Here are a few ingredients to stock up on before diving headfirst into preparing Japanese dishes…
Shoyu (醤油), or soy sauce, is often used as a flavor enhancer in dishes from sushi to soup. The dark brown sauce is made from wheat, salt, soybeans, and a fermenter such as yeast. It is used in such dishes as Chahan (fried rice) and Shoyu ramen (ramen noodles with in a soy-based soup). Many varieties of soy sauce are available, including low salt varieties, sashimi shoyu, and tomago (egg) shoyu.
Mirin (みりん) is sweet sake that is used in a variety of dishes to either enhance flavors or as an ingredient in marinades. It is used to make teriyaki sauce. Mirin can be brushed directly onto a variety of meats and vegetables. It adds a subtle and unique underlying sweet umami note to each dish. Due to its low sugar and alcohol content, mirin is healthier than many other sweeteners.
Komezu (米酢), or rice vinegar, is a staple in Japanese kitchens. It is usually just refereed to as su (酢), or vinegar. Komezu is clear in appearance and used in many ways. It can be combined with shoyu to make homemade ponzu. A small amount can be added to white rice to make sushi rice (in fact, the “su” in sushi translates to the word “vinegar”). Komezu is also used for picking fish and vegetables in Japan. Pickles, or tsukemono (漬物), are served at nearly every meal in Japan and of course, rice vinegar is an extremely important ingredient to keep in the pantry.
Ryori Shu (料理酒), a type of sake similar to white cooking wine, is often used to soften meat before cooking. It is also used in such dishes as nizakana (fish typically simmered in mirin, soy sauce, and cooking sake). Ryori Shu tends to have a high sodium content, so, if using, it’s best to reduce other salt called for in a recipe.
Ponzu (ぽん酢) is a sauce made with shoyu and vinegar. It is often flavored with fruit as well. Ponzu is used as a dipping sauce for meat and dumplings. It can also be used in stir-fries. It is another staple in Japanese homes, and you can usually find a couple of different types in any kitchen.
Kome Abura (米油), rice bran oil, is a healthy alternative to other oils when frying. Using Kome Abura can help reduce cholesterol. High in antioxidants, this oil has a very long shelf life. Kome Abura offers a light and clean buttery-nutty flavor that is difficult to reproduce with other oils. With the third-highest smoking point of all oils, it is a great choice for frying. Kome Abura is also reasonably priced in comparison to other oils.
Tsuyu（つゆ) is a sauce often used for dipping noodles. It often is available in concentrated form, so it needs to be mixed with water. As a soup base, it is commonly used in noodle dishes such as udon and soba. In a way, it is a more complex dashi comprising simpler Japanese staples such as mirin, konbu, soy sauce, sake, and katsuobushi. Tsuyu should taste slightly too salty on its own, as the flavor will diminish when eaten with noodles. There are a number of types of Tsuyu. A couple of more popular types are Men tsuyu and Hon tsuyu. Men tsuyu is served with somen noodles. Hon tsuyu is used as a cooking base.
Goma Abura (胡麻油), or sesame oil, is used in many dishes to give a different flavor than olive oil or vegetable oil when cooking. It is sometimes used to enhance the flavor of ramen. This oil also offers a fragrant alternative to other oils. Sesame seed oil is typically used in fried or grilled food, or aemono (chopped fish and veggies in sauce).
Shirogoma (白胡麻), white sesame seed, is often sprinkled on stir-fried or boiled vegetables as seasoning. Dry roast Shirogoma in a frying pan to add a nutty flavor. It can also be used to coat a variety of sweet and savory dishes, including Gohei mochi (a type of rice cake with walnut miso). Shirogoma is also one of the components of shichimi.
Panko（パン粉), dried breadcrumbs, is used as a coating for fried foods and other dishes. This unique way of coating fried foods offers a crispy dimension to such dishes as kara-age (fried chicken bits) and tonkatsu (fried pork cutlets). Panko is made up of dried, crustless white bread that has a drier and flakier consistency than that of regular breadcrumbs. Since it is more of a flake than a crumb, the result on the plate leads to something that crisps up more than other breading.
Shichimi（七味) is a spicy blend of seven different ingredients, with the term loosely translating as “seven flavors.” One example of this spice is a blend of sheet nori (dried sheets of seaweed), orange peel, ground red pepper, sesame seed, ginger, poppy seed, and ground pepper. There are other variations, but all of them add heat to dishes. Shichimi is frequently used to spice up butajiru (miso soup made with red miso, pork, and assorted vegetables).
Dashi (出汁) is Japanese soup stock that is used in a huge variety of dishes, everything from miso soup to okonomiyaki (savory pancakes). Most commercial dashi comes in a powdered or granulated form for a longer shelf life. Another way to prepare dashi is from scratch- by boiling konbu (dried kelp) or katsuobushi (see below) in water and then saving the stock.
Wakame (わかめ) is seaweed, usually sold dehydrated, that is added to dishes to provide a bit of saltiness. It is often used in miso soup classics such as wakame tofu miso soup. Since wakame usually has a very high salt content, you should rinse it under running water before adding it to dishes. There are many variations of wakame. Fresh wakame can be used to make seaweed salad, or it can be eaten on its own as a dried snack.
Nori (海苔) is dried, pressed sheets of seaweed. It is often used to make sushi rolls and onigiri (rice balls). When cut up, it can also serve as a topping for noodles or in soups. Yakinori (roasted nori) is another way to enjoy this food. Nori often absorbs water from the air and loses its crispness, becoming greasy, so it should be stored with a desiccant to absorb moisture. Even then, if left for too long, it will degrade, so make sure to replenish your supply of nori often.
Katakuriko (片栗粉), or potato starch, is used for frying food or as a thickening agent in curry or stews. It is best added to dishes as a liquid to avoid clumping – mixed in a separate bowl and blended with a small amount of warm water. Another use for katakuriko is to brush onto fried food prior to frying and before adding beaten egg and panko. This will make the dish more moist and also help the egg yolk and panko to adhere better.
Katsuobushi (鰹節), or dried bonito fish flakes, is used in soups or on rice for an extra layer of flavor. Add it to such dishes as okonomiyaki (savory pancakes) and takoyaki (octopus balls), or as a topping on tofu. Katsuobushi often adds a smoky, savory, light fish flavor. Adding it to hot water is a quick and easy way to make dashi. Katsuobushi has a very long shelf life.
Miso (味噌) is a thick paste that is often packaged in either square plastic containers or as bricks in plastic bags. It is frequently used as the main flavoring component of miso soup or as an ingredient in vegetable dips, salad dressing, or stir-fry. The three major types of miso are white (low in sodium), red (longer fermentation and stronger flavor), and yellow (a mix between red and white miso, considered to be the most versatile of the three).
You will likely need to stock other items as your taste for Japanese food grows, but this list will get you started. We added some sample links if you would like to purchase any of these ingredients on line. Let us know if we missed anything you would like to see covered.