Japanese cuisine is very distinct, even though you can find certain parallels with Chinese and Korean cuisines. It’s a combination of unique flavors, achieved with just small twists here and there that add up to create dishes that may look similar to other pan-Asian dishes but taste quite different, distinctly Japanese.
If you truly want to recreate those fantastic dishes from Ghibli or Makoto Shinkai movies, then you’ll need Japanese ingredients and not substitutes. The sauces, the spice blends, soup stocks - everything tastes a little different, and in those differences are authentically Japanese flavors.
Luckily, you don’t need to leave your house to stuff your pantry with authentic Japanese ingredients, snacks, and desserts. Yummy Bazaar hosts a sizeable Japanese grocery store online, with a carefully curated collection of foods, snacks, and beverages straight from the country of the rising sun.
Soy Sauce (Shoyu)
Soy sauce is an essential element of Japanese cuisine. It’s an all-purpose ingredient used for seasoning (often instead of salt), as a dipping sauce, or as an ingredient in other sauces and marinades.
Japanese-style soy sauce is slightly different from other soy sauces, so be ready for the one you get at a Japanese grocery store to taste a little different from if you’ve only used Chinese-style soy sauces before.
Japanese-style soy sauce is made with a mix of fermented soybeans and wheat (ratio typically being 1:1), water, and some salt. Japanese soy sauce is called shoyu. It can range from light and delicate or aged and intense. Shoyu sauce is sometimes flavored with other ingredients like ginger and garlic.
Ponzu is a thin citrus-based sauce. By itself, ponzu sauce is nearly colorless, but it’s more often sold as ponzu shoyu (mixed with soy sauce). Typically, when someone mentions ponzu sauce, they’re talking about ponzu shoyu. It is of a thinner consistency than classic shoyu and has a more complex, tart flavor (though you can find citrus juice for ponzu sauce separately as well, like the one from Kagaya). Both clear ponzu sauce and ponzu shoyu are often used as an ingredient in dipping sauces, marinades, and salad dressings.
Miso is a traditional Japanese seasoning. It’s a paste made from fermented soybeans (somewhat similar to Korean doenjang) and flavored mainly with salt and koji, sometimes combined with seaweed, rice, barley, etc. Koji is a type of filamentous fungus widely used all over Asia for saccharification and fermentation purposes.
Miso most often is used to flavor soup bases. Miso soup by itself is a common Japanese breakfast item, but it’s used in broths for Japanese noodles, marinades, dipping sauces, and stir-fry seasoning as well.
Dashi Soup Stock
Dashi is a clear broth base that’s used in the majority of Japanese soups. While it can be made at home by simmering seaweed (usually kelp) and fermented tuna or bonito flakes, most Japanese just buy ready-made dashi soup stock packages to cut down on cooking time. Dashi soup stock can come both as a powder (often instant, like the one from Shimaya) or as a concentrated liquid. Adding dashi stock to water is basically the first step of cooking any Japanese-style soup.
Japanese Green Tea
If you’re visiting a Japanese grocery store (online or otherwise), skipping the tea section is a sin. Japanese green tea is particularly well known and for a good reason. It comes in several types, and each of them is unique, with nigh no alternatives from non-Japanese manufacturers.
Matcha is likely the most well-known green tea nowadays. It’s made with shade-grown tea leaves (the bushes are covered to prevent direct sunlight about three weeks before harvest) to slow down growth and increase chlorophyll levels to produce darker tea leaves. Ceremonial and premium-grade matcha powder is made with very young tea leaves, usually harvested from the top half of the bush. Cooking-grade matcha powder is produced with lower quality leaves, harvested from the lower part of the bush, with fewer constraints on picking time (cooking-grade matcha is the one typically used for Matcha latte mixes).
Sencha is another type of Japanese green tea made from the leaves that are either grown fully in the sun or shaded for a smaller period right before harvest. It’s a loose tea that comes either in bundles or tea bags. Sencha is the most popular Japanese green tea, accounting for around 80% of tea production in the country.
Hojicha is a type of roasted Japanese green tea. Roasting changes the color to reddish-brown, but it’s still considered a variety of green tea. Unlike other Japanese green teas, it has next to no bitterness but rather a nutty and toasty flavor.
Ramen noodles are long, thin, and chewy wheat noodles made with wheat flour, salt, and water with the addition of kansui (alkaline mineral water containing sodium carbonate, potassium carbonate, and a small amount of phosphoric acid). They’re easily the most popular type of Japanese noodles.
Soba noodles are classic thin Japanese noodles made of buckwheat. They have a deep brown color and distinct earthy flavor. Soba is used in a variety of dishes, both hot and cold. Drained chilled soba noodles are among the most popular Japanese noodle dishes in summer.
Interestingly, the classic Japanese noodle stir-fry dish yakisoba is not made with soba noodles, despite the name. Noodles used in yakisoba are wheat noodles called Chuuka soba.
Udon noodles are another type of Japanese wheat noodles. Udon noodles are typically very white and also much thicker than other Japanese noodles, with a chewier texture. Udon noodles are used in various ways, including stir-fries (yaki udon), curries (curry udon), salads, and soups. It’s the noodle most often used for a dish called shabu-shabu.
Shabu Shabu Soup Base
Shabu-shabu is a type of Japanese hotpot dish where meat and vegetable slices are boiled together in a lightly flavored broth and eaten with dipping sauces. Shabu-shabu soup base is a very light dashi stock and most often is made with kelp, with no tuna or bonito flakes, so that the broth doesn’t overpower the meat and vegetables.
The varieties of seaweed most often used in Japan are nori (dried laver), that’s used for wrapping rice-based dishes like sushi rolls and onigiri, and wakame, that’s most often used in soups (particularly miso soup) and salads.
Mirin is a type of low-alcohol rice wine. It’s very sweet, with a sugar content of around 40% to 50%. While there are no rules against consuming mirin as a beverage, it’s rarely used in that capacity and primarily acts as a cooking ingredient. Mirin is a critical ingredient in many sweet Japanese sauces or glazes, most famously Teriyaki sauce. It’s also often used as a flavoring element for soup bases, particularly noodle soups and hotpots.
Mirin often gets mistaken for Japanese rice vinegar. In reality, the two are very different. Japanese rice vinegar is called Komezu, and it’s sweeter and mellower than either Chinese or Western rice vinegar. Japanese rice vinegar is often used to flavor sushi rice, for marinating and pickling vegetables, as well as in nimono dishes: ingredients cooked via simmering in stock flavored with a variety of condiments (including rice vinegar)
Japanese mayo is thicker, smoother, and creamier than regular mayo. It’s also darker in color. This is because it’s made with only egg yolks instead of whole eggs. Japanese mayo is used as a garnish on various Japanese dishes, including okonomiyaki pancakes, tamagoyaki (Japanese omelets), sandwiches, and as a dipping sauce for karaage (Japanese deep-fried food). Kewpie is probably the most well-known Japanese mayo brand these days.
Shichimi Togarashi is a Japanese spice blend. The name literally translates to “seven-flavored chili pepper” and accordingly combines seven ingredients. Those seven ingredients differ from manufacturer to manufacturer, aside from chili pepper (which is a given). It may include other peppers, sesame seeds, ground ginger, ground hemp seeds, seaweed, roasted orange peel, and poppy seeds. S&B’s shichimi togarashi, for example, is a pretty classic recipe blend.
Furikake is another type of Japanese seasoning blend. It’s made with shredded dried fish, seaweed, sesame seed, sugar, salt, and MSG. Furikake is most often used to flavor rice (often rice flavored with furikake and some toasted sesame oil is served as an independent dish) and rice-based dishes like onigiri balls. But it can also be used to season steamed or grilled vegetables and fish.
Wasabi paste is a vibrant green and very spicy ingredient used in most Japanese households. Funnily enough, while originally wasabi was made from the rhizome (wasabi plant), modern wasabi is often made with horseradish and given its color with the help of food dyes. So make sure to check the packaging when purchasing.
While we most often use wasabi paste for garnishing sushi, it’s used as a common ingredient for dipping sauces and marinades in Japan.
Japanese curry has its origins in Indian curry, but the two are very different these days. Japanese curry is a deep brown color with a gravy-like consistency. It’s most often served with rice or udon. Since it can take a long time to cook, pre-made sauces and concentrated curry cubes (like the ones from S&B) are very popular in Japan.
Mochi is a Japanese rice cake made with pounded glutinous rice. The two most popular types are daifuku mochi, stuffed with a sweet filling (like the ones from Kubota), and ice cream mochi, when a thin and sweet glutinous rice sheet is wrapped around ice cream filling.
Dorayaki is another popular Japanese dessert, which resembles a stuffed pancake. In reality, it’s two castella cake sheets with sweet filling (usually Anko bean paste) in-between). Dorayaki’s popularity has a lot to do with the popular Japanese anime character Doraemon, as it’s depicted as the fictional robo-cat’s favorite food. Japanese brand Hapi even produces dorayaki decorated with Doraemon images.
Panko Bread Crumbs
Panko bread crumbs may not sound like anything special, but they’re a Japanese pantry must-have. Panko crumbs are made with a special kind of bread, and they produce a crispier, more crunchy coating when fried while maintaining the texture.
Okonomiyaki Pancake Mixes
Okonomiyaki is a Japanese cabbage and thin wheat flour butter pancake topped with other ingredients. Using specific pancake mixes is the easiest way to yield the right consistency for the butter. Japanese manufacturer Otafuku even has an Okonomiyaki kit if you want to get started.
Japanese Chili Oil (Rayu)
The most significant distinguishing characteristic of Rayu, the Japanese-style chili oil, is that it’s made with toasted sesame oil. It can be by itself or in combination with other oils, but if there’s no sesame oil among the ingredients, it’s no Rayu you’re using. Toasted sesame oil gives it a more complex flavor profile alongside heat. Rayu is often used to flavor ramen noodles or as a dipping sauce for gyoza dumplings.
Japanese Sesame Dressing
Sesame dressing is one of the most popular dressings in multiple Asian cuisines. The most basic Japanese sesame dressing combines sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, salt, and sugar. Some varieties also tend to contain whole sesame seeds, mirin for extra sweetness, and eggs for a thicker texture.
Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
Dried shiitake mushrooms have a very concentrated savory flavor, earthy and woody. Their taste is considered to be an excellent example of what Japanese chefs mean when they describe umami. Dried shiitake mushrooms are often used to add umami notes to dishes, particularly soups and stews, but also stir-fries and meats during braising.
Japanese chips are special because they often come in unique flavors you’re not likely to encounter from Western manufacturers. If you’re browsing a Japanese grocery store online, do take a moment to go to the chip section and add some seaweed, corn soup, or yuzu black pepper chips to your cart (Calbee has an excellent selection).
Japanese Kit-Kats are a legend among chocolate lovers, and they’ve earned that badge fair and square. They come in dozens of flavors: Japanese green tea (matcha and hojicha), orange, otono no masa, cherry blossom, brown sugar, orange chocolate - the list goes on and on and on. At this point, can you really say you’ve had Kit-Kat if you haven’t tried at least a couple of Japanese varieties?