12 Herbs and Spices For Flavorful Japanese Cooking

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Japanese herbs and spices

Wa-ha-bu” or “wa-supaisu“, which literally means “Japanese herbs” and “Japanese spice” are the hidden flavor.

Japanese food is mostly not spicy or does not have a unique flavor, so you may wonder if there are such ingredients in Japan, but yes, they do! The Japanese use lots of herbs and spices like shiso, mitsuba, and myoga.

The Wa-herb Association website mentions that “Wa-herb” is categorized as a herb found and has been used even before the Edo era (1603-1867).

Some originated in Japan and some naturally came from out of Japan. It has been unique to Japan because Japan is an island country and was not in contact frequently with other countries.

The herbs and spices are not used like a Chinese herbal medicine, but are something that people consume daily in Japan.

The taste is subtle, but it becomes prominent once you realize what the common 12 herbs and spices taste like.

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1. Shiso (紫蘇)

Shiso is one of the most commonly used leafy herbs in Japan.

It’s called “perilla leaf” or “Japanese basil” in English, but the taste is close to mint. You may have tasted Korean perilla leaves if you are a Korean BBQ lover.

The 5 most important health benefits are the following.

  • anti-inflammatory
  • treat illnesses such as asthma
  • antioxidant
  • better blood circulation
  • control hormone balance

Shiso has green and red types. Green is commonly used in cooking, such as by pickling, garnishment for sushi or tofu, or rolling it on meat to sauté.

Red has a stronger unique taste, so it’s not used daily. But it’s commonly used in drinks with vinegar and plums, or in furikake (sprinkles) for rice to enjoy its bright color and unique taste.

2. Myoga (茗荷)

Myoga is a Japanese herb often referred to as Japanese ginger. The spiciness is more subtle than ginger, but the distinct zesty taste is similar to what is called “Ginger Flower” in Southeast Asia.

The texture is crunchy and tender. It has a similar unique taste to shiso, but a different texture, so it’s often used together for a great combination.

Japanese usually roll myoga with pork then sauté, or eat it fresh by slicing it finely and plating it on a cold dish, such as salad, tofu, or somen noodle.

The 4 most important health benefits are the following.

  • Prevent heat fatigue
  • Better blood circulation
  • Improve appetite
  • Give an antibacterial effect

3. Mitsuba (三つ葉)

Mitsuba is a Japanese herb called “Japanese wild parsley”, or “three leaves” because it has three leaves on one stem.

As the name suggests, it has a similar taste to parsley and celery.

The taste is subtle, so it’s usually presented as a garnish in Japanese soup commonly in osuimono (Japanese clear soup) or on top of chawanmushi (Japanese steamed tofu) in Japanese restaurants.

It can be eaten uncooked, but also common to stir-fry or blanch to enjoy the taste directly.

Health benefits include these 5 most commonly attributed ones.

  • Relief stress
  • Recover cough or cold symptoms
  • Better skin
  • Improve constipation
  • Prevents cancer or arteriosclerosis

4. Wasabi (山葵)

Wasabi, the Japanese horseradish, is one of the few spicy spices in Japan.

It is a root vegetable and is mostly known as a grated condiment to come with sushi and sashimi.

It has a unique spiciness that is hard to consume a lot at once, so it does not usually shine in a dish.

But it has several health benefits just like other wa-herbs and wa-spices. The 5 most commonly attributed ones are below.

  • Antibacterial
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Anticancer
  • Improve appetite
  • Antidiarrheal

It’s also nice to mince and turn it into a semi-dried furikake (sprinkles) or pickled dipping sauce to enjoy the crunchiness.

We recommend you eat it together with oily food to neutralize the taste if you are not used to the spiciness!

5. Ginger (生姜)

Shoga or ginger is also a wa-spice! It has been in Japan since around the 3rd century.

Japan commonly uses young ginger (新生姜、shin-shoga)and old ginger.

Young ginger is used for pickles for its softer texture.

Old ginger is commonly used for stir-frying or braising. The most common Japanese dish you may have heard of is Buta-no-Shogayaki (豚の生姜焼き、Pork stir-fried with ginger).

Both taste mostly the same as ginger from other countries.

The 4 most important health benefits of ginger are the following.

  • Treat chronic indigestion
  • Treat osteoarthritis
  • Treat pain of rheumatism
  • Improve cold and cough

6. Karashi (辛子)

Karashi is a Japanese spice, also called Japanese mustard. Although the taste is almost similar to the usual Western mustard, it has a more edgy and spicy taste similar to wasabi.

It usually comes as a condiment for Japanese dishes such as natto, oden, or tonkatsu. Sometimes it’s used as a hidden flavor in Japanese Western dish sauces or cold mayonnaise dishes.

The health benefits of karashi are many, the 5 most important stated below.

  • Strong disinfectant
  • Strong antioxidant
  • Better appetite
  • Better skin
  • Improve anemia

7. Shichimi Togarashi (七味唐辛子)

Shichimi Togarashi (literally means “7 taste chili pepper”) is a powdered chili spice that mixes 7 different spices, just like allspice or five spice powder.

The Japanese herbs, spices, and condiments used for this spice vary depending on the manufacturer.

Mostly they include red chili flakes, sansho, sesame seeds, nori seaweed, shiso, dried orange peel, hemp, and poppy seeds.

It has a unique spicy flavor with a little tanginess and acidity.

It’s versatile to sprinkle or dip on any kind of dish, such as udon, hot pot, yakitori, or braised tofu.

The health benefits depend on the content, but you can enjoy the comprehensive benefits.

Health benefits of shichimi togarashi include these 4 most important ones, among others.

  • Better digestion
  • Improve appetite
  • Antioxidant
  • Prevent lifestyle disease

8. Ichimi Togarashi (一味唐辛子)

Ichimi Togarashi is a Japanese ground red chili pepper spice, literally means “one spice chili pepper”. It has almost the same taste as a usual ground red chili pepper, but a slightly different flavor.

You can use it for udon, soba, or braised dish, just like shichimi togarashi.

But this is less likely to change the taste of your dish.

Health benefits of ichimi togarashi include these 4 most important ones below.

  • Prevent lifestyle disease (i.e: arteriosclerosis or cardiac infarction)
  • Increase appetite
  • Better blood circulation
  • Better weight loss

9. Sansho (山椒)

Sansho is a Japanese pungent & prickly peppercorns spice, which is also called Japanese pepper or Japanese prickly ash.

The pungency is similar to Szechuan pepper, but the citrusy taste is similar to yuzu citrus fruit.

The usage is similar to ichimi togarashi or shichimi togarashi. But with the pungency, it’s usually used in fish dishes such as eel donburi or sauteed fish.

It’s also used to give a refreshing taste to dishes, such as mapo tofu or tempura.

The 5 most important health benefits of sansho are listed below.

  • Improves basal metabolism
  • Warm up your body
  • Alleviates stomach pain
  • Better bowel movement
  • Better stomach condition

10. Yomogi(ヨモギ)

Yomogi is a Japanese leafy herb that is also called mugwort/ wormwood.

In the old times, it was used for ObGym (Women’s Health), and so it’s commonly used for bath water, cosmetics, or as an anti-itch.

Of course, it is also edible and has an earthy, sweet, and bitter taste, which cannot be described by other herbs or spices.

Mostly used in yomogi-mochi (sweet rice cake), but it also consumed by binding the paste to bread or deep-frying the leaves.

The 5 most commonly wriite about health benefits of yomogi are listed below.

  • anti-inflammatory
  • Antioxidant effect.
  • Stop coughing
  • Stop blood (when injured)
  • Stop phlegm

11. Kuromoji(クロモジ)

Kuromoji or “spice bush” is one of the Japanese herbs (tree) that is actually not well-known in Japan.

Branches are usually used for tooth-pick making. The leaf is edible.

There are 3 important health benefits to kuromoji though, as listed below.

  • Effective for acute gastroenteritis
  • Improve skin trouble (i.e: eczema or skin sore)
  • Improve liver disease

It’s mostly used for tea, and the taste is refreshing and spicy and also described as Japanese earl gray. It also has a similar flavor to a cinammon stick.

12. Shungiku(春菊)

Shungiku is a Japanese vegetable herb that is commonly found in supermarkets in Japan. It’s called crown daisy or garland chrysanth emum in English.

It has a bitter and unique taste that is similar to spinach and chard. As it has a nice crisp texture, it’s commonly used as an ingredient for sukiyaki or tempura.

The 4 most important health benefits of using shungiku in your cooking are the following.

  • Improve intestinal environment
  • Improve nervous system
  • Protects skin
  • Protect mucous membranes

Are herbs used a lot in Japanese cooking?

Yes, herbs are commonly used in Japanese cooking in the daily preparation of meals. They are not used like a Chinese herbal medicine, but they are consumed daily in food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, sweets, or drinks, like herbal tea.

You can easily cut, grind or just freshly consume with and without any cooking process to enjoy them. It’s why the Japanese love to use them in their cooking. They represent the culinary culture of fresh, good ingredients perfectly.

Are Japanese herbs also used as medicinal plants?

No. Japanese do not usually treat patients with Japanese herbs like the Chinese use them. But Japanese people often take the benefits into consideration when we cook as a way to stay naturally healthy.

In summertime, Japanese people take myoga and shiso which are refreshing, to survive the hot weather. In winter, people tend to eat braised dishes with ichimi togarashi or shichimi togarashi to for better blood circulation. They also drink ginger tea to warm the body.

Japanese do not treat them as clinical plants, but consume them casually in a day-to-day diet.

What herbs are used for Japanese herbal tea?

Dokudami (ドクダミ, fish mint), Hatomugi (ハト麦, adlay), Kuwa no Ha (桑の葉, mulberry leaf), Kuromoji, Yomogi, are the 5 common herbal teas used by tea sellers such as “Senchaso”, a Japanese tea shop since 1939, or “BE-TREE”, a wa-herb specialized shop from Kyoto.

To make a herbal teabag, you can simply purchase one from the store, or add the herbs into a teabag to make your own blend. If you’re going to make them by yourself, it’s better to chop them finely so that the taste can easily be extracted.

What are Japanese herb scissors?

Japanese herb scissors help you cut herbs finely. Unlike Western-style specialty herb scissors, the Japanese ones usually only have two blades to cut.

There are some scissors made with expert craftsmanship, only with one steel. There are also scissors that look like usual scissors, but with a shorter blade and a bigger grip.

The common point is that all of Japanese herb scissors are stable in cutting, so it’s easy to cut any small and/or hard stem of herbs.

What is a Japanese herb grinder?

A Japanese herb grinder is a hand grinder to grind herbs. It mashes the herbs, so you can also have a better fragrance.

The pain points are that it is heavy and tiring to grind, with some herbs more than others. You can also use a blender for an easier option.

Check out our new cookbook

Bitemybun's family recipes with complete meal planner and recipe guide.

Try it out for free with Kindle Unlimited:

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Yukino Tsuchihashi is a Japanese writer and recipe developer, who loves exploring different ingredients and food from various countries. She studied in an Asian Culinary School in Singapore.