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Starch-heavy legumes with a rich, chestnut-like flavor, adzuki beans are often used in sweets in Japan, frequently cooked down with sugar to make red bean paste. They are often paired with glutinous rice in sweet and savory applications.
Shiitake mushrooms are traditionally cultivated in both Japan and China, and shiitakes, and both fresh and dried shiitakes are widely used in Japanese cooking. Dried shiitakes have an intensely earthy, woody, umami flavor that brings a savory note to broths and sauces. (They are often used for making vegetarian dashi broth.) A high-quality dried shiitake is the tenshiro donko, which is cultivated especially for drying. Most dried shiitakes found in the US are Chinese in origin.
Japanese noodles, or merui, are common in both restaurant and home cooking throughout Japan. Udon and soba noodles are the most popular. Udon are long, plump noodles made from refined wheat; they’re most often eaten in hot soup or stir-fried with other ingredients. Soba are thin noodles made from buckwheat flour, and typically served in a hot broth as a noodle soup or chilled with a dipping sauce. Somen are thin, refined wheat-based noodles with a more delicate flavor; they’re served similarly to soba, in a hot soup or chilled with a dipping sauce.
Nori, or laver, is a type of seaweed that is widely used in Japanese cuisine. There are three types: yaki nori (dry-roasted), ajitsuke nori (seasoned and roasted) and tsukudani nori (wet seasoned). Dry-roasted nori is crushed and used as a garnish; a packet of seasoned, roasted nori is often eaten at breakfast with a bowl of rice. Nori is perhaps most familiar as the wrapping for onigiri (rice balls) and sushi.
Coarse, airy breadcrumbs made from crustless bread. Panko is often used as a coating for fried foods, like tonkatsu (pork cutlet), as it absorbs less grease during the frying process and results in a flaky, crispy crust.
Rice (kome when uncooked, gohan when cooked) is the staple grain of Japanese cooking and is included in most meals. Short-grained, sticky japonica rice (cultivated in Japan) is the most widely consumed. The three main groupings of japonica rice are uruchi mai, genmai and mocha gome. Uruchi mai, the most popular rice in Japan, refers to mild-flavored, polished, short-grain rice that is tender but slightly toothsome when cooked, and sticky enough to eat in clumps with chopsticks. Genmai, short-grain brown rice, has the rice bran and germ still intact, and is higher in fiber and more nutritious than polished white rice, with a chewier texture and nuttier flavor. Mochi gome, also known as glutinous rice, is an extremely sticky variety of rice used to make mochi (rice cakes) and mirin (sweet cooking sake).
Sushi rice is boiled rice tossed with rice vinegar, sugar and salt. Traditionally trained sushi chefs spend the first years of their education perfecting their sushi rice-making techniques, before being allowed to cut a piece of fish.
Wakame is one of the most popular and common seaweeds used in Japanese cooking. Most often sold either salted or dried, the long, slippery leaves are reconstituted in water or broth and often eaten in soups (such as miso) or salads.
Japanese chile oil, called rayu, is made by infusing sesame and/or vegetable oil with dried, ground, hot red chiles. It’s used as a condiment and an ingredient to add heat to dressings, marinades and dipping sauces. A variation called taberu rayu, incorporates edible chunks of garlic, onion, and sesame seeds.
Dashi is stock traditionally made with bonito flakes and kombu (though other varieties, including vegetarian dashi, are common). Dashi has a strong umami flavor and is used as the base for many soups, sauces and dressings in Japan. Instant dashi, shelf-stable granules that dissolve in hot water, are a popular shortcut in both Japan and the West. It contains the powdered form of bonito and kombu, and often adds sugar, yeast extract and/or monosodium glutamate, resulting in a more assertive flavor than homemade dashi.
A sweet cooking wine, mirin is made by fermenting steamed glutinous rice with shochu (a Japanese distilled spirit). Mirin adds sweetness and a subtle sake-like flavor to sauces and glazes.
One of the most important staples of Japanese cooking, miso is a seasoning paste made by salting and fermenting soybeans with rice and/or barley. Red and white miso are the most popular of the many varieties. Red miso is aged for up to three years, and develops a reddish- to dark-brown color and an intense umami flavor. White miso has a much shorter fermentation time, yielding a mellow, almost sweet flavor. Miso paste is dissolved in dashi broth to make miso soup, and used as a flavoring in sauces, marinades and salad dressings.
Ponzu shoyu is a widely used condiment made with soy sauce, yuzu (or other citrus) juice and often mirin, rice vinegar, bonito flakes and/or seaweed. Its many uses include adding flavor to sauces, dressings and marinades, and acting as a dipping sauce for tempura, sashimi and noodle dishes.
Japanese rice vinegar, made from fermented rice, is much less acidic than Western vinegars. Seasoned rice vinegar, used in the making of sushi rice, is mixed with sugar, salt and sometimes sake.
Sake is a traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage that’s rich with enduring culinary and cultural importance. To brew it, steamed rice is mixed with water, yeast and a strain of mold called koji, then fermented at a high temperature and humidity. Over the course of a closely attended, multi-stage process, the yeast produces enzymes that convert the rice starch into sugar and the sugar into alcohol. The resultant sake (usually about 18 percent alcohol) is then aged for around six months. Polishing the grains of rice before brewing removes the fats and proteins found in the outer layers of the kernel (which interfere with fermentation and can produce off-flavors) and leaves the pure starch at the center of each grain. Varieties of sake are distinguished by how much of the rice kernel was polished away and whether distilled alcohol was added: Daiginjo (considered the best quality sake) has had 50 percent of the rice kernel removed, ginjo has had at least 40 percent of the kernel removed; and honjozo has had 30 percent of the kernel removed. The designation junmai means that no distilled alcohol was added to the sake.
Also called shoyu, soy sauce is the most important condiment and seasoning in Japanese cooking. Soy sauce is extracted from a fermented paste made from soybeans, wheat, salt and yeast. There are several primary types of soy sauce, the most popular and widely available in the West being koikuchi—the familiar, dark, salty soy sauce.
Tamari shoyu is a type of soy sauce often (but not always) made without wheat, making it safe for the gluten-intolerant. Tamari has a complex, rounder and more balanced flavor than other soy sauce varieties.
Toasted sesame oil is a golden, fragrantly nutty oil made from sesame seeds and used primarily as a flavoring agent rather than a cooking oil. It’s used in dressings, marinades, noodles and stir-fried dishes, and sometimes a small amount is added to frying oil to impart flavor.
Yuzu kosho is a coarse paste consisting of salt-cured yuzu peel and hot chiles. There are two varieties—one made from unripe yuzu and green chiles, and one made from ripe yuzu and red chiles. Yuzu kosho is a multi-use condiment, used in dressings, marinades and soups, and as a topping for grilled meats or sashimi.
Bonito, also known as katsuo or skipjack tuna, is a migratory fish in the mackerel family. Bonito fillets are cooked, smoked, dried and cured with mold in a process that can take several months. Once the fillets have hardened, they are shaved into flakes, called katsuobushi. The flakes are used to make dashi and as a seasoning in many other dishes.
Green tea, made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, is widely consumed in Japan as both an everyday beverage and a centerpiece in traditional ceremonies. There are many different varieties, differing hugely in flavor, quality and cultural significance. Gyokuro is considered the highest-quality green tea: shade-grown baby leaves are steamed, dried and rolled, resulting in a delicate, refreshing tea. Sencha is a common everyday tea, and is the most heavily consumed tea in Japan. Matcha is powdered young green leaves and is used primarily in formal tea ceremonies, though is also used as a flavoring agent in sweets, such as ice cream.
Kombu is a type of sea kelp that is dried and used most famously to flavor dashi broth. Kombu is high in glutamates, giving it a savory umami flavor that is often imitated by monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Karashi is powdered mustard seed, which is sometimes blended with dried horseradish. It needs to be reconstituted with a bit of water, or it can be purchased as a paste. Karashi is hotter and more intense than Western mustard, and is used sparingly as a condiment or as an ingredient in dressings and dipping sauces.
Sansho powder, or Japanese pepper, is a golden spice ground from the seedpod surrounding the berry of the prickly ash shrub. It has a citrusy, minty aroma and flavor, and a slight tongue-tingling effect. It is used in shichimi togarashi (see below) and as an all-purpose seasoning.
Sesame seeds, both black and white, are used widely in Japanese cooking as a seasoning and garnish in sweet and savory dishes. Both black and white seeds benefit from toasting before use to bring out their flavor and aroma.
While togarashi simply refers to chiles generally, shichimi togarashi is a blend of seven dried and ground spices that often includes red chiles, sansho (Japanese pepper), roasted orange peel, yellow and black sesame seeds, ginger, hemp seed and nori. Shichimi togarashi is commonly used to flavor soups and noodle dishes and as an all-purpose seasoning.
Fresh wasabi (Japanese horseradish) is largely unavailable in the West, but is easily found dried in powered form or as a paste. The powder needs to be reconstituted with a bit of water, while the paste is ready to use but quickly loses pungency after opening. Wasabi has a very pungent flavor and aroma and is paired in small amounts with sushi and sashimi.
The daikon radish, which resembles a large, white carrot is valued in Japanese cooking for its digestive properties, and is often eaten with fried or greasy foods to counteract the oiliness. It has a pungent, peppery flavor, and is used in many pickles, dressings and simmered meat dishes.
Edamame are young, green soybeans that are harvested before maturity. They are extremely nutritious, and in Japan are often served in the pod, simply boiled and salted, as a bar snack.
Fresh gingerroot (actually a rhizome) is an important ingredient in Japanese cooking. It is used to flavor many dishes and sauces and is prized for its digestive properties. Gingerroot is often thinly sliced, pickled and served alongside sushi, sashimi and other seafood dishes.
The eggplant most often used in Japanese cooking is longer and skinnier than the large globe eggplant more familiar in the US It’s used in a variety of dishes, including soups, stir-fries and pickles.
Kabocha, or Japanese pumpkin, has sweet, dense flesh with a chestnut-like aroma and flavor. It is often simmered in dashi or deep-fried in tempura.
The rhizome of the aquatic lotus plant is starchy and slightly sweet; cut into cross sections, it has a striking, lacy appearance. Lotus root is used in Japanese cooking in everything from pickles and soups to stir-fries and tempura.
Mizuna is a hearty, slightly spicy, peppery green that’s used in many Japanese dishes, from salads and pickles to stir-fries.
Many varieties of mushrooms are used extensively in Japanese cooking in all types of dishes, including soups, salads, sushi, stir-fries and tempura. Some of the varieties popular in Japan are: shiitake (used fresh or dried in various dishes); maitake (used in kiritanpo, a hot chicken and vegetable stew); enokitake (found frequently in shabu-shabu, a hot-pot dish cooked and served at the table); shimeji (used in various dishes) and nameko (normally sold preserved, and often found in soups).
Pickled ginger is made by marinating very thin slices of fresh, young ginger in a mixture of rice vinegar and sugar (using plum vinegar results in the familiar pink hue). It is served as a palate cleanser alongside sushi and sashimi.
Ume is a sour fruit similar to plum and apricot. Umeboshi is made by sun-drying and salting the fruit, then pickling it with vinegar and red shiso leaves, which impart a rosy color. Umeboshi is often eaten with rice and miso for breakfast in Japan.
Scallions are used extensively in Japanese cooking, largely as a garnish for soup and noodle dishes. They are also broiled and served with teriyaki.
Shiso leaves—one of the most commonly used herbs in Japanese cooking—have a unique citrusy, peppery, minty flavor. There is both red and green shiso; the red is commonly used to flavor and color pickles, like umeboshi, or pickled plums. The green leaf is used to season and garnish many dishes, such as sushi and sashimi, tempura, salads and noodles.
Sweet potatoes were traditionally used in Japanese cooking to bulk up rice dishes or were stone-baked and eaten on their own, but now they are seen primarily in tempura and sweets. Shochu, a distilled spirit, can be made with sweet potatoes.
Tofu, made by coagulating the milk of cooked soybeans, is an extremely nutritious staple of Japanese cooking. Lacking flavor on its own, tofu is quite versatile and is widely used for stir-frying and deep-frying, in soups and simmered dishes, and as a base for dressings. Firm tofu has a slightly spongy, substantial texture and stands up to cooking, while soft tofu is more silky and custardy. Soft tofu is often eaten uncooked with a variety of condiments for flavor. Another variety is yuba, slightly chewy sheets of tofu skin—a by-product of the tofu-making process.
Yuzu is the most widely used citrus fruit in Japanese cooking. It has a unique, potent aroma and flavor, and its juice and rind are used to add flavor to dishes such as soups, relishes, salad dressings, dipping sauces and candies. (The fruit is not eaten on its own, as the taste is too acidic to be pleasant.) Fresh yuzu is nearly impossible to find in the US, but bottled yuzu juice is widely available.
There are a variety of fish paste products used in Japanese cooking. Fish (usually white fish such as flounder or plaice) is pureed, mixed with salt, sugar and other seasonings, molded into the desired shape, then steamed, boiled, broiled or fried. The cooked paste is served with condiments or can be used as an ingredient in soups, hot-pots, or other dishes.
Served raw, the small, brilliantly orange eggs of the flying fish are used for color, flavor and texture in Japanese cooking, particularly with sushi and sashimi.
Larger than tobiko (flying fish roe), bright pinkish-orange raw ikura is used for color, flavor and texture as a topping for sushi, over rice dishes, in hors d’oeuvres and as a bar snack.
Uni refers to the ovaries of the sea urchin, usually eaten raw in sushi. Uni is rich and buttery, and is highly valued both in Japan and in the West.
Wagyu refers to any of several breeds of native Japanese cattle, whose meat is naturally highly marbled with intramuscular fat; Wagyu beef is prized for being extremely tender and flavorful. Kobe beef is from a Wagyu breed (Tajima-gyu) raised according to strict traditions and regulations in the Hyogo prefecture of Japan; it cannot be imported into the US, where Kobe-style beef is often available.