We are total self-confessed weebs. Who are weebs? Weebs are people who are obsessed with Japanese culture. For some weird reason, we feel a strong attachment to the Japanese lifestyle – and of course, that includes their food. They have this particular way of approaching things that is calm, basic, systematic, accurate, and sensible. This reflects visually because you would notice Japanese aesthetic looks neat, clean, and polished. Even in the manner they prepare food.
Like other cuisines, Japanese food is rich and diverse. When we went there on our honeymoon, we didn’t know what to eat first because we want to try them all if at all possible. But what we did notice was that Japanese cuisine makes use of basic ingredients in numerous ways to come up with a different dish each time. Say, for example, rice. They eat rice with side dishes, but they also use it to make onigiri (rice ball). Many Japanese snacks are likewise made of rice, like the traditional senbei (rice crackers). The dearly loved mochi (rice cake) is made of rice flour, and is eaten as dessert, snack, and even as part of a side dish. These are just a few examples. This just means that for as long as you have Japanese pantry essentials, you can easily make a Japanese cuisine, or add a touch thereof.
Let’s start off with the main ingredients you need to create your basic Japanese pantry.
THE MAIN INGREDIENTS
RICE – Are you even surprised? This is a kitchen staple not just in Japan, but in all of Asia. However, the Japanese make use of a particular kind of rice, i.e. a short grain variety of the Japonica rice. This type of rice is sticky and the grains clump together once cooked properly which makes it fairly easy to be picked up by chopsticks. When you have Japanese rice at home, you can make different sorts of Japanese food. You can eat it with side dish, roll sushi, or make onigiri. Japanese fast food restaurants even fry a thick, flat layer of rice and use it as substitute for burger buns.
MISO PASTE – There are three kinds of miso paste available in the market: white, yellow, and red. White miso paste actually looks yellow in person. It has a mild taste and is often used in most Japanese dishes because of its versatility. Yellow miso is saltier and has a brown-orangey color. For a stronger, more pungent flavor to your dishes, use red miso. However, be careful not to add too much because it’s really strong.
DRIED WAKAME – Wakame is a type of seaweed that is a staple in Japanese dishes, like miso soup. This is cheap and a little goes a long way. You’d be amazed how much wakame you can get after soaking it in water for several minutes. Seaweed is a nutritious component of Japanese cuisine. Since it’s nutrient-dense, you do not need to add a lot.
DRIED SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS – Ahh, the taste and smell of shiitake. It’s quite distinct, eh? You will know when the dish has shiitake in it. Never buy canned shiitake, it’s a far cry from the fresh and dried ones. However, we much prefer the dried ones so we don’t have to worry about the shelf life. The taste and aroma are also much stronger. You can get dried whole or sliced shiitake mushrooms. Soak them in hot water for 15-20 minutes before adding them to your dish.
SHIMEJI MUSHROOMS – Soft, tender shimeji mushrooms are used in different Japanese dishes. So versatile that they can be used in Japanese pasta dishes. Unlike shiitake, shimeji has a milder and sweet taste.
ENOKI MUSHROOMS – Popular in soup dishes, enoki mushrooms are cheap and nutritious that’s why they’re a common sight both in restaurant and homemade dishes.
NOODLES – Depending on what kind of noodles, having this on-hand is super convenient for when you’re craving for a piping hot bowl of ramen.
PANKO – These are Japanese breadcrumbs. How is it different from regular breadcrumbs? Well, it’s lighter and flakier. When you have this around, you can make a lot of Japanese dishes like tonkatsu, kare pan, deep-fried oysters, and other deep-fried foods. Love tempura? Add more crunch and texture with a thin coat of panko.
GLUTINOUS RICE FLOUR – How do you make mochi? You begin with the main ingredient: glutinous rice flour. Once you learn how to make mochi, the possibilities are endless. This is also one of the cheapest Japanese ingredients you can find.
EGGS – The Japanese love eggs. It’s part of their daily life. Omurice, tamagoyaki… or just plain sunny side up eggs. They even eat their eggs raw. But be careful with eating raw eggs if you’re not from Japan. Japan has extremely high standards in egg production and distribution which makes their eggs super safe to eat even if raw.
SCALLIONS – Oftentimes added as a finishing touch, scallions also elevate the taste of food. If scallions are unavailable, you can settle for leeks or chives. They are of the same family and impart almost the same flavor. You can add this to soups, tamagoyaki, ramen and udon dishes, donburi (rice bowl), and a lot more.
TOFU – Japanese cuisine uses different types of tofu. Since we’re dealing with basic ingredients here, arguably the most popular kind of tofu is soft tofu, also known as silken tofu. If you have this in your pantry, your soup dishes will be even more complete. Soft tofu is also the perfect appetizer as it is light and mild-tasting.
NORI SHEETS – Nori is dried seaweed. You can use this for sushi, ramen, or just for snacking. You can also cut these into small thin strips and add them as toppings to your food. Because it’s nutrient-dense, it’s great to have this around.
AONORI – Aonori is dried seaweed flakes. This is commonly seen in takoyaki, yakisoba, and okonomiyaki dishes.
DRIED BONITO FLAKES – Or katsuobushi, are shavings of dried fish meat, usually that of tuna. It’s often used to make broth, or served as a topping on Japanese foods such as takoyaki and okonomiyaki. You’ll find yourself amused as this ingredient sways when it comes in contact with heat.
GYOZA WRAPPERS – Well, you can make this from scratch, but if you want a gyoza craving satisfied quickly, better to have this on-hand in your pantry.
ANKO – This is red bean paste and usually sweetened. Yes, you guessed it. You can use this for snacks and desserts, oftentimes as a filling.
RICE VINEGAR – This is a vinegar that is made from fermented rice. Compared to regular white vinegar, it has a mild and sweet flavor. Craving for sushi night? Well, you’re going to need rice vinegar for sushi rice!
SAKE – You probably know already that sake is rice wine. But do you know that it’s also used in cooking just like regular wine? It can be used to tenderize meat and remove the strong odor of fish. And while at it, it also lends flavor to the dish. There are two types of sake: sake and cooking sake. Both can be used the same way in cooking. The main difference is that cooking sake has salt in it which makes it unfit for drinking.
MIRIN – Mirin is sake’s sister, but with lower alcohol content and sweeter. Just like sake, it tenderizes meat and removes fish smell. You can also use mirin in making dipping sauces. Personally, we like adding mirin to soups. It just tastes a little different, in a good way.
SOY SAUCE – Of course, shoyu or soy sauce. This is a staple condiment not just in Japan, but in every Asian household. From ramen to dipping sauce to marinades, soy sauce has different uses in the kitchen. What we love about soy sauce is its ability to morph into a different flavor depending on other accompanying ingredients.
SESAME OIL – Ahh, don’t you just love the aroma of sesame oil? Great as a finishing touch to your dish – drizzle some sesame oil to add magic! Gyoza dipping sauce is also never complete without sesame oil. And because of its high smoke point, you can use it in stir-fry dishes.
DASHI – Dashi is a Japanese stock made from kombu (a seaweed) and dried bonito flakes. Note that there are other variations of dashi such as kombu, shiitake, and niboshi (small sardines). It’s often used as the base for soup broth and dipping sauce. Add dashi to your okonomiyaki for that distinct taste and smell. You can also use dashi in cooking rice to add a mild flavor to it. We especially apply this cooking method when making onigiri. It just makes it tastier and smells better too. There are many dashi powder brands sold in Japanese grocery stores so you won’t have to make your own at home.
MAYONNAISE – Japanese mayonnaise is very different from normal mayonnaise. Theirs has a tangy and sweet flavor to it that balances out the creaminess. Because of this, adding a ton of mayo to your food rarely becomes disgusting because of its pleasant flavor. You will also notice that Japanese mayonnaise holds its shape better compared to regular mayo, so have fun plating while adding flavor to your dish.
WASABI PASTE – Just a disclaimer before anything else: it’s very rare to find a pure wasabi paste because it’s expensive. So the bad news is most wasabi paste you get in restaurants and grocery stores are probably not the real thing. The fake ones are usually made with horseradish and green food coloring. The good news is, they’re a good substitute for the real wasabi paste. Wasabi paste, even fake ones, are used to accentuate the flavor of sushi and other dishes by giving it a pungent kick. A lot of people would describe it as spicy but it’s totally not. The pungent quality of wasabi only stays in the mouth, unlike other spicy foods that can be felt down the throat and even in the stomach.
TONKATSU SAUCE – You need to have this because tonkatsu is arguably one of the easiest Japanese dishes you can cook at home. Tonkatsu is never complete without tonkatsu sauce. But if you want to make your own, it’s quite simple for as long as you have basic ingredients in your pantry.
ROASTED SESAME SEEDS – Brown or black? You can use both. Roasted sesame seeds add a nutty flavor to Japanese dishes which can be quite a pleasant experience. Try crushing it and sprinkling it over your ramen – ahh sooo good! Pour tonkatsu sauce over ground sesame seeds and mix well, and it will make your sauce more oishii. Sesame seeds are so versatile, you can add them to your rice and snacks.
GREEN TEA – Green tea is a huge part of Japanese daily life. They drink tea multiple times everyday. It’s even used in Japanese dishes like ochazuke, where green tea is poured over rice, fish, nori, scallions, and other ingredients. There are different types of green tea in Japan but the most popular one is sencha. At home, we also drink hojicha or roasted green tea leaves.
MATCHA POWDER – Matcha is green tea but different. Unlike green tea that is steeped and diluted with water, matcha is finely ground tea leaves which means it is much more concentrated, thus stronger in flavor and containing more caffeine. Despite its flavor profile, matcha is still a favorite drink among Japanese people, and in fact, widely used in Japanese desserts.
POTATO STARCH – In Japanese cuisine, they use potato starch as a thickener. They also use it in karaage (fried chicken) and tempura for that distinct Japanese deep-fried texture. And instead of rice flour, use potato starch to lightly coat your mochi to prevent them from sticking together.
CHILI OIL – If you love spice and you can’t find that in an ordinary Japanese dish, add chili oil to your heart’s content. Drizzle it over ramen or gyoza if you’re craving some heat.
Please note that everything we included here are just basic ingredients that you need to have, more or less, in order to replicate Japanese recipes. If you have these items in your pantry, you can easily satisfy your Japanese food craving. Take it from us! We cook Japanese food a few times each month and we find that having these ingredients on-hand makes cooking more convenient and budget-friendly whenever we want some oishii fix!
MONICA & ROS
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