There is no denying that Japanese food is getting more and more popular across the United States. Once a niche ethnic cuisine, Japanese cooking has gone beyond sushi and teriyaki and has become mainstream. Walk down the aisle of many big supermarkets and you will find sushi, sashimi in Japanese bento boxes as eager shoppers and diners load them up in their shopping cart. Other than that, Japanese cooking techniques and ingredients are increasingly adopted by celebrity chefs and cooking professionals alike. Dashi, yuzu, kombu—ingredients that were once alien to non-Japanese chefs are now vital components of haute cuisine and fine dining.
As a result of the wild popularity of Japanese cuisine, its ingredients are taking more shelf space in many food stores as more people venture into Japanese cooking at home. I am a huge fan of Japanese food and have been learning and making Japanese food at home. Over the years, I have learned that cooking Japanese food is not hard; in fact, it’s quite easy as soon as you grasp the fundamentals of Japanese cooking: the basic ingredients, the cooking techniques, tips, traditional methods, and preparation. So, to help you learn Japanese cooking, I have put together this page as an overview of the essential ingredients and the cooking tips that define Japanese cuisine…
Ponzu is a fundamental flavoring sauce in Japanese cuisine that oozes umami and great flavor. Made with soy sauce, citrus juice and vinegar, Ponzu has many culinary uses. Every summer, I use Ponzu for my grilled foods, from meats, seafood, chicken to mushrooms and vegetables. Other culinary usage are:
- Dipping sauce for sushi, sashimi, gyoza (Japanese) dumpling, shabu-shabu (Japanese hot pot).
- Marinade for meat, fish, shellfish, tofu, and vegetables before grilling.
- Salad dressing. Use ponzu alone or mix it with mayonnaise, salad dressing/oil for a unique flavor.
- Pour-over sauce for meat, fish, shellfish, tofu, and vegetables. I especially love Ponzu with oily fish such as salmon and yellow tail. The citrusy flavor cuts the grease and rids the fishy smell to deliver a cleaner taste.
- Flavoring sauce for steamed dishes, for instance: fish, chicken, pork, or tofu.
A good brand of ponzu such as Mizkan AJIPON® Ponzu can even be used as a soy sauce replacement and delivers amazing and authentic result to many traditional Japanese dishes. The sodium level of Mizkan AJIPON® Ponzu is also much lower than that of soy sauce (370 mg per tablespoon vs. 920mg), hence reducing the sodium intake drastically.
Dashi is the building block of Japanese cooking—a fish-based stock made of dried shaved bonito flakes and kombu (seaweed). It’s used in almost all Japanese dishes, from soups, sauces, to steamed dishes such as chawanmushi (Japanese egg custard). While you can make home-made dashi stock in less than 30 minutes, many home cooks, including those in Japan, are turning to premium quality soup base for convenience because there is dashi in the soup base.
Cooking Tips for Dashi-based Sauces
There are many different types of sauces in Japanese cooking, some are thick while others are watery. If you use a bonito-flavored soup base, for example: Mizkan (Bonito Flavored) Soup Base, you can make various sauces by changing the ratio of water added to the soup base, for examples:
- if you add water by 1:8.5 (one soup base and 8.5 water), you can make the soup base for Japanese hot udon or soba noodle.
- If you add water by 1:3 (one soup base and 3 water), you can make the dipping sauce for Japanese cold soba or somen noodle.
- If you add water by 1:5 (one soup base and 5 water), you can make the dipping sauce for tempura.
Soup base is also very versatile and can be used as a flavoring sauce for the following:
- Teriyaki Sauce for chicken, beef, or salmon
- Simmered dishes such as braised shiitake mushroom
- Soup base for Japanese hot pots such as nabe
- Barbeque marinade for meat, fish, and seafood
- Dashi-no-moto (dashi powder) substitute
Mizkan (Bonito Flavored) Soup Base is a magical condiment, one that I stock up in my pantry.
Mirin, or fermented sweet wine made from steamed glutinous (sticky rice) is used in many Japanese dishes. Mirin has a mild alcoholic aroma and it’s slightly sticky in the texture. Mirin adds a subtle sweetness to sauces such as teriyaki sauce and sukiyaki sauce. It also enhances the flavor of many simmered dishes.
Cooking Tips for Mirin
Mirin is usually added toward the end of the cooking process. When shopping for Mirin, always look for naturally brewed Mirin (hon-mirin) instead of the artificially blended Mirin flavoring (mirin-fuhmi). I like MIZKAN HONTERI® Mirin Seasoning which is a no alcohol Mirin, which keeps well in the refrigerator, or in a cool place away from direct sunlight.
Rice vinegar is the key flavoring medium in sushi rice, a staple in Japanese cooking. It’s also widely used in Japanese salad, pickled ginger, and in many dishes to add depth to the overall taste structure of the dish. When shopping for rice vinegar, I prefer rice vinegar which is less acidic or sharp, with a faint aroma of the fermented rice, and pure. Mizkan Rice Vinegar is made from 100% rice and naturally fermented. It’s mild but tangy, and doesn’t have an overpowering taste when used for cooking. It’s also the preferred brand in the food services industry and Japanese restaurants.
Cooking Tips for Rice Vinegar
When I first started cooking Japanese at home, my Japanese friend shared the following tips with me:
- As rice vinegar vaporizes quickly, add it towards the end of the preparation.
- The acidic taste of rice vinegar can be used to balance the sodium level (saltiness) in a dish.
- Rice vinegar can be used to rid the fishy smell in fish. Add a dash of rice vinegar when you are cleaning fish.
- Certain fish tend to have slimy skin. Use rice vinegar to wash it off for easy handling.
- Rice vinegar prevents discoloration in food, for example: eggplant. Add a little rice vinegar during the preparation and cooking process will help retain the natural color of the ingredients.
When it comes to Japanese cuisine, the first thing that comes to mind is sushi. Rice is the staple in Japanese cuisine—every meal is served with rice. As such, rice is vinegared with rice vinegar to create sushi rice, which is the essential ingredient in all sorts of sushi.
If you learn Japanese cooking at home, the very first recipe that you will attempt is probably how to make great sushi rice. You can refer to my sushi rice recipe where I used a sushi rice seasoning, which is Mizkan Sushi Seasoning. The seasoning is made with rice vinegar and can also be used for Japanese salad (Sunomono) or marinade.
There are a lot more to share about Japanese cooking and this page is barely the start. It will be updated regularly with useful resources and information. In the next six (6) months, I will be sharing many Japanese recipes with you, including the techniques, cooking tips, and the many culinary uses of Mizkan Japanese brand products which reflect its corporate philosophy of “Mizkan, Bringing Flavors to Life” to Japanese cooking enthusiasts.
I will help you to stock up your Japanese pantry by taking you—albeit virtually—to the many key retail partner stores where Mizkan products can be found: H Mart, 99 Ranch, Mitsuwa, and more. You can also learn how to cook Japanese seasonal dishes, for example: Japanese grilling and BBQ for summer, and simmered dishes and hot pot in the winter. What’s more, you will also have a chance to win BIG as I will be hosting sweepstakes and giveaway.
It’s going to be fun, so please stay tuned on Rasa Malaysia for new Japanese recipes!