5 Essential Japanese Dishes to Know
What are the ingredients a cook should keep in the pantry (and in the fridge) that are essential to many Japanese dishes?
I consider the following items essential for most Japanese cooking:
Soy sauce is made from soybeans, wheat, and salt and fermented for several months. There is no substitute for soy sauce. For Japanese cooking, I would highly recommend using Japanese soy sauce because I can differentiate between Japanese and other kinds of soy sauce. However, if you don't cook Japanese food often you can substitute with another soy sauce. (Photo courtesy of Veer/Kia Cheng Boon)
Mirin (sweet cooking rice wine) is a sweet and syrupy liquid and it is one of the most important condiments in Japanese cooking. Mirin adds a mild sweetness and has deep body and umami. It also helps mask the smell of fish and seafood and helps the flavors to "sink in" to the dish. It keeps the ingredients from disintegrating during the cooking process because of the sugars and alcohol content. Lastly, mirin adds luster to ingredients, which is why it is a key ingredient in teriyaki sauce. You can substitute mirin with sake and white sugar (in a ratio of 3:1). (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/KVDP)
Sake (SAH-keh, not saki) is made from rice and water through a brewing process, like beer. Sake is often used in marinades for meat and fish to make them more tender, as well as to mask any unpleasant taste or smell. It also adds body and flavor to soup stock and sauces. There are many kinds of sake, but for cooking, an inexpensive bottle like Ozeki, Gekkeikan, or Sho Chiku Bai (or use leftover good-quality sake, too) would be fine. The closest substitute would be dry sherry, although it’s not the same. (Photo courtesy of flickr/sally_monster)
Miso is made from soybeans and usually contains rice or barley, which are steamed, then mixed with koji (a fermentation starter) and left to ferment for six months to five years. The longer the fermentation, the darker and richer the miso is. The taste, aroma, texture, and appearance of miso all vary by region and we usually categorize miso into three groups: Shiro miso ("white" miso), aka miso ("red" miso), and awase miso ("mixed" red and white miso). There is no ingredient to substitute for miso. (Photo courtesy of flickr/pinprick)
Rice vinegar is made from rice, and it is sweeter, milder, and less acidic than white vinegars. It is known for its antibacterial properties and it's an essential ingredient in sushi rice. You can substitute with white-wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar; however, non-Japanese vinegars have a strong vinegar taste, so add a little sugar and water to make it milder.
Nowadays most of these ingredients can be found in the Asian aisle at supermarkets, but for some ingredients you might need to check your local Japanese or Asian market. Whole Foods or other premium supermarkets also carry some difficult-to-find products. You can also order online at Amazon or Japanese supermarkets Mitsuwa and Marukai.