Japanese cuisine beginner’s guide | 28 most used cooking ingredients
Check out our new cookbook
Bitemybun's family recipes with complete meal planner and recipe guide.
Try it out for free with Kindle Unlimited:Read for free
Japan’s culinary traditions date back thousands of years. Over time, it has developed around one of the five basic tastes, called umami, or savoriness in English.
Japanese cuisine is extremely varied and diverse but there are a few iconic dishes that you’re likely familiar with. These include sushi, yakiniku (Japanese BBQ), ramen, and miso soup which you can also find in American restaurants.
In this guide, I’ll go over all you need to know about Japanese food, the types of foods you can also find in the U.S, and then share the must-have Japanese ingredients for your kitchen.
If you love making delicious and mostly healthy foods, you’ll be fascinated by all that Japanese food culture has to offer!
17 Easy Recipes Anyone Can Make
All the tips you'll need to get started in Japanese cooking with, for a limited time, free as our first email: The Complete Japanese With Ease Cookbook.
We'll only use your email address for our newsletter and respect your privacy
What is Japanese cuisine called?
The traditional term for Japanese cuisine is Washoku (和食). This means “Japan,” “harmony,” and “food to eat.” Thus, it refers to the harmonious blend of nutritious ingredients that make up Japanese cuisine.
This term is actually a fairly recent invention from the Meiji period (1868-1912), which marks the beginning of Japan’s industrialization and modernization.
What makes Japanese cuisine?
Traditional Japanese cuisine is based upon rice with miso broth and other dishes, many of them containing noodles like ramen and udon.
There is a strong emphasis on seasonal ingredients. Side dishes are often made up of pickled vegetables and fish. You can eat seafood raw or grilled in some of the country’s most famous dishes: sushi and sashimi.
The Japanese food culture isn’t in danger of disappearing. Many of these dishes can be shared with other Asian countries but have their own unique style and taste. For example, one of Japan’s tastiest dishes is yakitori, or grilled chicken skewers.
In fact, Japanese BBQ, called yakiniku is the most popular way of cooking meat.
Then, another popular way to cook in Japan is to deep-fry foods. Many pancake-type dishes like okonomiyaki combine sweet or savory ingredients and deep-fry them with a special batter.
But one of the most distinguishing things that makes foods uniquely Japanese is the fifth flavor of Japanese cuisine, umami.
This combination of sweet and savory is what makes it stand out. This has attracted the attention of top chefs all over the globe.
Washoku traditional Japanese food
Washoku was created to distinguish Japanese traditional cuisine from western cuisine (Xi Yang Liao Li), and Japanese-influenced Japanese cuisine (Yang Shi).
I know it sounds a bit complex, but there’s a difference between the old traditional Japanese cuisine, the modern Japanese cuisine, and Western-inspired foods.
So, what is the base food for ancient Japanese cuisine?
Seafood is an integral part of Japanese culinary tradition because it was always readily available. Japan was always a nation of fishermen and thus fish and other seafood were more prevalent in old dishes than other meats.
Washoku cuisine is very important and still a huge part of Asia’s culinary preferences. In 2013, UNESCO placed Washoku on their list Intangible Cultural Legacy of Humanity.
It recognizes Japanese traditional foods as an invaluable resource for culinary history.
Seasonal dishes and ingredients
Washoku’s distinctive feature is its seasonal awareness of food, the four seasons play an important role in Japanese cuisine.
Although seasons are not an individual trait, they are deeply embedded in Japanese culture and they have an important connection to food.
Thus, seasonal dishes and cooking with “what’s in season” was always a big part of the culinary tradition.
This is evident in traditional arts, poetry, and dress, as well as in Japanese cuisine. Shun (“Xun”) is a way to show respect for the cycle of nature.
The term refers to the season when fresh produce reaches its peak flavor and nutritional value and thus must be consumed for maximum health benefits.
For example, the winter and early spring is the best time to eat hamaguri clams whereas, in the summer, the Japanese love their spicy shishito peppers.
In the autumn, people love to eat recipes with woody matsutake mushrooms, pike eel, and herbal shungiku greens. It’s also the best season to fish buri yellowtail.
There is also a shun for rice and freshly harvested rice is called Xin Mi. It’s popular because it has a much more tender texture and it’s moister.
There may be seasonal designs on plates or bowls. A few tender green leaves or decorative red maple leaves can add a pop of color to the dish. Japanese chefs use seasonal veggies and greens to decorate food.
The Tokugawa Shogunate (in the Edo period) had severely restricted contact with foreign countries. But as soon as Japan opened its borders to allow for the influx of new cultures and food, many people arrived from the U.S. and Europe.
Once taboo in Zen Buddhist practice, beef and pork were quickly embraced by the Japanese. Fusion dishes like tonkatsu, curry, and croquette were invented.
Types of Washoku cuisine
You may hear about different styles of multi-course Japanese meals – ending with Ryori (Liao Li) – which translates to cooking/cookery/cuisine.
You can try one or more of these fancy Washoku meals while traveling through Japan as these aren’t common in the West, unfortunately.
- Shojin Kyori Jing Jin Liaol – Shojin Ryori is a term that refers to temple food that is completely vegan, although some temples allow for milk products. It’s an ancient type of Zen Buddhist cuisine.
- ChaKaiseki Ryori (also known as Kaiseki Ryori), Cha Huai Shi Liao Li is a meal that’s served before the world-famous Japanese Tea Ceremony. Cha-Kaiseki Ryori was originally a cheap meal that satisfied hunger before the actual ceremony took place.
- Kaiseki Kyori Hui Xi Liao LI – The words have the same pronunciation, but with different Chinese characters. Kaiseki Ryori is a traditional meal served at ceremonial banquets. Such Kaiseki-specialized restaurants still exist.
- Honzen Ryori Be Shan Liao Li is a formalized meal served on legged trays to court aristocrats. Although it is rarer to find Honzen Ryori experiences these days, as tables and chairs have replaced the traditional trays. There are still some places that offer this experience.
What is a traditional Japanese meal?
A traditional meal usually starts off with a soup like miso soup or ramen soup.
Then, you have the main dish which is served with one side dish and some pickled vegetables like daikon radish, pickled plums, etc.
Many main dishes like yakiniku BBQ are also served with a dipping sauce.
Another common main dish is a bowl of rice like gohan served with meat or seafood (usually fish). Noodle dishes are also popular but not as cheap as classic rice dishes.
Dessert is not as common as in the West. Overall, the meals are lighter and less filling because they’re not as greasy or full of calories as Western meals.
Traditional Japanese cuisine
Let’s take a look at the most popular Japanese food in Japan.
There’s no doubt you’ve heard of sushi and probably tried it. Actually, sushi is probably Japan’s best food export to date.
It is raw or cooked fish and seafood paired with vegetables, vinegared rice, and seaweed, then shaped into small rolls. The rolls are served alongside soy sauce for dipping and a spicy wasabi sauce.
Traditional sushi is more simple like the basic salmon roll or cucumber roll. It’s not quite like American sushi (i.e California rolls) but I’ll get into American Japanese food next.
In Japan, sushi is served at lots of restaurants in the form of kaiten-zushi, also known as conveyor belt sushi. Diners pick the sushi they want to eat from a moving conveyor belt and they can eat at an affordable price.
Then, you’ve got high-end sushi restaurants where the food is served in Edo-style. This is known as Edomae sushi and you sit at a counter eating quietly while the sushi chef prepares the sushi rolls in front of you.
Raw fish, called sashimi is another Japanese specialty. It’s usually served at the same restaurants as sushi.
Sashimi, which is a raw fish cut into bite-sized pieces and similar to sushi, does not contain rice.
It is a popular choice for anyone visiting Japan, whether they are in Tokyo or Kyoto, but it’s best for those who like the taste of plain, raw fish and seafood.
There are many types of sashimi, just like sushi.
Maguro and other tuna types, salmon, mackerel, and sea bream are some of the most popular and well-known varieties. Also, you can try salmon roe, uni, or sea urchins.
Sashimi is usually eaten with soy sauce to enhance its flavor. For extra heat, you can add a little wasabi to the top of your sashimi.
However, it is not necessary. Some varieties, such as horse mackerel will be served with ginger rather than wasabi.
Yakiniku and yakitori
Yakiniku is the general term for Japanese barbeque. You can grill any meat, seafood, and vegetables on all kinds of Japanese grills like hibachi, teppanyaki, konro, etc.
Yakitori is a popular Japanese food where chicken is cut into small pieces and then placed on bamboo sticks. Basically, it’s grilled chicken skewers.
You can find it on many menus at casual restaurants and izakaya, making it a great choice for a night out with friends in Japan.
This dish is particularly delicious when it’s paired with alcohol. It is also possible to find this traditional Japanese dish at a Japanese festival or street food stall.
Yakitori is usually ordered by the portion of the chicken at restaurants. Other types of meat and veggies can also be skewered.
The meat is lightly seasoned with salt, so you can eat it straight away. You can eat straight from the skewer.
The yakitori is also served with a yakitori sauce made of soy sauce and molasses and gives a sweetness to the meat.
Miso soup, another popular Japanese food, is well-known for its delicious taste and health benefits. This soup is usually accompanied by other main and side dishes.
Miso soup is a staple part of the traditional Japanese diet and it’s the perfect comfort food for a cold night.
The base of miso soup is simply the fermentation of miso (soybeans and koji), which gives it a rich flavor and depth. It’s then seasoned with Japanese dashi which contains kelp and bonito flakes.
There are many regional variations of miso soup. These range from simple soups made with seaweed and tofu, to more complex soups that include crab or vegetables you don’t usually see in miso soup.
There are many types of miso paste, but the most common are white (mild), yellow (medium), and red (strong, pungent).
When you visit Japan, make sure you try authentic miso soup. You can find it in most Japanese restaurants at all price points.
This is a dish made with various mild-flavored ingredients and simmered in a tasty broth and it’s similar to soup.
Oden has been consumed for many years in Japan. It is believed that it was first prepared during the Muromachi period (1336-1573).
The ingredients are intended to enhance the flavor of the broth (usually consisting of seafood and kelp) and give it a savory, salty flavor.
Oden is often made with mild-tasting ingredients like tofu and fish. Daikon radish is a thick root vegetable that can be found in many recipes too.
Ganmodoki is another popular option: it’s a hearty combination of vegetables and tofu that has been shaped into a round shape.
Oden is sold at restaurants and food stalls. In the winter and fall months, you can also find it in convenience stores. You can even buy oden in cans at vending machines in Tokyo’s Akihabara area.
Sukiyaki is generally prepared in a shallow iron skillet because it’s quite a runny, liquidy food. It is traditionally served hot in autumn and winter in Japan because it’s considered comfort food.
It was popularized in Japan around the 19th century. It can be prepared in your own home or on the menu at a restaurant.
Sukiyaki can be made with many different ingredients like thin slices, green onions, tomatoes, and mushrooms. The dish is prepared by diners who grill the ingredients in a pan and add a few drops sukiyaki sauce, or warishita.
To eat sukiyaki as it is traditionally prepared, dip the vegetable or meat in a bowl of beaten eggs.
This delicious, satisfying dish is great served with steamed rice.
Unagi is also known as eel in English and can be found mostly in rivers. It is a Japanese delicacy that is often found in top-quality Japanese cuisine.
Many casual restaurants also specialize in unagi cuisine. You can enjoy kabayaki at unagi restaurants. This is where unagi is grilled on skewers with a special sauce that includes mirin, sugar, and sake.
Unadon is a variation on the same dish that includes kabayaki with white rice.
Hitsumabushi is another traditional Nagoya dish. Although its appearance might be surprising to some, it is a cut-up kabayaki served on top of white rice.
However, it can also be enjoyed with other condiments such as green onion and wasabi or as ochazuke, which is a warm green tea or broth.
Unagi can also be used as healthy food to avoid summer heat weariness due to its protein and beneficial properties, considered to aid digestion.
Tempura came to Japan through Nagasaki in the 16th century as a result of new frying and fritter-cooking methods.
It is a dish that involves deep-frying meat, seafood, and vegetables in a batter. The batter is a simple flour and egg mixture but it gives food a yummy crunchy texture.
The deep-fried tempura food is usually dipped in a sauce called tentsuyu which is a broth made from a combination of kombu (seaweed), bonito flakes, mirin, and soy sauce.
The sauce is cooked and simmer and gives a light, refreshing taste to the fried foods.
Rice balls (onigiri)
Since rice is such a popular Japanese food, you won’t be surprised to know rice can be served sweet or savory, steamed or fried, and even made into rice balls.
Onigiri is a type of rice ball that you may have heard about. Omusubi, or onigiri, can look just like regular rice.
However, it’s often wrapped in nori seaweed and has a savory interior filling.
These rice balls or triangles are often served in bento lunches and can be found in supermarkets. This is a great choice for light snacks or meals.
Onigiri is available in a variety of flavors, including kelp, bonito flakes, pickled plum (umeboshi), and salmon. You can also find many other flavors at a convenience or supermarket.
You can make your own onigiri and purchase it at a low price, but there are many restaurants that offer onigiri, prepared by skilled chefs using high-quality ingredients.
Soba, udon, and ramen noodles are the most popular types in Japan.
Soba noodles are made of buckwheat flour and water. The noodles are thinly rolled and cut into noodles with a width of 1 cm-2 cm. It is best to cook the noodles in boiling water.
A popular way to eat it is in soba broth (called tsuyu), which is usually made from kombu, dried bonito broth, and seasoned with mirin.
Udon, a Japanese traditional dish, is known for its thick noodles. The dough is made of flour and saltwater. Once the dough has been kneaded, it is cut into noodles.
Udon noodles can be boiled in water and then topped with soup or tempura. Udon can be enjoyed hot or cold, just like soba. The noodles can be eaten in many ways but soup or stir-fry is most common.
Ramen noodles are usually served in broth. It is made up of Chinese-style wheat noodles, served in a meat- or (occasionally), fish-based broth.
Sometimes it has toppings like chashu, nori (dried seafood), menma, and scallions. You can also add meat, seafood, tofu, and whatever you like. I’ve listed the most popular ramen toppings here.
Ramen is popular comfort food and it’s often sold as pre-packaged noodle packs you make in the microwave or stovetop in a couple of minutes.
Donburi, the Japanese term for a rice bowl, is a very popular lunch or dinner food. You start with a bowl of rice and then add cooked meats or vegetables to it.
Oyako-Don is one version of donburi. It features chicken (parent, or “oya”) as well as egg (child, or “ko”) at its top.
You can also add beef, onions, tempura, or fried pork to the rice (gyudon). It’s really the best way to have rice with additional flavorful ingredients.
Japanese food in America: what’s the difference?
When a dish migrates from Japan to America it usually undergoes some changes and the flavors are adapted to suit the American palate.
Japanese food is becoming more popular with a shift towards healthier eating. Even in America, the number of Japanese restaurants is increasing.
The popularity of Japanese cuisine is not only due to its delicious taste, but also because it allows you to enjoy the dishes visually.
But, the flavors change too. For example, think about sushi. The California roll is probably the most famous sushi roll in the West.
In Japan, it’s not a popular roll because it’s adapted and flavored according to American preferences for imitation crab, avocado, and lots of sauce.
Same with teriyaki bowls. These are more popular in the States than in Japan. Teriyaki sauce is actually an adaptation of Hawaiian sauces and flavors.
You can say that many Japanese dishes were Americanized along the way.
Another difference is that traditional Japanese food is based around rice but in America, many people love to have noodles instead because it’s more similar to Italian pasta and people are very familiar with it.
Most popular Japanese food in America
Sushi is the most popular Japanese food ambassador. The difference is that American sushi has more ingredients and contains more calories than its healthier Japanese counterpart.
Sushi rolls in Japan are made with nori paper on the outside and filled with fresh raw fish or seafood and one or two vegetables. On the other hand, sushi rolls in the United States are filled with a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and strong, bold sauces.
You won’t find sushi rolls in Japan that are deep-fried, spicy, or filled with avocado too often.
Sashimi is less popular than sushi in the West because people just aren’t as accustomed to eating raw fish. However, most Western sushi restaurants also offer sashimi on the menu.
Ramen restaurants offer ramen with meats and vegetables as a healthy option. Ramen soup broths vary by region. The most popular are miso-, soy sauce- and salt-based broths.
You can find ramen at most restaurants and convenience stores. They also offer hot water, so you can grab a cup of ramen to go.
Fried rice (Chahan)
American-style chicken teriyaki is best known for that delicious sweet glaze. The dish is comprised of grilled chicken thighs or breasts, marinated in a sweet soy-based teriyaki sauce.
It’s then served with steamed vegetables and rice and topped with sesame seeds.
Most American chicken teriyaki also contains garlic and some other non-traditional flavors. It’s a popular fast food and take-out food at restaurants like Panda Express.
Traditional teriyaki is made of a simpler tangier sauce than the American one which is actually Hawaiian and made with pineapples.
This dish is a prime example of Japanese fusion food.
If you think about cult fusion food, then Katsu curry is an important one on the list.
The dish is made with a delicious pork cutlet, that’s breaded in panko and deep-fried. It is then served on a bed of rice and generously topped with plenty of curry sauce.
The curry sauce is made with a Japanese curry roux and is milder than Indian curry. To make the curry sauce, curry spices are mixed with flour, butter, and soy sauce.
Americans love their teppan-style cooked foods. Teppanyaki food refers to food that’s cooked on a flat-top teppanyaki grill.
Most of these dishes are made with grilled meats, seafood, and vegetables. Then, noodles, egg, and/or rice are also fried on the teppan grill and added to the dish to create a tasty stir-fry.
A popular variety is the yakisoba noodle with scallions, pepper, egg, and beansprouts.
Best Japanese sauces
There’s a lot you can make yourself and I sometimes like to make my own sauces as well, but if you’re like me and you work and have a family, buying a few off the shelf every now and then isn’t such a bad thing.
At least, if you know where to get the right flavors!
These ingredients are what I use in my recipes throughout this blog so maybe you’ve landed on this page wanting to make one of the delicious Japanese dishes you saw.
Japanese Shoyu (soy sauce)
You can’t get around trying shoyu when eating Japanese food. You definitely know it from having sushi at your favorite Japanese restaurant.
But it’s actually used in a lot of dishes and sauces as well. My favorite use is adding it to my ramen noodle broth, and it all begins with having the right soy sauce for the job.
Soy sauce is extremely versatile and you can use it as a base flavoring for many dishes. The low-sodium WFM Shoyu sauce is one of my favorites.
Japanese Worcestershire sauce
Worcestershire is the go-to sauce in Japan when adding sauce on top of your food. It’s almost just referred to as ‘sauce’ in Japanese establishments because everyone will instantly know what you mean.
It probably originated from England but it has been in Japanese heritage for more than 120 years and is considered a Japanese sauce now, and used in a lot of dishes.
Bull-dog is the best Japanese Worcestershire sauce brand and it has a pretty thick consistency but it’s sweeter than Western Worcestershire sauce.
Japanese oyster sauce
Japanese oyster sauce is a lot milder in fish flavors than its other Asian counterparts, so be sure not to buy a Chinese or Thai variation of this sauce for your Japanese dish.
It has a lot of soy in it because the Japanese just love soy sauce!
Japanese oyster sauce is used a lot in stir fry vegetable dishes and with shiitake mushrooms as well.
If you’re looking for that balanced umami flavor that still delivers plenty of seafood aromas, check out Asamurasaki oyster soy sauce.
Japanese Teriyaki Sauce
Teriyaki definitely is a Japanese sauce and it actually comes from two Japanese words “teri” (luster) and “yaki” (grilling).
It gives a luster, that’s the way light hits a shiny surface, to the ingredients you are about to grill. The shine comes from the sugar in the teriyaki, which makes it a very sweet sauce.
One of the most flavorful premium Teriyaki sauces is Yamasa’s Teriyaki Marinade Sauce. You can use it to marinate yakiniku meats or dip your rice balls in it.
But what not many people know is that it also comes from the mirin in the sauce an ingredient used a lot in Japanese cooking.
Needless to say that teriyaki sauce is great for all of those delicious Japanese BBQ recipes.
If you’re saying Japanese Mayonnaise, you’re saying Kewpie. They’re almost synonymous as it is the most well-known brand that makes it.
Japanese mayonnaise differs from American in that it tastes a little sourer.
I like to use it in dressings as well but I skip the vinegar most of the time because the mayonnaise (kewpie mayo, not the regular!) will take care of that sourness you’re looking for.
If you haven’t tried Kewpie mayo yet, you’re missing out!
There are a lot of fans out there that love a good takoyaki ball. It’s the crunchy texture and doughy center, mixed in with the octopus fish flavor that makes them come back for more.
But the real flavor comes from the sauce.
Alongside Japanese mayonnaise, you should use the specifically made takoyaki sauce as a topping to finish your dish.
Paired with the octopus balls, the Hinode Yummy! Takoyaki Sauce gives a delicious fruity yet salty flavor.
Yakisoba is a famous Japanese dish enjoyed in almost every household.
It’s so good and easy to make (recipe here) that the Japanese often make enough for the whole family and some extra leftover for their bento box the next day.
When using a pre-made Yakisoba sauce, it’s even easier to make.
The umami-flavored Otafuku Yakisoba Sauce is perfect for most noodle dishes actually.
Yakitori sauce is used to glaze the chicken skewers before you grill them over the charcoal fire.
Yakitori is actually eaten as is, without any additional sauces, so the glaze has to be perfect.
If you want to try a bottled yakitori sauce, I recommend Ebara Yakitori No Tare.
Best Japanese cooking flavors
Japanese cooking sake
Cooking sake is used in so many Japanese recipes, you can’t live without a bottle.
This brand is not a cooking sake but you can drink it as well.
I don’t like cooking sakes as salt has to be added by law for cooking sake to be able to be sold in grocery stores without a liquor license.
It’s a very inexpensive option and maybe not the best brand to drink, but certainly to cook with!
However, if you want great cooking sake for all your best Japanese recipes, you can try Kikkoman Ryorishi Cooking Sake Seasoning which is made from rice koji.
Japanese roasted sesame oil
The sesame oils used as a flavoring ingredient in Japanese dishes are made from roasted sesame seeds.
Roasted sesame oil has a light brown color to sometimes a darker reddish color and usually the deeper the color the more flavor it has.
You don’t need to use much in your dishes because the flavor and aroma are so strong, so a bottle should last you a long time.
Organic toasted sesame oil is the type of ingredient you can also find at American grocery stores and health shops.
Japanese Mirin: sweet rice wine
Mirin is commonly used in Japanese sauces and dishes to add a bit of sweetness without overwhelming. It is what gives the glossy shine to teriyaki and the tanginess to sushi.
It’s made from rice wine as you find used for sake, but the process for making alcohol is stopped earlier. That’s why you find more sugar and less alcohol in mirin than you would in sake.
So many Japanese recipes require mirin so you need to have it in your pantry! Try the one from Kikkoman as it’s affordable and tasty. It’s not a hon mirin, but those can get very expensive (I explain why that is here).
Rice vinegar is always used in good sushi rice for seasoning the rice.
Apart from that, you will often find it in dressing recipes and for all those delicious Japanese pickled ginger, plums, and other mixtures.
Marukan Genuine Brewed Rice Vinegar is one of Japan’s best rice vinegar.
Japanese Miso Paste
Miso paste is a substance made from fermented soybeans and has a strong flavor. It has a sort of brownish-red color (unless you have the white miso paste) and is very salty.
It is meant to be used in dishes because on its own the flavor is too strong.
The most well-known dish that uses miso paste is miso soup, and it’s also a base for a lot of ramen noodles broths.
Anko bean paste
Japanese bean paste, also called anko is made of red beans (adzuki).
It’s a vegan bean paste that’s used as a filling for pastries like Dorayaki, or taiyaki Japanese pancakes (fun and fish-shaped!). It has a slightly sweet taste and creamy texture.
You can buy it in bags, like the Koshian red bean paste.
If you have a hard time finding adzuki beans to make anko, here are some substitutes you can use instead
Dashi is there for the umami flavor. It’s used to bring out other flavors from within your dish and strengthen them with umami.
With an instant dashi stock, you don’t have to go through the process of making it yourself from scratch and just add the powdered form to water or straight into your dish (make sure to add some water to the dish as well and stir).
Japanese Sansho pepper
The Japanese don’t often eat spicy food, but when they add a bit of spiciness it either comes from imported flavors from China or Korea, or they typically use a green Japanese pepper called Sansho.
You can buy ground Szechuan peppercorns from the brand S&B. The Sansho pepper condiment is the best Japanese pepper powder.
Japanese Umeboshi pickled plum
Umeboshi are pickled and dried ume fruits that are found in Japan. They are said to be pretty healthy and are used in some Japanese dishes, mainly as fillings.
One of these dishes that use the pickled plum is Onigiri rice balls.
Luckily, Shirakiku umeboshi is sold on Amazon in plastic containers.
Best Japanese toppings
Katsuobushi bonito flakes
Katsuobushi is fermented bonito fish shavings and it’s used on a lot of Japanese dishes to bring out umami flavors.
It’s a main ingredient of Dashi, but it’s also often used as toppings, mainly on fried foods like the takoyaki octopus balls.
The bonito flakes add seafood flavor to any dish, especially fried foods like Takoyaki.
Yamahide Large Bonito flakes are umami fish shavings that will enhance any dish.
Tenkasu (tempura bits)
Just like almost any country, the Japanese love a good crunch to their dish, and one of the easiest ways is to add some bits of tempura on top of or into your dish.
If you like the tempura shrimp or even vegetables from your local Japanese restaurant, you’ll love the Tenkasu tempura bits you can buy to add that little crunchy texture to your dinner!
Aonori Seaweed Furikake
Aonori seaweed is used as a topping on a lot of dishes to add a bit of saltiness on top.
You’ll mostly find it is used on just plain rice which is actually a pretty common dish in Japan and you just need the seaweed to make it taste good.
Aonori is also the main ingredient of furikake where a few others are added as well to enhance the flavors.
If you want to try this seasoning, buy the AoNori Goma Furikake Rice Seasoning since it’s one of the best Japanese brands.
You can also make furikake yourself though, here I have a great bonito and shrimp flavor recipe.
Japanese pickled Daikon radish
The Daikon is a root vegetable and has the structure and a bit of the taste of radish.
You don’t have to pickle it, but like in many other cuisines, the Japanese pickled this vegetable to be able to preserve it longer and have vegetables in the wintertime as well.
Want to try pickled radish? Try the Eden Foods brand which is pickled with rice bran.
Shiitake mushrooms are used in so many dishes it’s hard to keep count. Some of my favorites are sukiyaki and, of course, ramen noodles.
You can get them in dried form and they’ll retain all of their flavors and release it when rehydrated.
You can add VIGOROUS MOUNTAINS Dried Shiitake Mushrooms to your favorite miso soup recipe.
Japanese base ingredients
To make the batter for traditional Okonomiyaki pancakes, you’ll need a few things and I’ve written about it a few times on my blog. But the first thing you’ll need is flour with the right consistency.
There are specially made flours for Okonomiyaki, and the reason is that to get the right texture and flavor you’d have to add quite a few things to it to get it right.
Otafuku Okonomiyaki flour not only has the right thickness needed for the pancakes (they should be able to hold vegetables mind you), but it also has the correct spices in it already.
Japanese Ramen Noodles (Ramyun)
Ramen noodles are just in such a large amount of dishes in Japanese cooking.
A bowl of ramen soup can accompany a lot of main courses or stand on its own, and you can add a lot of different flavors with different broths like miso, shoyu and shio.
Ramen is one of my favorite Japanese ingredients.
You can try a Menraku ramen noodle variety pack to discover your favorite flavor.
Soba noodles are basically buckwheat noodles and a lot of dishes use it as their main ingredient.
The most popular one being yakisoba, which along with its special yakisoba sauce is very easy to make.
Look for the J-Basket Dried Buckwheat Soba Noodles because they are tasty and made with authentic Japanese ingredients.
Nori Sheets (roasted seaweed)
While used as a topping on many dishes from ramen noodle soup to rice bowls, the nori sheets are most commonly used as a base ingredient to roll the sushi in.
Slightly crunchy from the roasting and drying, these also add a salty flavor to your dish.
I like to use the Hime Seaweed Sushi Nori sheets when I make homemade sushi rolls.
Tempura batter is another one of those staple batter mixes that you’ll need to have to be able to create the best dishes, like the delicious Tendon tempura bowl.
Okonomiyaki has its own batter to be able to hold vegetables, but tempura batter has to be crunchy and add the right flavor.
Great for deep-frying shrimp but also for vegetables. You should give that a try as well.
A great tempura batter mix from Amazon can make your life easier and it’s also quite affordable.
Japanese premium-grain sushi rice
Sushi uses a very particular type of medium-grain white rice to be able to get the right sticky texture needed to form the sushi rolls and get them to stay in place.
Don’t use regular short grain rice as the texture won’t be right for sushi. I recommend 4Sisters Authentic Short Grain Japonica Sushi Rice which is also chemical-free.
Soybean curd tofu sheets
These are great for when you’re going to make any type of deep-fried tofu with fillings, especially good for Inari sushi.
Dried tofu pockets are also called inarizushi. You can buy Shirakiku Inarizushi No Moto canned soybean curd pockets.
Japanese cuisine FAQs
Japanese food is amazingly diverse and there’s so much to talk about. However, there are some important questions you want to be answered so you’re informed on all things old & modern Japanese cuisine.
How to make Japanese cuisine?
You can follow a recipe and make tasty Japanese cuisine at home and in most cases, it’s totally doable.
You’ll likely find the ingredients you need at an Asian grocery store or online.
However, you might need 3 essential tools that can help you cook more efficiently.
- First, you need a rice cooker – Almost every Japanese household has a rice cooker. Since many dishes are based around rice,
- Second, you need frying pans – A carbon steel wok is the most commonly used pan for frying and stir-frying as well as grilling.
- And third, you need pots to make miso soups, dashi, Japanese soup stock, simmered dishes, sauces, and other culinary delights.
How to learn Japanese cuisine?
The easiest and cheapest way to learn to cook Japanese dishes is to follow recipes and cooking videos.
There are plenty of blog-style recipes online and many cooking videos that show you the A-Z of Japanese cooking methods.
So, if you want to know how to learn Japanese cooking, then you need to take a specialty course that teaches more than just the fundamentals.
The best way to learn is to attend specialized cooking courses and classes. You can scroll to the bottom of the article to see my course recommendations.
How to describe Japanese cuisine?
A good way to describe Japanese food is “umami.” This refers to the fifth taste also called ‘savoriness.’
This is a good term because Japanese foods have a more subtle and delicate taste. They’re not as spicy as some other Asian foods and they have well-balanced flavors.
Another way to describe Japanese foods is that they are simple, yet healthy and comforting.
Why Japanese cuisine is popular?
Japanese food is built around popular and very tasty ingredients like rice, noodles, and seafood. Most people love this type of food.
Also, the foods are easy to share with others and there’s often communal cooking involved. For example, if you have yakiniku, you sit around a tabletop hibachi grill and cook your own food with your friends.
Another reason is that a lot of the meats and vegetables are boiled or grilled and this makes them healthy. Sure, there are deep-fried recipes too but they are served with healthy-ish side dishes.
Finally, presentation is key and people love the way Japanese food is plated, served, and how it looks. You’ll often find colorful toppings like roe, narutomaki fish cakes, and bold green onion (negi) that add aesthetic appeal.
Why Japanese cuisine is unique from others?
The Japanese food culture isn’t in danger of disappearing and is increasingly popular in the West.
Some dishes like ramen are not 100% unique to Japan as they can be found in other Asian countries but Japanese foods have their own unique style and flavor.
The fifth flavor of Japanese cuisine, umami is what has attracted the attention of top chefs all over the globe. This umami is uniquely Japanese and makes the dishes special.
Here’s the thing: most Japanese food is made with fresh ingredients and does not require any seasoning.
On the other hand, other Asian cuisines like Chinese food, are oilier due to the way they are fried. Japanese people love to grill or serve their food in its natural state.
Why is Japanese cuisine often vegetarian?
Japanese cuisine isn’t as reliant on meat as Western cuisine. Tofu and rice (fried tofu in Japan, aburaage) are two staples of Japanese cuisine.
This makes it easy for vegetarians and vegans in Japan. Buddhism was the religion that popularized vegetarianism in Japan. Its influence is still evident today. Shogun ryori is a vegetarian option in many Buddhist temples.
Also, you’ll notice there are many vegan and vegetarian dishes and variations on other popular dishes.
Why is Japanese cuisine healthy?
Japanese food is often made with fresh meat, seafood, and vegetables and cooked using healthier methods.
Traditional Japanese food is balanced compared to its Western counterpart. It includes more fish than red meat, lots of vegetables and little rice.
The noodles are also healthier and you can find buckwheat soba noodles that are far better.
This diet is low in processed foods and has a lower sugar intake. The Japanese diet is very nutritious and generally low in calories.
Traditional Japanese diets may help prevent conditions such as heart disease and even diabetes. It is naturally rich in fish and seaweed, green teas, fruits, and vegetables, but low in animal protein, added sugar, fat, and animal proteins.
The bottom line is that Japanese foods have higher nutritional value.
What are the pillars of Japanese cuisine?
It’s hard to narrow it down to a few specific base or “pillar” foods. However, there are some foods that are very common in many recipes.
These foods include:
- ramen noodles
- soba noodles
- udon noodles
- somen noodles
- soy sauce
- daikon radish
- seaweed and sea vegetables
- fish and seafood (mackerel, salmon and roe)
- citrus fruit
- green tea
Best Japanese cuisine online courses
I wish I had started with online courses sooner when I started MY journey. I’ve spent a LOT of time researching recipes and techniques and found some great ones online, I must say.
But it took a long time to find the best recipes and technique videos to help me grow.
And you need to spend a little, not a lot mind you, to move along your learning quicker. So eventually I bought courses to learn more.
I’ve tried a lot and some were pretty good, but there were also quite a few bad ones. These two I can fully recommend taking to get you learning SO MUCH faster though.
Authentic Japanese food cooking class by Pearl Ishizaki
If you want to learn more about cooking all sorts of Japanese food, this course by Pearl Ishizaki is the course that I found is the most comprehensive and easy to follow.
It has 92(!) recipes in it, it’s a best seller on Udemy with GREAT customer reviews, and has over 8 hours of teaching videos.
You can try out a preview for free here:
The most comprehensive sushi course online by Dan Yang
Sushi is one of the most appealing Japanese food types out there and it is actually quite easy to get started in, but difficult to master.
Everything you’ll need to learn once you get deeper into it, from rolling the right way all the way to the right cutting technique for fish.
In his most comprehensive sushi course, Dan Yang will teach you everything you’ll need to know on mastering sushi.
You can try out a free preview here:
Now that you’ve got an idea of what makes Japanese cuisine special, I recommend going out and trying the traditional Japanese dishes as well as modern fusion foods.
The dishes are full of tasty ingredients with minimal seasoning but plenty of umami flavors.
Be prepared to see lots of fresh fish and seafood including eels and clams on the menu as Japanese people have a preference for seafood and sea vegetables.
It’s part of the reason why they have lower heart disease rates there and why people’s diets are overall healthier than ours!
Next, learn about the 7 most delicious Japanese street foods you simply must try
Check out our new cookbook
Bitemybun's family recipes with complete meal planner and recipe guide.
Try it out for free with Kindle Unlimited:Read for free
Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.