Dashi is often referred to as the defining ingredient of Japanese cuisine. It is a delicate golden stock made from a combination of konbu (dried giant kelp) and flaked, dried bonito fish (katsuobushi). Also available in ready made liquid and dried instant form.
Japanese soy sauces have a relatively fresh taste and aroma and are generally sweeter and less salty than Chinese-style sauces. Most commonly available are the light (usukuchi) and dark (koikuchi) varieties. Light shoyu contains a higher salt content and is paler in colour; often used with vegetables or clear soups, while dark shoyu is used as a marinade or in simmered dishes. Try tamari, a slightly thicker and wheat-free shoyu with sashimi.
A pale amber coloured cooking wine used for a hint of sweetness and as a glaze for grilled dishes.
Rice Vinegar is a clear, mild vinegar with a slightly sweet flavour. A great alternative to wine vinegar in salad dressings.
A brewed cooking wine, sake is loved for its flavour in marinades and sauces and is cheaper than sake bought to drink.
Made from the root of the konjac plant, also known as devil's tongue, konnyaku is regarded as a health food, especially good for intestinal function. After processing it becomes dense, with a slightly chewy texture and is always parboiled before use. Most commonly used as a vegetable, it is a great absorber of surrounding flavours and is an essential ingredient in sukiyaki.
Believed to be made from seaweed, nori is actually made from dried algae. It is primarily used to wrap sushi, to garnish and to flavour noodle soups. The darker the colour and greater the aroma, the higher the quality.
Wakame is an integral component of miso soup. Wakame is a variety of seaweed which comes fresh or dried and ready to reconstitute in water.
A fermented paste made predominantly from soy beans, miso was first made in China. An extremely versatile ingredient, it can be used to make miso soup, to flavour pickles or grilled dishes, or thinned and made into a dressing.As a general rule, the darker the colour, the stronger the flavour.
Existing in many forms, there are 3 main types:
- Shinsu miso is the most commonly available and widely used, it originates from the central Honshu region of Japan.
- Aka (or red) miso is often used in eastern Japan for soup.
- White (shiro) miso, also known as saikyo miso, is the palest and sweetest miso and is used in Kyoto for miso soup. Also excellent in dressings.
Wasabi root is rarely seen in its fresh state in Australia. Most readily available as a powder or prepared paste, wasabi is sometimes referred to as Japanese horseradish, although it bears no relation.
The second most widely produced seaweed in Japan behind wakame. Usually sold in dried form, it is easily reconstituted by soaking in water. Never wash or rinse konbu. Its speckled surface holds the flavour - wipe clean with a lightly dampened towel. Some Japanese cooks advocate lightly scoring konbu so that glutamic acid (a sort of natural flavor intensifier present in the kelp) is easily released during simmering.
Steam-processed bonito fillets, dried to woodlike hardness that are shaved into flakes and used as one of the two essential ingredients of basic soup stock, dashi. The bonito, a member of the mackerel family, has been an important part of the Japanese diet from very early times, perhaps as early as the eighth century. From about the fifteenth century, the fillets of this fish were dried and used as they are today.
The koshihikari variety is short grained and slightly sticky. Once sushi rice vinegar dressing is added, its grains achieve a beautiful shiny look.
The main type of noodles in Japanese cooking are:
- Soba - made from buckwheat flour and served either chilled with a dipping sauce, or in hot broth as a noodle soup.
- Ramen - made from wheat flour.
- Udon - thick wheat-based noodles.
Tofu is made from soybeans. Japanese use both firm and silken varieties in a number of dishes.
Shitake Mushrooms are usually found in dried form and are reconstituted in warm water ready for use in salads, soups, sushi and more.