Washoku Basics

I may not provide recipes for the more complicated dishes, since they are not mine to give, but I can show you how to make some of the basics. Everyone who is starting to learn Japanese cooking will need to know these quick and easy foods. That is why I made these instructional videos. I hope you enjoy!

Washoku Basics One: Japanese White Rice

The quintessential component of a Japanese meal is, of course, the bowl of white rice. The type used is a Japanese medium grain, which is often marked in America as "sushi rice". (Sushi rice is in fact prepared with vinegar and sugar.)

Rice is so important to a Japanese meal that the word for it, gohan, can also mean "meal". Mastering this easy process is very important. If you do not have a rice maker, here are instructions for stovetop. 

The real secret to the amazing flavor of Japanese rice is washing it. You'll notice that for the first few rinses the water comes out milky white. Just Keep polishing with your fingers and they will end up almost transparent. If you don't wash the rice it doesn't taste very good at all. But if you follow these instructions you will have a fresh clean taste that is great with a meal, or even on its own.

Washoku Basics Two: Onigiri 

Now we take our rice and make one of the easiest and most delicious meals. Onigiri are rice balls, often in a triangle or cylinder shape, that can be wrapped in nori or other ingredients, and can have fillings or can be left plain. 

This recipe is for your standard plain rice onigiri, with a little salt and nori. If you want to try something a little harder, you can add a filling. Traditionally that might be an umeboshi pickled plum (super sour), some salted salmon or fish row, mackerel, miso, or squid. Non traditional (but still popular) might be tuna mixed with mayo, shrimp, fried chicken, or pork cutlets. Pretty much anything you can fit in there works. 

Another way of getting more flavor is to mix ingredients into the rice. I like to do this with black sesames and bonito flakes. Other possibilities are peas, furikake, seaweed, or dried sardines.

As far as wrappings, you can stick to a strip of nori, or use shiso, dried kelp shavings, or roll them in sesame, gomashio or furikake. Alternatively you could leave off the wrap and grill the onigiri until it's golden brown, then brush on some soy sauce. This is called yaki onigiri, and it's delicious. 

The secret to having your rice ball not fall apart is to use pipping hot, fresh rice. You can let it cool a little bit, but it should still be hot in your hands. Then you have to pack it tightly. Make sure you wet your hands, or the rice will stick to you. 

These are a fun lunch or snack. Perfect for a picnic or day in the car as you can have the substantial power of a delicious, energy giving bowl of rice, but in an easy package!

Washoku Basics Three: Sushi Rice

So you're planning a sushi night at home and you buy something at the store labeled "sushi rice", all you have to do is cook it, right? Nope. 

What makes sushi rice special is the rice vinegar, salt, and sugar that you add to it. The word sushi refers to the rice itself, meaning that you can eat just a bowl of sushi without anything else added to it. Maki (nori roll) and nigiri (small oval balls of rice with fish on top) are probably the most recognizable types of sushi to westerners, but you need to master the rice before anything else.

It is very easy to make, and easily adjusted to personal taste. I don't really like the taste of vinegar to be too strong, so I use three tablespoons for one and a half cups of uncooked rice (enough for 6 rolls). But if you like it with a little more of a quick, five tablespoons is more standard. The sugar is a subtle component, so don't be weirded out by its appearance in a rice and fish dish. Add just enough to barely sweeten and a enough salt to bring out all the flavors. 

In the video you will see that I add the seasonings cold to the fresh hot rice, but it also works well to heat up the mixture until all the sugar and salt have dissolved. Dividing the rice into eighths helps to evenly distribute the flavor, so does carefully stirring, so you do not break the rice kernels. If you have an extra person, you might have them fan the rice while you stir, to bring the temperate down quicker. 

Once you have some sushi rice made, you can move on to making something exciting, like the smoked salmon bites in my video (recipe from A Cook's Journey to Japan by Sarah Marx Feldner).

Washoku Basics Four: Dashi Stock

Umami is essential to Japanese cooking, and it is hard to find something that packs more of an umami punch than dashi. Out of the five basic tastes (salt, sweet, bitter, sour and umami) this is the least well known. When you eat something that is rich in umami, you do recognize that it isn't really the same as salt, though it's similar, but most people can't put a name to it. The definition I have seen used most often is "savory flavor". 

The Japanese have taken this flavor and done more with it than any other culture (aside from giving it a name). It became important to develop ways to cultivate this flavor when meat was taboo, because they had to find different ways of bringing a similarly strong taste into things. Well, hello dashi. 

Dashi is Japanese stock, you can make it a couple different ways, but the most popular is with kombu (kelp) and kezurikatsuo (bonito flakes). This stock goes on to be made into wonderful foods such as miso, clear broths, for simmering vegetables and in many other dishes. In a lot of recipes (that aren't soups) you'll see amounts like two tablespoons of dashi, but you might not want to make eight cups of it for only a few tablespoons. I recommend freezing some dashi in ice cube trays, which are just about a tablespoon. 

You can also use hon dashi, which is a bit like bouillon powder. I like to keep this on hand because it is quick and easy, but many people prefer to do all their dashi by hand. I'm showing you the recipe so you can decide which you would rather do. Either way, dashi is a good thing to learn how to make. 

Side note: Don't be discouraged if your dashi is the color and thickness of chamomile tea, that's how it's supposed to be!

Washoku Basics Five: Miso Soup

Who doesn't love miso soup? I bet you've had it and loved it, but did you know that it's actually alive? Similar to yogurt, miso is a living culture mixed in with fermented soybeans and salt. That might not sound very good, but it really is, and it's very good for you since it's a probiotic. 

There are essentially two types of soy miso, red and white, though there is a lot of variation in taste and texture depending on the maker. (There are also rice and barley miso, but I prefer the soy type.) White miso is mild and salty whereas red miso is a little hardier. I switch back and forth a lot but try to keep both on hand. Miso soup might be the most familiar form, but you can use it in a lot of different ways like dressing, seasoning, marinade and much more. The biggest thing to remember is that since it is alive (and you want it to stay that way) you always have to add it last, when the heat has been turned off. 

Miso soup can be as simple as dashi and miso in a broth with nothing else, or something with lots of vegetables and even meat. I eat it for breakfast most days since it's quick, easy and very filling if you have a bowl of rice with it. In the mornings I just do water, hon dashi, either spinach or wakame seaweed, and miso. For the video I made it more of a lunch level soup with some potatoes, leeks, shiitake mushrooms and wakame. You can pretty much do whatever sounds good. Starting with dashi (wether from scratch or graduals) will give it that authentic flavor that you can't beat!

I'll even go so far as to recommend Miso Master organic miso. I've tried lots of different brands, and this is my favorite. Some day I'd like to try making my own at home, which used to be how everyone did it, but for now, Miso Master is great! 

Miso soup is very tasty and so versatile that you can eat it every day and never get bored. I hope you enjoy making it yourself. 

Washoku Basics Six: Gomashio (Sesame Salt)

Want to add a little extra flavor to your food? You can't go wrong with this traditional Japanese condiment. You can buy it in the store, but why bother when it is so easy and much cheeper to make yourself. All you need is unhulled sesame seeds (either black or white), salt, and a mortar and pestle. I use a suribachi, which is a Japanese bowl that has grooves in it, making it easier for crushing. 

This condiment is used for sprinkling on many foods including rice, onigiri, sekihan, and sushi. You can vary the ratio of salt to your personal taste, but it's usually somewhere between five parts sesame to one part salt and fifteen parts sesame to one part salt. We've been making gomashio in my family for years, every since my older sister took a class in macrobiotic cooking. It's used a lot in that diet, though the salt is usually even less (eighteen to one). 

The best advise I can give you is to make sure that your suribachi or mortar is ready by the stove when you start your sesame seeds because it is really easy to burn them. You don't want to be trying to pull out a bowl while the seeds are still in the hot pan smoking away. While the seeds are cooking,  stir constantly and watch them like a hawk. It can be harder to tell when they are done if you're using black sesame seeds, so I suggest starting with white so you can become familiar with the smell of a properly toasted sesame seed. 

Once you have your toasty seeds in your mortar or suribachi, it's time to start crushing them with your pestle. If you've been having a frustrating week, this is a great way to work out your feelings. It takes a while to get the gomashio to the consistency you want, just keep crushing until you have a powder or until your arm falls off, whichever happens first. I suppose it might work to do this in a food processor, but I've never done it that way myself. It feels more satisfying to do it by hand. 

Now that your gomashio is crushed and cooled completely, you can store it in a jar or bag. Use it like salt on your food, it's a great flavor that I think you'll enjoy a lot!

Side note: In Japan, the word gomashio can be used to describe the hair of someone who is going grey, like how we say salt and pepper in America. 

Washoku Basics Seven: Instant Cucumber Pickles

Pickles are a big thing in Japan. In Kyoto there is are shops that sells hundreds of varieties. Personally I am not a huge fan, having only ever tried western pickles until a few years ago. When I found out how to make these instant pickles I was hooked. They're so easy and instead of the slimy, vinegary monstrosities I had come to expect, I got a crisp, salty, fresh pickle. 

All in all this takes about ten minutes and is very easy to fit into a meal prep. It makes a wonderful hashi yasume (cold vegetable side) for a traditional Japanese meal. Also, it's great in potato salad!

If you can't find a Japanese cucumber, use the European kind. Those are the super long ones, which have a much better texture for this process. The secret is to cut them as thin as you possibly can, then rub the salt in with your fingers to bruise it. Don't forget to press out the excess liquid after letting them rest.