually brewed in a method similar to beer. The steamed rice is converted to alcohol in a two-step fermentation: First the starches are converted to sugars, and then the sugars are converted to alcohol. But you don't need to know Junmai from Honjozo when buying sake for cooking. The rule of thumb is the same as for wine: Don't buy something that you absolutely wouldn't drink—and, by all means, drink it while you cook—but don't bother splurging on something outrageously good.
In some ways, sake is the mixed martial arts fighter in the Japanese cooking arena, lending acidity, tempering strong odors, tenderizing foods, and balancing sweet, salty, and fatty flavors, like in this miso-marinated black cod or our ramen with chashu pork. Choose a sake that is "not too expensive, dry with a mild sweetness and does not taste too strongly of alcohol," says Nakayama. Brands aren't too important, but you do want to avoid bottles labeled "cooking sake," which are typically made from low-quality sake and have a 2–3% salt content, making them unsuitable for any recipe that requires reducing the liquid.
Genmai Su (Brown Rice Vinegar)
"Pure brown rice vinegar, jun genmai su, is the extra-virgin of Japanese vinegars," says Andoh. "The next step down is pure vinegar that has been naturally brewed from white rice, junmai su." Compared to the ever-so-gentle acidity of those naturally brewed vinegars, su (regular vinegar) and komé su (white rice vinegar) are overtly harsh and lacking in delicate flavor. Both are jump-started with alcohol and can easily overpower the ingredients that they're supposed to complement. The pleasing, sweet acidity of genmai su and junmai su, on the other hand, perks up pickles, like the classic Japanese cucumber version, and dressings, such as this mustard, rice vinegar, and miso variety. Look for an elegant, balanced pure brown rice vinegar—Mizkan makes a great one—and store it in a cool, dark, dry place.
Goma (Sesame Seeds)
Mighty little sesame seeds—both the subtler white variety and the more deeply flavored black ones—provide a nutty flavor that Hachisu calls a "backbone taste" in Japanese cooking. When I was growing up, my mother would shower wilted spinach in a light soy-based dressing with roasted sesame seeds—an easy way to add both texture and nutrition (the tiny powerhouses are packed with calcium, manganese, iron, zinc, selenium, and more). They're also used in sauces, braises, crusts for fish or tofu, and salads, such as this chrysanthemum green salad or this soba salad with asparagus and cucumber. Toasting your sesame seeds will make their flavor more pronounced. Japanese cooks use specially designed ceramic or stainless steel sesame seed roasters that allow you to shake the seeds for even roasting, though you can use a skillet or saucepan over medium heat and carefully stir instead. Like other seeds, they can go rancid, so buy untoasted seeds from a store with high turnover, in quantities that you'll use up within four to six months. (Toasting can increase the rate at which they go rancid.) Once you have them, store them in a cool, dark place or even the refrigerator to preserve their shelf life.
Yaki-Nori (Toasted Seaweed)
Nori was first made in Edo—today known as Tokyo—by paper-makers who used their skills to craft thin, briny sheets from edible algae (also known as laver). The algae is harvested and made into a slurry, which is then poured into large wood frames to dry. Cut into sheets and lightly roasted until fragrant, it's typically sold unseasoned in flat square or rectangular packages, though it's increasingly common to find them doused in oils and seasonings and sold in trays as "seaweed snacks." The traditional stuff is mild, faintly earthy, and slightly salty. "Price does say a lot about the product," says Nakayama. The better options are glossy and smooth and tear easily—an important quality when you're biting into onigiri (rice balls) or makizushi. Store your nori in an airtight container.
Sharply citrusy, with a lemongrass-like fragrance, sansho is often confused for a peppercorn because of its spicy quality. It is sometimes compared to Sichuan peppercorn for its mouth-tingling effect, which makes sense—both spices are actually berries of two different kinds of the prickly ash plant. Sansho is one of the key ingredients in the popular seven-spice mixture shichimi togarashi, which also includes red chili, sesame seeds, ginger, nori, and dried citrus peel. On its own, though, "sansho is terrific on fish, vegetables, eel, and chicken," says Andoh. Try the greenish-brown powder on this chicken heart yakitori.
Panko (Japanese Bread Crumbs)
Panko bread crumbs get their distinctive flaky, airy texture from cooking in a special commercial oven. The raw dough is cooked by moving an electric current through it to generate heat internally, as opposed to the external heat of a standard oven. The crumbs are beloved by chefs because their huge surface area makes for longer-lasting, crunchier coatings on breaded and fried foods. Panko's key to the Japanese classic tonkatsu (breaded and fried pork cutlets) or these crispy shrimp skewers, but it also makes an excellent topping—try it out on some grilled asparagus with lemon. Panko can be stored in an airtight container for up to a few months before it starts to taste stale.
Mirin (Sweetened Rice Wine)
"Real mirin, hon-mirin, is sake brewed from mochi-gomé [glutinous rice]," says Andoh. "It's very difficult to find it in the US." Difficult, but not impossible—you may be able to find Takara, Nakayama's preference, in some sake shops or liquor stores. Since it's made with regular rice, not sweet rice, it's not technically a true mirin, but it is naturally fermented and has a pleasant, almost honeyed sweetness. Alternatively, Hachisu recommends Mitoku Organic Mikawa Mirin, made from organic Japanese glutinous rice, as well as Ohsawa Genuine Organic Mirin, both of which are easier to find online than in most stateside Japanese markets.
If you can't find true mirin, your other commercial option is aji-mirin, an inexpensive mirin-flavored product made with corn syrup, alcohol, rice, and salt that has a sharper, clunkier, salty sweetness. It'll do in a pinch, but I urge you to look for real mirin if you can. A good one will add a gentle, shoyu-balancing sweetness in glazes like teriyaki sauce and simmered dishes such as oyakodon. Once opened, your (resealed) bottle can be stored in the refrigerator indefinitely.
Yukari (Red Shiso Leaf Powder)
If you've gone to a new restaurant in the past year or so, there's a good chance you've tasted yuzu kosho (a zippy condiment based on chili and citrus peel) or shichimi togarashi (the seven-spice blend) mixed into various dishes. But you may not have seen the vibrant purple powder yukari. Yukari is made from red shiso, also known as perilla or beefsteak leaves, that have been pickled in tart ume (plum) vinegar and then dried and pulverized. Yukari gives Japanese umeboshi (pickled plums) their distinctive color, but you can also use the tangy powder as a seasoning for rice. That's not all, though. "Yukari has antibacterial enzymes," says Andoh. "So it was used a lot in the summer to prevent food spoilage in pre-refrigeration times, and still today." When buying, check the ingredient label—Eden makes a version with only shiso, ume vinegar, and sea salt. That's all you need.
If you're feeling flush, fresh wasabi is revelatory, with a bright, clean heat and slight herbaceousness. One of the most difficult plants to grow in the world (with a price tag to match), the knobby green rhizome used to be available solely through import, but now there are a few American farms growing it, and it's available by mail order and in the produce section of some Japanese markets. But, since true wasabi can cost as much as $70 for half a pound, prepared wasabi—the little green lumps of paste served in most sushi restaurants—is the only version that most of us can afford. The majority of prepared wasabi is made from the harsher, sinus-battering horseradish, which is dyed green to mimic the real wasabi's natural hue, while powdered versions typically use mustard in addition to horseradish. However, there are a few tube versions, such as Pacific Farms' frozen paste, that incorporate real grated wasabi, along with preservatives and colorings.