Essentials of the Japanese Pantry
Japanese cuisine is characterized by simple dishes with complex flavors. Consider sushi—a single slice of raw fish served on a finger-length of rice that many chefs consider one of the most difficult dishes to master, or yakitori—skewers of grilled chicken parts that somehow have an extraordinary depth of taste. The key to these flavors is in the base ingredients, umami and acid-rich seasonings that make up the foundation of the country’s food.
The Miso Ramen Bowls with Braised Tofu and Bok Choy on this week’s menu include a veritable larder of Japanese ingredients. Here's a primer:
Baby bok choy—Mildly sweet and far more tender than the more mature varieties, this Chinese cabbage is a mineral-rich addition to a meal.
Ginger—Often referred to as a root, ginger is actually a rhizome—a stem that grows underground. Ginger’s sharp flavor is everywhere in Japanese cooking, from the sauce for katsu pork to pink preserved slices on the side of a plate of sashimi.
Kombu—This seaweed is rich in glutamates (aka umami) as well as vitamins and minerals. It’s used to make dashi, the broth that is the foundation of Japanese cuisine.
Mirin—A rice wine similar to sake but with less alcohol and more sugar, mirin helps balance saltier ingredients like soy and tamari.
Miso—This fermented soybean paste is pure umami. Its sweet, roasted undertones lend a deeply savory, I-don’t-know-what-it-is-but-I’ve-got-to-have-more flavor to everything from miso soup to tuksune (yakitori chicken meatballs) to ramen. Like yogurt and other lacto-fermented foods, miso is full of live probiotic cultures.
Ramen noodles—These wheat noodles get extra bounce thanks to the alkaline salts added to the dough. Their chewy texture means they can stand up to a long bath in a hot ramen broth.
Rice vinegar—Made by fermenting the sugars in rice first into alcohol, and then into acid. Rice vinegar is less acidic than distilled vinegar, and has a delicate, somewhat sweet flavor.
Sesame seeds and sesame oil—These tiny seeds have the highest oil content of any seed and deliver an incredible amount of flavor, considering their size. Pure sesame oil has a high smoke-point and is an excellent cooking oil. Toasted sesame oil is used mainly as a seasoning.
Dried shiitake mushrooms—These deeply flavored, savory mushrooms are another source of umami. They should be rehydrated before using, and their soaking water makes a wonderful addition to sauces and stocks.
Soy milk—More than just a non-dairy creamer for your latte, protein-rich soy milk also adds a cream-like richness to soups.
Tamari—Soy sauce is found all over Asia, but tamari is specifically Japanese, a by-product of miso production. Tamari is darker and richer than Chinese soy sauce. It’s also less salty and, unlike soy sauce, it’s made without wheat, so it’s gluten-free.
Tofu—Coagulated soy milk, tofu has a delicate taste that balances the bolder, more savory Japanese ingredients.
Togarashi—This spicy seasoning mix traditionally contains seven ingredients—hot red pepper, orange peel, white and black sesame seeds, Japanese pepper (sanshou), ginger, and green seaweed. It’s spicy but has a nice fragrance, too. It does wonders to lift any subtly flavored dish.