6 Popular Japanese Ingredients and Recipe Suggestions

Japanese food is more than just shoyu, or soy sauce. Here, we’ve picked out 6 popular Japanese ingredients and thrown in some recipe suggestions. Dashi’s one of them - the kelp-bonito base is like chicken soup for the Americans. And miso isn’t just fermented soybeans, you can go from faintly sweet, to those that even have barley. What are some of your favourites?

1. Dashi  
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A bowl of soba dashi noodles with mushrooms, egg and seaweed

Dashi is to the Japanese what chicken broth is to the Americans.

It’s so distinct in Japanese cuisine that dashi is arguably responsible for the fifth taste, or umami, as it’s now known. That’s because dashi has arguably the most umami savouriness than any other Japanese thing.

Made from just three ingredients – water, kelp and bonito flakes, it’s the essential stock used in many Japanese soup-based dishes, like this comforting shabu-shabu pot.

In as little as thirty minutes, it can produce an intensely addictive sardine-like taste. And that’s impressive considering that many Chinese and Western stocks take hours to prepare and get a similar quality.

Like soy sauce, there’re many types of dashi for every occasion.

If you’re a vegetarian, get shiitake dashi – that’s dashi made with dried shiitake mushrooms. You get a dark brown broth with a deep mushroomy taste. And here, a bowl of ginger sesame soba noodles works well with few spoons of it.

Otherwise, the most commonly used dashi is something called awase dashi – one that’s made with bonito fish flakes and kelp. It’s an ideal choice if you want something light, but deeply flavourful.

Well you can make dashi from scratch with easily available dried kelp sheets, bonito flakes and shiitake mushrooms, or buy packets of pre-prepared powder and stock.

And you can use it as a soup for noodles, or to replace water in cooking rice or porridge - like an oyster mushroom congee for a deeply umami aroma.

We think though, that it’s best slurped in a warm bowl of soba noodles – one mushroom soba dashi noodles that goes down light, slippery and is just right for the night. For a longer and chewier bite, use udon.

2. Miso
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Sweet white shiro miso on sticky honey lemon salmon

Few things are as complex as miso - smooth yet biscuity, salty yet sweet.  

For one, there are over 1000 types of the fermented soybean, but only three are most used.

They range from sweet white shiro miso in a sticky honey miso salmon, to the deep, full-bodied red aka miso used in stews and goes well on a moist ginger roast beef.

And in between them, you can opt for the yellow, shinsu miso, a well-balanced all-purpose miso that is best dropped into a warm chicken barley stew for a cold wet day.

Essentially, the stronger the colour, the more intense the taste.

Buy it in tubs of small and big for under ten bucks – either way, miso stores well in the fridge, and a little goes a long way in cooking.

You’ll also notice that some contain barley. Try it, barley gives a nice firm chew and a light clean taste that evens out miso’s intensity.

So spoon out some miso paste into a simmering soup, or spread straight on warm flaky fish and let melt into a nice glaze.

Right here you can try one yourself - make a warm miso baked salmon and we’ll suggest opening a bottle of red wine for a comfortable dinner for two. For maximum umami oomph, start your first bite by putting it miso-side down your tongue.

3. Tamago
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The tamago is a tough thing to get right.

That's what sushi chefs say - that it’s not fish, but the egg that's seen as a fair test of their skill. Some Japanese even order tamago sushi first to judge a chef’s skills.

That’s because you need expert heat control in making a uniformly layered, moist tamago that is faintly sweet, with enough “eggyness”.  

And that’s just the basics.

Beyond that, the magical egg can be made to anyone’s preference. It’s usually eaten plain, but common fillings include chopped vegetables like carrots, sesame, seaweed, and dashi for savouriness. For seaweed, thinly-shredded sheets are easier to manage especially when you’re folding tamago.

Well tamagoyaki might seem daunting to pros, but for us at home, don’t fuss with this easy tamagoyaki recipe that tastes egg-cellent. Just remember to keep your flame low when the eggs hit the pan.

Oh and one more thing - two eggs make an average-sized tamagoyaki, three, if you’re hungry.

4. Mochi
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Purple ube yam stuffed into sweet mochi rice balls

“Q” is a short-form for extreme chewiness – the kind that exists in a mochi.

Well, for starters, mochi is super chewy, gooey plain rice ball that's commonly stuffed with ice-cream, red beans or sesame paste –a real sweet treat.

But you can stuff a mochi with anything – the more paste-like the better, so it melts into its doughy rice skin.

Here, we’ve put a brilliant purple ube yam into a bite-sized chewy mochi that you can nibble on, or present to someone else as a lovely gift. In fact, food is usually given as part of the Japanese gift-giving culture of Temiyage.

The best way to enjoy the dessert is with a cup of warm green tea – it’s the yin-yang idea that something sweet goes along with something a little bitter.

5. Matcha
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Matcha tiramisu with red beans

Last year, green tea shipments from Japan hit the highest-ever in thirty years. The fine green powder of course, was the key driving force.

It may not just be Matcha’s health benefits that’s making this age-old superfood such a successful Japanese export. Its bright green colour and dense grassy taste is well-matched with sweet products, like in a crumbly green tea red bean cheesecake mousse.

In Japan, an average family would grind and mix the powder into a cup of lukewarm water as part of their daily tea drinking. Outside Japan, many café chains prefer instead to swirl matcha powder into teas and coffees and desserts – including this cool sweetened agar agar with matcha and red beans.  

It’s so easy - just scatter a packet of matcha powder on top of a scoop of ice-cream, coffee, or matcha chiffon cake (it’s great!) - it works with anything that has a sweet core really.

So here we’ve done just that in a classic slice of coffee cake – matcha tiramisu, where you can dig in and push through the top layer of matcha powder, then alternating layers of sweet mascarpone cream cheese and rich coffee.

6. Cheese
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Japanese creamy cheese tarts

Does cheese make everything taste better?

At once rich and creamy, sharp and salty, and appetite opening, it bears a striking similarity to umami.

Well in Japan, there’s no denying that this rich tasting diary has a cult following - you see it in bouncy cheesecakes, soft rich cheese tarts made by the dozen, and trendy cheese-topped ramen.

Here though, we’re trying a Japanese cheese dessert made popular in recent times.

So get a shopping list and tick off cream cheese, parmesan, butter, and digestive biscuits. With these, you can make small pots of tidy Japanese cheese puddings – that is, a fluffy cheesy filling, over a crunchy biscuit base, right here.

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