The Japanese Kitchen
While you can start cooking Japanese food at any time using the tools you already have, some things make it much easier. Here is a list of utensils I recommend getting. Most are easy to find at any kitchen supply store or online.
Of course, you can always make rice on the stovetop. I grew up eating basmati rice and cooking it the old fashioned way. When I discover Japanese medium grain rice I decided to invest in a cooker so I wouldn’t have to relearn all my techniques and tricks.
Now I am a rice cooker advocate. It’s so easy and I really like how I can set up the timer at night and wake up to a batch of fresh rice in the morning. You should always pack fresh rice in your lunch.
There are a variety of rice cookers available, some with a simple on switch, others with settings, timers and all manner of options. I’m thinking what kind you get will mostly depend on how much money you want to spend and there are a lot of decent rice cookers that are less expensive. I started with a really basic model which I purchased for about $24. It worked just fine, made great rice and didn’t crap out on me. I ended up upgrading because I wanted one with a timer function.
I actually didn’t have to spend a whole lot to get a better model. I’m now using an Aroma 8-cup Digital Rice Cooker. This cooker has a great timer, white and brown rice settings and also a steamer basket for vegetables (which, I confess, I have never used).
I’ve been using this model for a few years now, but am once again on the rice cooker market. Why, you may ask? Well the problem I’m having is that both of my previous cookers had teflon pots. If you don’t already know, teflon is really bad for you. I usually don’t let the stuff near my kitchen, but I made an exception for the rice cooker since I couldn’t find any without. However, the other day I found several models on Amazon that have stainless steel pots. I have already picked out one and am only waiting for some extra money to come my way so I can justify buying something I already own for three times the price.
Side note: If you misplace your rice measuring cup that comes with the cooker (as I am always doing) one rice cup is equal to 3/4 of a regular cup.
All spoons are not created equal! A rice paddle is indispensable because nothing else helps keep you from damaging your rice as effectively. They come in both plastic and bamboo. Is there a difference? Probably, but I have two plastic and one bamboo and I usually grab whichever is clean. Obviously the bamboo is more esthetically pleasing, but as far as functionality, both are good.
Sieve Or Rice washing bowl
This one seems like a no brainer, and you probably already have one in your kitchen, but I didn’t for a long time and it made my life way more difficult. You’ll need a nice thin mesh sieve for washing your rice and straining out the bonito flakes from your dashi stock.
Since taking the above picture I actually upgraded to a rice washing bowl. It's pretty much a plastic bowl with holes in the bottom, and it works amazingly. It as cut my rice washing time in half.
A hangiri is a wooden rice bowl. I’ll admit I don’t actually own one of these, although I am keeping an eye out for one. Once you finish making the rice it is important to “fluff” it with your paddle, then move it from the cooker into, ideally, a hangiri. This lets the rice breathe and keeps it from getting mushy. I am currently using a large ceramic bowl for this, but would love to have an actual hangiri. You can buy them online, but so far they only have the shorter version that is used for sushi rice, and I want one of the taller variety.
These little treasures are super inexpensive and totally necessary for making sushi. The super cheep ones have round sticks, the better ones are flat on one side. I have the round ones because someone else bought them for me, but they work pretty well anyway. If you have the choice, go for the one with a flat side, otherwise, don’t sweat it.
Saibashi (Cooking chopsticks)
When I found out about cooking chopsticks I thought it seamed crazy, give me an all presuppose giant slotted spoon any day! But as I went along with my Japanese cooking I realized that just about every recipe used them for something. If you are wondering what makes saibashi different from regular old chopsticks, they are longer and have a bit of string tying them together at the top. Do not cut them apart or they wont work the same. Not to mention you’d probably loose one, don’t pretend you wouldn’t.
Once I had broken down and bought a pair, I realized what I had been missing. They are actually ridiculously versatile for two sticks tied together. You can almost always replace your spoons, spatulas, whisks, and tongs with these babies. And thanks to the extra length, your hands don’t get too close to the hot part of the stove.
Knives are a hot topic. My father is a Japanese knife enthusiast and my sister is a professional chef who spent years building up a collection of knives. Basically there are as many different types of knives out there as there are uses for them. You can find articles about the different kinds of knives written by people who know a lot more about it then me.
What do I use? I have one handmade usuba knife which I pretty much use for everything. I also have two ceramic knives which I love! They are sharp and easy to use. They were also surprisingly inexpensive.
Side note: I knew someone who bought I really nice handmade usuba. They brought it home, used it once, washed it and set it on the drying wrack. The next day they were horrified to discover it had rusted. They thought they had been duped. People are used to stainless steel knives, but the traditional handmade kind are made from carbon steel. Dry them with a towel as soon as you finish washing! They will last a lifetime if you only take this simple precaution.
Mandolines have a bad rep, and for good reason, they are super terrifying. However, they do make them pretty safe and it does make cutting things a lot easier and more consistent. I bought a pretty inexpensive one a while ago and use it way less than I thought I would. I would say look in to it, if you really think you’ll use it, but other than that, I think it’s more important to have a nice usuba or santoku.
The Japanese steamer is a series of bamboo baskets that stack so you can have layers for more cooking fun. Bare in mind that things on the bottom layer will cook faster than those higher up. I believe they were designed to sit inside a wok. They come in a variety of circumferences and heights from tiny adorable ones to giants that you could fit a feast into. I have two ten inch wide, three tiered steamers. Mine are a little short in the basket for my taste. It’s not always a problem, but when I am making something like nikuman, they tend to stick to the basket above them. So if you have the option, go for a taller one.
So a wok is a Chinese utensil, but it’s been used in Japan for a long time and is an awesome thing to have. Basically it’s a giant steel pan that is rounded. Absolutely indispensable if you are making a stir-fry or using a bamboo steamer or a hundred other things. The one I use is great, but it has a flat bottom. If you can find one that is totally round, get it. The totally round ones should also come with a ring stand so it doesn’t roll off the stovetop.
Enameled Cast-iron Pot
So technically not a Japanese utensil, but you’ll need one if you plan on doing hot pots. I also like to use mine for Japanese curry. My family gave me one of these for my birthday a few years ago and I use it so very much. Though they are really heavy (absolutely never drop one of these on your tiles, or, for that matter, your foot) you can get them fairly inexpensive by keeping an eye out at stores like T.J. Maxx and Target. Another plus is that you can get them in a lot of fun colors.
Given the choice between cast-iron and stainless steel for skillets, I go for cast-iron every time. I have a variety of sizes so I can use them for frying one egg or making a stir-fry for five people. They are super easy to clean, and if you season them with a little oil (olive is best) after drying them (on the stove top as soon as you’re done washing them) they are practically non-stick. The only draw back I can think of is that you can’t use them to make tomato sauce because of how acidic tomatoes are. And no, I don’t consider their heaviness a draw back, since it helps to keep my arms toned.
Moving on from cooking equipment to eating equipment, chopsticks are awesome and you can never have too many. I have several sets and am always buying more because they come in so many pretty designs. I have wooden, bamboo, ceramic and even a stainless steel pair that unscrew in half for packed lunches. But I usually use the same ones, bamboo with little pink blossoms on the top. (Actually I use them so much that the blossoms have worn off.)
If you’re going to be using chopsticks you should also get some rests as well, which you can find in a variety of styles. I have ceramic animal shaped ones (kitties, fish and whales). The purpose of the rest is to set your chopsticks down and keep them off the table. Do not leave your chopsticks sticking out of your bowl because there is a lot of etiquette associated with chopsticks that I can’t teach you because I don’t know.
Bowls and other Dishes
Here is another thing that you can have a lot of fun with. I have many different bowls, mostly thanks to one of my sisters’ owing a gallery with awesome pottery and my uncle being a potter. But I am always buying more because I love adorable Japanese crockery. There happen to be two places near where I live that carry bowls with cute animals on them and I will pretty much buy anything with a cat, pig, or rabbit on it. Of course, if you are a more classy person than I, there are plenty of beautiful sets out there. I suggest that you get some different sized bowls for rice, soup and main courses, small plates for side dishes, and small dishes sauces.
Bento Boxes and Accessories
I like to have a fun lunch. Nothing is better then being in the middle of your workday and pulling out a happy and exciting lunch box. I can spend hours on Bento&Co or Bento USA looking at boxes and accessories. Of course, I spend hours looking through font websites, so I’m easily amused. Really if you want to do bentos all you need is some sort of lunch box. Whether it be a Tupperware or a traditional bamboo box, you can successfully pack a bento.
That being said, there are so many different options out there that it would be silly not to look around. Personally I have an oval stainless steel pail with a clip on top, a three compartment PBA free plastic box with robots on the top, and a rectangular pyrex container. I also have about six other boxes hanging out in my wish list. I tend to think that you can never have to many lunch boxes. I’d really like to have a watertight container for one.
So should you go plastic, metal or wooden? I guess it’s a personal preference thing. I like stainless steel, but they don’t come in as many cute designs. Plastic is okay, though definitely try to get a PBA free one. I have never used wooden, but I have read that they are higher maintenance and I really like throwing my bento box in the dishwasher at the end of the day. However, I would have to say that my favorite is the pyrex, which is easy to pack and easy to clean. It's actually just one of those food containers with a plastic lid, comparable to a tupperware, but I love it.
Some containers have dividers, either permanent or removable. I recommend the ones with removable dividers because you don’t always have a conventionally shaped lunch. As far as stacking goes, make sure you get one that works stacked and separated because you don’t want to haul around an empty compartment if you only filled one. I’m speaking from experience.
Size is another important part of choosing the right bento. I don’t want to get too much into that because most websites will tell you what size the box is. I'll just say that you need less room than you think because you pack a bento tight. my stainless steel one is six by four and two inches deep and its’ perfect. The plastic one is an inch wider and I never fill it, causing my nicely laid out lunch to flop around. The pyrex is a three cup box and I would say that is ideal.
Are accessories essential? Not at all. I went as long time without even having a bottle for soy sauce. If you want to just pack a delicious and nutritious Japanese meal without any floof, that’s still bento. On the other hand, there are literally thousands of options out there for sauce containers, picks, dividers, cups, egg molds and cutters.
Last Christmas I gave each member of my family a bento box with two dinosaur picks, three animal shaped sauce containers, three flower shaped cookie cutters (for carrots and such) and a pair of collapsable chopsticks (and a spork for my sister who has never figured out chopsticks). I meant to get egg molds too, but my budget was a little tight.
You might ask what the heck the point is to making your lunch look cute if you’re just going to eat it. It’s a valid point, and a lot of mornings I don’t even bother, but it is a lot of fun and it’s almost like a gift to yourself. A little wave from past you, “Hey, hope you’re having a good day!” It’s also really fun to make them for someone else because then it’s like you are literally giving them a gift.
So the only essential part of bento is a container, but I recommend at least looking at Bento&Co’s accessory page, if nothing else it’s amusing.
This is by no meals multi purpose and you should only buy it if you plan on making taiyaki, the fish shaped waffle-like cakes, filled with deliciousness. I think you should make them, because they are fun and taste great, but they are also a lot of work.
This was one other exception I made on my no teflon rule, since at the time I couldn’t find any others. I have since found one made of something else online and will probably be replacing mine.
Unlike Taiyaki, it isn’t impossible to make Tamagoyaki (Japanese rolled omelet) without a special pan. You can definitely use a skillet, but it’s supposed to be way easier with a square pan. I don’t know how much easier because I haven’t been able to find one that isn’t teflon. If any body does find one, please email me.
Sticky Rice Basket
If you are planning on cooking a lot of sticky rice, sometimes known as sweet rice, you should consider investing in a sticky rice basket. They are from Thailand, where they take their sticky rice seriously. We used to have one when I was a kid but it was lost when we moved across the country. For the past seventeen years I’ve been making subpar sticky rice in a colander. You can cook sticky rice in a rice cooker, but it isn’t anywhere near as good.
I just discovered that you can buy these baskets on Amazon (I love you Amazon!). If nothing else, it’s a good conversation piece if someone sees it in your kitchen, because they’re pretty strange looking. We once sent one to friends of ours for Christmas and they thought it was a weird sombrero. They were like “Thank you? for the… hat?”