The Japanese Pantry

January 16, 2009 | By | Comments (12)

FourkeyingredientssizedIf you don’t know much about Japanese cooking, it might seem intimidatingly esoteric. Sure, the elegant cuisine of fine restaurants and banquets elevates food to an art form that feels unattainable to most of us. But I have some good news. Japanese home cooking — the kind of food made daily by housewives in closet-sized kitchens — is not only attainable for the rest of us, but also (in many cases) surprisingly easy.

I grew up eating dishes passed down from my great-grandmother, who moved to the U.S. from a tiny fishing village in Japan. Watching my mother make these recipes, I was surprised at their simplicity — many contained only three or four ingredients. Now that I’ve embarked upon a self-study of the cuisine, I’ve realized that many of the new recipes I’ve been poring over in various cookbooks contain the same basic ingredients.

Last week I wrote about dashi, the basic sea stock that appears in most soups and many non-soup recipes. In addition to dashi, here are four pantry staples that appear frequently in Japanese recipes. (Shown here, clockwise from front):

(read on for more)

Soy sauce: Made from fermented soy beans, this black, watery sauce is already a familiar ingredient in many Western kitchens. (My mom puts a dash in her Italian pasta sauce.) Stick with Japanese soy sauce; other versions used in different Asian cuisines can be thicker and stronger. I use Kikkoman, which you can find in most regular grocery stores.

Sake: The
national drink of Japan, rice wine adds a distinct flavor to marinades,
sauces, and cooked dishes. The alcohol burns off through cooking, but
the remaining flavor adds an edge that is distinctly Japanese. You can
find sake in the wine aisle of most grocery stores, or at Asian markets
that sell alcohol.

Mirin: This sweet cooking wine
is also made from rice. Unlike sake, it’s more for cooking than
drinking. Its sweetness rounds out the saltiness of some dishes, and
subdues the fishiness of others. You might be able to find mirin at some specialty grocery stores, but definitely at an Asian market.

Rice vinegar: Made from (you guessed it!) rice, rice vinegar is milder and sweeter than regular vinegar. It
is combined with salt and sugar to season sushi rice (though you can
also buy pre-made sushi-rice vinegar). It’s also great for salads and dipping sauces. I like to sprinkle it over
blanched fresh spinach with a dash of soy sauce and a sprinkle of
toasted sesame seeds for a superquick side dish.

You’ll see a combination of soy sauce, sake, dashi, mirin, and regular granulated sugar in a variety of meat and vegetable dishes. (Usually in quantities no greater than a few teaspoons or tablespoons.) Combined, they create a sweet-and-savory flavor that is subtle, yet distinct. Some people posit that this satisfies cravings for sweets, which is why dessert seldom accompanies a Japanese meal.

For a more extensive list of Japanese pantry essentials, see this post on Just Hungry, my new favorite Japanese-food blog. The author is a Japanese ex-pat who writes wonderfully in English in a way that’s very approachable for cooks who live outside of Japan. She’s got some great recipes and wonderful in-depth resources about equipment, ingredients, techniques, and online shopping links.


  1. Rice Wine vs. Rice Vinegar vs. Seasoned Rice Vinegar | Cooking Light

    […] The Japanese Pantry […]

    September 13, 2015 at 5:00 pm
  2. yanti

    hi there… I love eating kitsune soba…and I’ve learn how to make the recipes however since that I’m a muslim…I can’t use I wanna know if there is anything suitable can replaced mirin? Looking forward for your reply! ;-D

    February 1, 2013 at 7:26 am
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    March 5, 2012 at 2:34 am
  4. Joomla

    You write about this topic in a way that majority of the people can understand.

    August 21, 2011 at 9:00 am
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    Fantastic Japanese Pantry !! best info share and great idea .

    May 3, 2011 at 5:12 am
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    lovely recipes for Japanese . Fantastic posting for Japanese Pantry. i love Japanese Food and its very tasty. thanks

    April 11, 2011 at 1:38 am
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    I love Japanese food. I think your enjoy the party now.

    March 25, 2011 at 7:14 am
  8. Eugene

    It’ll be a nice post..Thank you for giving me a nice information…

    January 18, 2011 at 11:49 pm
  9. Sue

    Thanks for the advice! I’ve always wondered what to sub for oyster sauce, and I never would have thought of using black bean sauce instead. Thanks!

    January 20, 2009 at 4:31 pm
  10. Kim Cross

    coyotewoman: Good question. Rice vinegar and rice wine vinegar are the same thing. Vinegar is made from wine gone sour, and rice vinegar is made from soured rice wine (sake). I usually buy Nakano rice vinegar, which can be found in the Asian section of most supermarkets. Make sure you don’t mistakenly buy SEASONED rice vinegar, which is used to make sushi rice. This is basically rice vinegar seasoned with a little salt and sugar, but you’ll notice a big difference in taste. Whatever you do, I’d avoid using regular vinegars as a substitute for rice vinegar, because the flavors are much harsher.
    Sue: My inclination would be to use black bean sauce, which is thick and salty like oyster sauce. You can find it in the Asian section of most supermarkets. Our food editor, Ann Pittman, confirmed this as a viable substitution. She also suggested that if you only need a small amount (1-2 teaspoons), you could use low-sodium soy sauce (though it’s much thinner in consistency). Fish sauce is a possible, if imperfect, substitute, as the flavor is quite pungent and it is thin and watery. If you’re going that route, start with 1/4 the amount of oyster sauce called for in the recipe, then add enough chicken stock to make up the difference. Then use 1/2 teaspoon or so of cornstarch to thicken.

    January 20, 2009 at 3:23 pm
  11. Sue

    I very much enjoyed the feature in the January issue on Chinese New Year. Many of the recipes (plus some Japanese ones) call for oyster sauce. I’m allergic to oysters. Can I substitute fish sauce or something else?

    January 17, 2009 at 3:10 pm
  12. coyotewoman

    I often see recipes requesting “rice wine vinegar” – I have never been able to find anything labeled as such. What can I substitute?

    January 17, 2009 at 9:35 am

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