You’ve been to Japan and ate all the delicious food. While trying okonomiyaki, sushi, tonkatsu, nabe hot pot and just simple sandwiches from convenience stores, you start wondering, “What’s in this?”, “What’s this source?” or “How do they make this so delicious?” It is the black sauce they give you for your tonkatsu that you want to buy before going home, but you have no idea where to look.
I know your pain. Even I, a Japanese native, have problem finding the right condiments. And I always get overwhelmed when I get to that section for sauces and seasonings at supermarkets. There is such a vast range of basic seasonings and sauces that you’ll never know which sauce is for what.
But don’t worry. Below, I’ve put together a list of 10 basic Japanese sauces and seasonings for those new to Japanese cooking. Have the list ready when you hit a supermarket in Japan or a Japanese glossary shop in your country.
No.10 Cooking Sake
In any Washoku (Japanese cooking) you have had, there is almost always cooking sake or Ryorishu in it. You can’t really substitute cooking sake with other types of alcohol, so add this to your shopping cart when you go shopping.
No.9 Shichimi/Ichimi Chilli Powder
Shichimi or any type of Japanese chili powder isn’t really as spicy as other condiments, but it is the fragrance that makes your Japanese dishes perfect. Shichimi can be added to all types of noodles and dishes, such as udon, soba, and all sorts of nabe hot pots. My personal favourite is Yawataya Isogoro’s series.
No.8 Ponzu Sauce
Ponzu is made with soy sauce and vinegar. Sounds simple, right? But Mitsukan, the most famous condiment maker in Japan, makes amazing ponzu with, of course, their secret recipe. It’s the black sauce you’ve been served when you had a hot pot in Japan.
If you are on a diet, Ponzu sauce is a great friend. I normally steam vegetables and meat and dip them in ponzu. It’s super refreshing and not oily at all.
Luckily I have several professional chef friends in Japan. I asked them what it is that non-professionals like myself can do to make our dishes better. They all told me to add a pinch of kombucha to your broth or pasta sauce! Normally, you’d think kombucha is a tea, but for restaurant chefs, it’s a magic condiment.
Kombucha is not only a secret weapon in your kitchen, but it’s a super healthy food, too.
No.6 Sushi Vinegar and Rice Vinegar
Japanese rice vinegar is a must-have in your kitchen if you are trying to get into Japanese cooking. You can use rice vinegar to prepare sushi rice, but you can also purchase professional made sushi vinegar available both in liquid and powder.
To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know what mirin was until I started cooking extensively at home in my 30s. I was adding mirin to all types of Japanese dishes at home, as I was told that mirin made them delicious and look good (mirin apparently gives that shiny look). Mirin is like cooking wine, a combination of sake and sugar. It’s not overly sweet, though, so it’s perfectly harmless even if you are on a diet.
No.4 Miso Soy Bean Paste
Miso has become a global citizen. So probably I don’t need to explain what it is. The basic use of miso is to make miso soup, but you can also use miso to cook fish, vegetables and meat, or add miso to hot pots and soba and udon soup. I also make miso hummus or dipping sauce and even miso soy milk shakes at home!
Remember the fragrance, color, and taste of wasabi? It’s one of the most elegant condiment in the world. It’s not only that reason why Japanese have eaten wasabi for centuries. Wasabi helps improve your immune system, cleans your system and hence helps prevent all kinds of illness and diseases. I try to buy fresh wasabi and grate it at home whenever I can, but there are always a few tubes of wasabi in my fridge for everyday use.
No.2 Japanese Mayonnaise Sauce
I used to have Japanese mayonnaise in a shared kitchen at work all the time when I lived in Sydney, Australia. As I added a generous amount of mayonnaise to my sandwiches, my colleagues curiously looked at me and asked, “What’s this?” I let them try and they were all hooked, saying “I never had mayonnaise like this before!”. I used to buy Japanese mayonnaise for myself and my colleagues from Japanese grocery shops in Australia, as they didn’t know where to get them from.
The most popular Japanese mayonnaise is Kewpie, who also makes all sorts of other condiments in Japan. But if you are visiting Japan soon, you can also try other types of mayonnaise and take them home.
No.1 Shoyu Soy Sauce
Shoyu is the rock of all Japanese cuisine. Sadly it’s difficult to get good quality shoyu overseas. If you think all shoyu taste the same, you are missing out big time:-( I urge you to visit supermarkets while in Japan and give yourself a good bottle of shoyu before flying home. Better yet, if you are going to visit countryside in Japan, ask for shops that make shoyu by a traditional method. Their soy sauce will have a deeper umami taste than mass produced soy sauce.