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5 Japanese Grocery Store Ingredients You’ve Got to Try

Learning to cook with seasonal, local ingredients is the first step to fitting into a new country. In Japan, this is especially fun because you usually always find something unique!

Let this list guide you, and use it the next time you go shopping. See if you can spot these ingredients and try them out when you’re in the kitchen.

1. Miso paste

Photo: iStock/ TatayaKudoThe easiest way to tell miso apart is by the color.

Made of soybeans and rice or barley, these ingredients are ground up, salt is added and the paste is allowed to ferment until the paste takes on a salty and deeply savory flavor. The easiest way for a novice to pick one out is by color. The three prominent colors of miso paste are white miso paste (shiro), yellow miso paste (tanshoku) and red miso paste (aka).

White or shiro miso paste has the mildest flavor of the three. This paste is a great one to start with if you’ve never used miso paste before.

Yellow or tanshoku paste has a saltier profile than white miso paste. It is made very similarly to white miso paste, but a higher percentage of salt is added to the paste before it ferments.

Red or aka miso paste is the most intense type of miso paste. This is the paste for you if you want strong, punchy flavors.

You can use miso paste to make miso soup, a Japanese food classic. But I’d encourage you to use miso paste any time you want to amp up the umami in any dish you’re making.

2. Short-grain rice

Photo: iStock/ YuujiBuying the right rice is a game-changer!

Short-grain rice is the rice of choice in Japan. Unlike long-grain or medium-grain rice varieties, short-grain rice is somewhat stickier.  When deciding which rice brand to buy, a simple solution is to go on Amazon Japan and see what the most popular rice purchases are. Koshihikari rice has been very popular for the last few years.

My favorite is Tsuyahime rice, which, when cooked, is a little shiny, giving it a gorgeous appearance. For good reasons, this brand has been slowly gaining popularity in Japan over the past few years. It’s easy to cook, beautifully polished and tastes great.

3. Bonito flakes

Photo: iStock/ bhofack2Bonito is a tasty, unique topping for a variety of dishes.

Bonito flakes, or katsuobushi, are made from skipjack tuna. The fish is cleaned, dried, smoked, and then shaved very thinly into flakes. If you sprinkle them over hot food, the flakes will quiver and dance as they react to the heat. They can be used in many ways: as a seasoning, inside a dish or as a topping. Bonito flakes are one of the major seasoning elements of dashi broth, a savory broth used to flavor many dishes in Japanese cuisine.

You can also use them as a simple but tasty filling in onigiri. They shine the brightest as a topping and should be added to any dish that could use a savory, smoky pop of flavor.

4. Kombu

Photo: iStock/ y-studioDon’t wash off those white granules!

Out of everything on this list, kombu (seaweed) is the ingredient that is probably the least versatile. This type of seaweed is famous for its umami essence. It is a key ingredient in dashi stock, the Japanese equivalent of an American’s chicken broth or stock.

To get the most out of this ingredient, don’t be tempted to clean the kombu when you pull it out of the package. Steep the kombu rather than boiling it- if you boil it, the heat can cause the flavorings to go a bit sour instead of leaving you with that robust umami flavor you want.

5. Mirin and Sake

Photo: iStock/ kuppa_rockBe careful to buy mirin without added salt or preservatives.

While these ingredients have been discussed before, it is important to note what types to buy in the grocery store, as some are better than others.

Mirin, a sweetened rice wine, is used a great deal in Japanese cooking in sauces and usually alongside sake. When you purchase mirin, make sure you’re buying honmirin, which is made with rice and shochu (craft spirit), and has been fermented for about two months.

Honmirin is also called “true mirin”. Regular mirin is similar but made with sake instead of shochu. Aji-mirin, or mirin condiments should be avoided at all costs. They are filled with salts and other preservatives and have very low alcohol content.

Cooking sake is sake fortified with salt to help preserve the sake and to give your dishes extra seasoning. It should not be served as an alcoholic beverage.  The biggest worry is how much salt you add to your final dish. If that worries you, stick to regular sake and season as you’d like.

Tell us in the comments which ingredient you will look for the next time you go shopping.

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