Japan is famous for its healthy, fresh, and delicious food and we’re here to help you learn all about the best Japanese ingredients before you visit.
Fresh, healthy, refined, and delicious. Japanese food and the ingredients that go into creating it are legendary for their quality. Japan is a dream destination for foodies, offering everything from the best sushi and ramen you’ve ever tasted, to hundreds of street food dishes and regional specialities, through to traditional Izakaya bar-restaurants, and Michelin-starred fine dining. If you already love Japanese food and want to visit Japan to experience the real thing, or you’re a foodie looking to introduce yourself to a new cuisine, then this is the blog for you. Learning about Japanese ingredients is a great place to start, whether you’re planning to cook at home as part of your research for a rail journey across Japan with the JR Pass, or just to give yourself greater knowledge of the country’s most famous dishes and how they’re made, before you visit and sample them yourself. Ready for starters?
Japan and Food: A Brief History
Before we introduce you to the A to Z of Japanese ingredients, let’s go back to the very beginning to understand where they (and Japan’s most famous dishes) came from. Japan’s love affair with food goes back thousands of years and finds its origins in the wet-rice cultivation methods imported around 2,000 years ago, the plentiful seafood, and also the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in the 6th century. The latter led to laws and edicts preventing animals from being eaten and, combined with the rice-based cuisine, inspired a vegetarian style of cooking known as shojin ryori. By the 15th century, many of the foods and ingredients eaten by Japanese people today had become a key part of the country’s food culture. These included soy sauce, miso, tofu, and other products made from soybeans. Also at this time, a formal and elaborate style of banquet cooking developed that was derived from the cuisine of the court aristocracy. This was known as honzen ryori and is one of the three basic styles of Japanese cooking along with chakaiseki ryori (cuisine of the tea ceremony) and kaiseki ryori. At the end of the Edo period, when Japan ended its self-imposed isolation, it opened its doors to Western influences and techniques (the British allegedly introduced the Japanese to curry for example) and it shared many of its own dishes with the wider world (many of which have gone on to become world-famous), but it also maintained its own unique culinary identity. Today, Japanese cuisine or ‘Washoku’, which means ‘food of Japan’ is known for its individuality and exceptional quality. Chefs spend years learning their craft and often focus on mastering a single dish or culinary speciality, elevating it to new standards over years of intense practice.
This approach has led to the exceptionally high-standard of culinary excellence in restaurants across Japan, which is reflected in the incredible number of Michelin stars awarded to chefs from the country. Even foods not traditionally associated with fine dining such as ramen and sushi have become gourmet specialities at the very highest level due to Japan’s focus on quality, technique, tradition, and innovation. In the case of sushi for example, the preparation may take decades to master, from making and shaping rice, to perfecting the flavour of fish through ageing, massaging, temperature control, and precision of cut. At the same time, Japan can also be a relaxed place to eat. Dine at a traditional Izakaya for example and you’ll find a lively atmosphere similar to a gastro pub where food and drink is enjoyed in large quantities! Despite its exceptional quality, Japanese food is surprisingly easy to cook at home once you learn the basics and it all starts with an understanding of the most essential ingredients.
Our Guide to Japanese Ingredients
Flaked and powdered seaweed used as a garnish on the exterior of dishes to provide extra texture and flavour.
An umami powder made from dried fish (bonito) and dried kelp (kombu) that’s typically added to ramen broth.
Large Salmon roe (eggs) used as a topping for their colour and vibrancy as well as flavour.
Concentrated fish flavouring created from smoked, fermented, and dried fish.
Pickled red ginger, served wafer thin, and used as a sweet & sour topping for ramen and other dishes.
Japanese chilli oil.
Produced by grinding down matcha tea leaves, this famous fine powder is known for its bright green colour. It is used in teas and desserts.
Japanese garlic oil.
Sweet rice wine used for cooking purposes.
Arguably one of Japan’s most famous ingredients, miso is soya bean paste. There are a number of different varieties.
The mighty noodle! Noodles feature in many Japanese dishes. There are a number of different types of noodles, including ramen, soba, udon, somen, shirataki, and more.
Another famous ingredient, nori is a type of seaweed that comes in sheets and is used as a wrapping for sushi, particularly maki.
- Neri Goma
Paste made from black sesame seeds.
Dried breadcrumbs, which are used in various dishes, most famously to create the crispy coating to chicken katsu.
- Pickled Ginger
There are two varieties, pink and red. The former is often a palate cleanser while the latter, beni shoga, is used in cooking.
- Rice paper
Edible paper made from water, rice, and salt, which can be filled with a wide range of other ingredients as part of several tasty dishes.
- Rice Wine Vinegar
A mild vinegar created by fermenting rice, often used in dressings and dips.
The famous Japanese rice wine (nihonshu), which can be used to cook with and to enjoy alongside your meal.
- Seasoned Vinegar
Made from rice vinegar, sugar, and salt, this is used to season and bind sushi rice.
- Sesame Oil
A strong flavoured oil that comes in two forms - pure and toasted. The former can be cooked with, the latter is mainly for dressings.
- Shichimi powder
A very spicy orange-coloured powder used as a seasoning, which is made from sansho (Japanese pepper), aonori, poppy, hemp, black sesame seeds, dried chilli, and yuzu peel.
- Shiitake and Shimeji
Two varieties of Japanese mushrooms used in a variety of dishes.
- Sushi rice
Special short-grain pearlised rice washed and seasoned with a special vinegar made from sugar, salt, and rice vinegar.
- Tamari soy sauce
Pure fermented soy sauce with nothing added.
- Teriyaki marinade
You can get teriyaki as both a sauce and a marinade. The latter can be used for fish, meat, and tofu, and the former can be used as a condiment and topping.
Small fish roe (eggs) used as a garish. It is naturally orange, but sometimes gets dyed yellow or green for certain dishes.
This well-known soya based and vegan friendly source of protein is very popular in Japan and used in a wide number of dishes.
- Tonkatsu paste
A fruity paste and/or sauce used in stocks and ramen broth.
Native to Japan (as well as part of the Russian far east and Korean peninsula), wasabi is Japanese horseradish. It is ground into a powerful paste that is used as a condiment with sushi and other dishes.
- Yakisoba sauce
Fruity, spicy, brown sauce, often made with oyster sauce, used in noodle dishes and stir-fries.
This juice comes from Yuzu, a citrus fruit, with a sharp, sour flavour that can be used in a variety of dishes.
I’m sure our guide has whetted your appetite, but there’s more reading to be done if you’re still interested in finding out more about Japanese food. Here are our bonus recommendations:
- As a country, Japan is famous for its etiquette and dining is no exception. It’s nothing to be worried about however and we’ve even put together a helpful Guide to Japanese Table Manners to make it as easy as possible for you to learn the dos and don’ts.
- Want to know more about the dishes that these wonderful ingredients can create? Our guide to Japanese Food and Regional Dishes provides a comprehensive introduction and overview to the country’s cuisine.
- Japan’s many famous food markets make a wonderful destination for food lovers with the Japan Rail Pass while you’re travelling around Japan.
- As well as food, Japan is also famous for drinks such as sake, beer, whisky, tea and coffee. Read our guide to Japan’s Craft Beer scene and take a Whisky Tour of Japan for more.