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The Japanese Pantry
One thing I love about Japanese food is that once you invest in the essential ingredients, each meal is pretty inexpensive and has a very short grocery list. Here is a list of foods you should keep your pantry stocked with. You don't need to run out and buy all of these things right now, but building up a good pantry is important if you want to be able to cook Japanese food regularly. A lot of grocery store a most of these things now. If you live near a Asian grocery (good for you!) you can probably find all of this there. Having trouble finding something? Try Mitsuwa, they have a really good selection, though the shipping for produce is steep, or Amazon, they have a pretty extensive supply of asian grocery items.
Keep in the Cupboard
Rice is a really big part of Japanese food. Most meals are meant to be eaten with a bowl of fresh rice so I always keep a couple kinds in stock. Japanese medium grain rice is obviously the most important. It’s often marketed as sushi rice in the US. It comes both white and brown, personally I do not like brown, but I usually have some on hand for some reason.
Another rice that is good to have around is basmati. This is what I grew up eating and it is a very flavorful rice, way better than jasmine. Though now I eat medium grain most often, sometimes I switch it up with basmati to keep things interesting. Basmati is a little dryer than medium grain and has less flavor. When I eat good Japanese rice I eat it plain, no salt or anything, but I have to eat basmati with butter or fish sauce.
Whatever you are buying for rice, it is important that you buy the good stuff, the better the quality of rice the better the taste. I usually buy bulk organic rice from my local co-op.
Another type of rice I like to have around is sweet rice, sometimes called sticky rice. Possibly the most delicious substance on the planet, the only reason why I don’t eat it every day is because it is expensive, I have to drive an hour to get it, and it is a lot of work to cook. But on special occasions there is nothing I like more then eating chicken and sticky rice with sweet chili sauce.
I love potato starch because it work just as well as corn starch but it's better for you. It is used a lot as a thickener in Japanese cooking.
Also known as glutenous rice flour or sweet rice flour, which is deceiving as it is neither sweet nor dose it contain gluten. For this reason, I always call it mochiko. It is made from sweet rice and is super sticky. You can use it for making mochi, dango, yatsuhashi and many other things.
These things are addictive and absolutely essential for making dashi. Bonito is a type of fish, related to tuna, that is smoked, aged until petrified then shaved into a fine flake. It’s used as toppings in a lot of recipes and I like to eat it on top on a fresh bowl of rice.
Kombu is a type of kelp that is the second essential ingredient for dashi. I’m sure in other areas you can get it fresh, but where I live I can only find it dried. It is packed with umami, the almost indefinable flavor that is such a big part of Japanese food.
Another type of seaweed you can buy dried. If you’ve had miso soup at a restaurant and wondered what kind of seaweed you’re eating, that’s wakame baby. You’ll use it a lot for soups. You can also add it to rice for something a little different.
You may know nori better as that green stuff they wrap around sushi. Yes, it’s another seaweed. You can buy it in sheets for sushi and onigiri wrappers but it is also a good snack by itself. It also comes in smaller munch-able sheets and in flavors, like teriyaki.
Though they may be a little better fresh, shiitake mushrooms can be hard to find and expensive. Plus, once you re-hydrate the mushrooms by soaking them in water, that water can be used as another form of dashi.
These beans are in a lot of Japanese deserts. Whoa, whoa, whoa, beans? In a desert? Yeah, I know it’s weird, and it took me a long time to be converted. I actually don’t usually like beans anyway, but red bean paste is pretty decent and sweet. I encourage you to make it yourself and try it at least once, you might be surprised. Otherwise, you’re going to be limited in the number of traditional Japanese confections you can make.
Soba! Noodles made from buckwheat. Some brands use a mix of wheat and buckwheat so check the box. Soba is often served cold with a dipping broth. Personally, I’m not a huge fan, I prefer udon, but it’s a nice thing to keep around.
Udon is a thick wheat noodle that is often white colored, chewy and soft. You can usually find them dried and frozen.
These are very thin wheat noodles, sort of similar in size to angel hair pasta. This is another noodle that is best served cold.
I am not talking about the instant soup packets, but the noodles themselves. It's not essential to keep these in the house, but they sure are tasty! My mother is allergic to wheat, but I was able to find a brand made from rice that taste almost as good!
Keep in the Fridge
Hondashi is little graduals of dry dashi that you can add to boiling water to make stock. Though these are convenient and the flavor is fairly good, be warned that this product is made with MSG. Some people are very sensitive to this additive and there is some debate over the health effects.
Shiro "White" Miso
Miso is made from fermented soybeans and is delicious. If you have a long time you can make it yourself, but why should you when you can buy it? There are many different kinds of miso and in Japan each region has their own way of doing it. I personally prefer white miso, because it is milder. I get the paste, you have to refrigerate it, but it will last a long time that way.
You’re probably most familiar with miso in its soup form, but you can use it for all sorts of things. I like it smeared all over lightly sautéed snap peas.
Since it is fermented, miso is basically a living thing and you can’t cook it too long, or you will kill it, and you definitely want it to be alive. Miso is really good for you, all kinds of health benefits have been linked to it.
Aka "Red" Miso
Another type of miso, this one is a little stronger. Also very delicious!
Umeboshi and Ume Paste
A bit of an acquired taste, umeboshi are pickled plums that are ridiculously sour and salty. Some people love them, one of my sisters eats them by the dozen, straight. I personally can’t stand to even look at them. However, I don't mind ume paste as much, and it actually goes really well with fatty meats, like duck. See if you can find a tube of the paste.
Made from yuzu and chilies, this delicious condiment comes in red and green varieties. I prefer the red which isn't as sharp as the green, but they are both fantastic. I like to use yuzu koshu on roasted chicken, absolutely scrumptious.
Ginger root is a fantastic thing to keep around the house. You can keep it in the freezer to make it last forever.
Pretty self explanatory, I’m sure you know what it is. Soy sauce is in just about everything. The only thing I have to add is that most commercial brands are made with GMO soybeans and have wheat in them. So if you are the kind of person who cares about this you should look for the gluten free stuff, which surprisingly isn't much more expensive.
Mirin is a sweet sake that is used for cooking. I don’t think the alcohol level is very high, because you don’t have to be twenty one to buy it. Mirin is in almost everything along with soy sauce.
Sake is a wine made from fermented rice. There are a lot of different kinds, some dry some sweet, and you should try a few kinds before you decide if you like it or not. Also try it cold and heated. Sake is good to have on hand because it is used in a lot of Japanese cooking.
I hate vinegar, but rice vinegar is the only one that doesn’t totally gross me out. In fact I don’t even mind using it in small amounts. You can also use ume vinegar, made from ume plums.
This stuff is amazing. You can get regular or roasted, which is a little stronger. One great thing is that it has a high heat resistance, which means you can cook with it at high temperatures. A lot of people don’t realize that many oils become carcinogenic at disturbingly low heats.
A yuzu is a type of Asian citrus fruit, if you live near a really good Asian market, you might be able to buy these fresh. Otherwise, you’ll have to be like me and order yuzu juice online. You can always substitute with lemon or lime, but it’s not quite the same.
Sichimi or Nanami Togarashi
Basically these are seven spice blends. It has red peppers, black and white sesame seeds, yuzu peel, sancho, hemp, nori or aonori, and ginger, or something similar. I was using sichimi togarashi and when I ran out I switched to nanami togarashi. I can’t really taste a difference, both are hot and delicious. Sometimes if I want a little kick to my plain rice, I sprinkle a little of this on top.
This is made from straight mustard seeds, unlike western mustard, so it is hot, hot, hot!
In small amounts, this paste made from fermented soybeans and chilies can be a wonderful spicy accent. Just be careful to not use too much.
If you don’t have curry powder, go get some right now! I love this stuff and probably cook some sort of curry three times a week.
Wasabi is a really spicy, green paste made from ground wasabi root. A lot of people are scared of wasabi and, sure, it’s hot as hell, but I like it more then chili peppers because the heat only lasts a few seconds then goes away. If I eat a hot pepper I’m in agony and can’t taste anything for the next few hours.
When you buy wasabi, make sure you read the ingredients because you will come across lots of “wasabi” made from horseradish dyed green.
Also known as Japanese pepper, sanshou comes from the berries of a bush in the citrus family. If you can find it in berry form, good for you! Otherwise you should get the ground stuff.
Sometimes known as perilla, shiso is a member of the mint family and used in a lot of Asian food. If you can’t find this fresh, you should consider planting it yourself. It’s one of the most widely used herbs in Japanese cooking. There are two varieties, red and green. Red is only really used for pickling, but green can be used for a variety of things, like onigiri wraps, garnishes, dividers in bento or just to eaten by itself.
Usually marketed as a kind of furikake (rice seasoning), yukari is made from powdered shiso and salt. It is tangy and salty.
I try to keep black and white sesame seeds on hand. You can eat them with everything, either raw or roasted with salt.
Japanese Sea Salt
Also known as arajio or aguni, this traditional salt is still damp and has a briny ocean flavor. Unfortunately it is a little pricey. It can add a lot of flavor to your food, but be careful, because it is pretty strong.
This is good to have on hand because it goes so well with all Japanese foods, and is a good desert. There are many green tea varieties but the Japanese ones are sencha, hojicha, kukicha, and matcha. I like the Japanese green teas better than the Chinese ones because they’re not as bitter or strong. Sencha has a very mild flavor that is vaguely ocean-like. Hojicha and kukicha are toasted, roasted, stronger and fairly bitter. They’re more of an acquired taste.
Matcha is my favorite. This is the powdered green tea, which you make by whisking. It is very flavorful, without getting bitter, and is fun to make. Another thing I like about matcha is that its a little thicker. I’m allergic to coffee and I always wish more cafes served matcha or green tea lattes because I’d like to be able to order something fancy (and I hate chai). Anyway, long story short, you should try matcha.
Another type of Japanese green tea is Genmaicha, which is green tea mixed with roasted brown rice. It has a wonderful nutty flavor and smell.
This is a tea made from roasted barley. It is usually served cold in the summer and has been described to me as one of those things people either love or hate. I happen to love it. It's caffeine-free nutty and very refreshing. I recommend trying it if you like iced tea.