First, the good news: you can find many of the basic building blocks for a Japanese meal at any old supermarket. Things like ginger, garlic, spring onions, apple cider vinegar (which works great as a substitute for rice vinegar), salt and sugar are essential to the Japanese home cook, and not at all hard to come by.
Other ingredients present a bit more of a challenge: but most mid-sized to large towns in North America and Europe have Asian specialty shops where you can find them.
These are the things you absolutely can’t do without:
- Dashi – or “Dashi no moto” – soup base made from sea kelp and dried bonito tuna. Forget soy sauce – this naturally glutamate-rich stock is the real cornerstone of the Japanese taste.
- Cooking sake -You can use normal sake, and it’s better. But cooking sake is much less expensive than normal sake, and works just as well.
- Soy sauce – Use a Japanese brand like Kikkoman
- Mirin – sweetened sake. Preferably the “hon-mirin” (real mirin) type with at least 5% alcohol content, not the alcohol-free “mirin-flavored” stuff.
- Miso – fermented soy paste. Try the different types to find your favorite.
Those are the basics: what you absolutely need to start.
On top of those, it’s nice to have:
- Konbu – edible sea kelp
- Potato starch
- Shiitake mushrooms (dry)
- Katsuobushi – dried bonito-tuna fish flakes
- Nori seaweed
- Sesame seeds -in Japan both black and white sesame are popular
- Aburage – deep-fried tofu (You can keep this in the freezer for months.)
- Udon noodles (dry)
I’ve chosen those 8 because they’re easy to store for a long time, and they’re useful in a wide variety of dishes, enriching the taste and the texture of many recipes you’ll find on this blog.
Less versatile, but still very nice to have for specific recipes are:
- Okonomiyaki sauce -This is only for Okonomiyaki and Yakisoba. I strongly reccomand “Otafuku” brand Okonomiyaki sauce.
- Japanese sesame paste -This is Japanese-style Tahini used to make Goma-dare dressing for hotpots, salads, etc.
- Oyster sauce -This is mainly for Chinese cooking, but Chinese cooking is so mainstream in Japan these days, it counts!
Again: you don’t need these every time you cook something Japanese, but they do turn up sometimes in my recipes, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with them.
As you can see, it will pay to find a good Asian store near your house, and make friends with the staff there: they’re the people whose help you’ll need to locate these. Don’t be shy to ask!
Aside from ingredients, the only thing you need is a good sharp knife: there’s a lot of chopping in Japanese cuisine. In fact, a lot of Japanese recipes are 90% preparation, so a good knife really is important.
As for what you don’t need, well, woks and rice cookers are convenient, but don’t believe the hype: you don’t need them. I don’t have them, and I cook Japanese food every day!
Never mind the fancy kitchen hardware. Concentrate instead on your state of mind. To really start doing Japanese food at home, what you really need is the patience to learn a new way of doing things in the kitchen, and a steadfast, steely determination to get off the Western Diet once and for all!