Relaxed, dimly lit and with ice-cold Asahi on tap, there’s nothing intimidating about your local izakaya. Except maybe the assortment of tiny bottles and jars huddled at one end of the table. Why so many? Aren’t all vinegars the same? Which to choose with your tempura prawns? We’ve taken the guesswork out of Japanese dining with a guide to some of the more popular options you’re likely to come across.
One of the most versatile of condiments in Japanese cooking, vinegar can be found in three different forms – komezu (rice vinegar) is found in every Japanese pantry, kurozu (a black vinegar also made from rice) is well regarded for its health benefits including aiding digestion, and awasezu (made from a combination of sake, salt and sugar) is commonly used to season sushi rice. Japanese vinegar is popular as a dipping sauce for sushi, as well as for use in meat marinades and pickling preserves.
A traditional seasoning made by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji (a type of fungus), this tasty, paste-like condiment is generally salty in flavour and contains other grains such as rice, barley and rye along with other ingredients. Use for sauces, spreads and the much-loved cornerstone of Japanese cooking, miso soup.
Soy sauce (shoyu)
A standard addition to Japanese – and many Australian – households, this salty soybean sauce was first introduced by Chinese Buddhist monks in the 1600s. With a splash being added to everything from dips and marinades to noodles and rice dishes, shoyu is one versatile kitchen staple.
A yuzu-infused sauce that’s made from rice vinegar, fish flakes, mirin and seaweed, ponzu has a long culinary history in Japan. There are myriad ways to use ponzu – pair with beef, seafood and vegetables or to marinades and soy sauce. Or try these quick and easy chicken, ginger and miso patties with sticky ponzu glaze.
Made from seaweed and dried fish shavings, this broth is a key ingredient of miso soup. When mixed with sugar and soy sauce, dashi can also work as a base for soba sauce and udon broth. Dashi has played an essential role in Japanese culinary history and is still popular as a flavour-enhancing addition to almost any dish.
With dashi, mirin, light soy and more, this soup-curry udon (suupu-kare udon) is a comforting noodle bowl.
Also known as sweet cooking sake (though it contains more sugar and less alcohol than regular sake), mirin is an essential Japanese seasoning that comes in a clear, liquid form, and is a key ingredient to making teriyaki sauce. Use it when cooking pork or beef for a subtle, aromatic sweetness.
Used on everything from fries and burgers to tacos and vegies (also delicious on this chicken sub), this creamy, tangy mayo also works well on almost every Japanese dish, making it a celebrated condiment not only in Japan but also in many other countries. Rich, delicious and packed with umami, David Chang said it’s "the best mayonnaise in the world."
Three ingredients make up this traditional condiment: the zest of the yuzu citrus fruit, ground chilli peppers and sea salt. The result is hot, salty and flavour-packed and works a treat on eggs, oysters, and grilled meat. You can also thin it out with some lime juice and a pinch of sugar or honey.
Whether sweet or spicy, teriyaki sauce is much-loved all over the world. Most often used when cooking meat and fish dishes – teriyaki literally means ‘glazed grill’ – it’s traditionally made by heating and combining mirin or sake, soy sauce, and honey or sugar. In Japan, teriyaki sauce is popularly used on seafood including salmon, mackerel, trout, tuna and marlin.
Rayu is Japan’s version of hot chilli oil, made infusing dried chilli peppers and sesame oil. Popular on rice, tofu, and noodle dishes, regular rayu brings a fiery hit to all it touches while in taberu rayu you’ll find onion, garlic, ginger, herbs and other seasonings for added flavour. Used also as sauce or dip for dumplings and gyoza.
Made from grated radish, daikon oroshi is well regarded for its nutritional benefits, thanks to digestive enzymes lipase, protease, and amylase that help to break down fatty and greasy foods. Japanese use it regularly as a topping on rice and noodles as well as a side dish for meat dishes including chicken, pork, beef and fish.
'Togarashi' is the Japanese word for red chilli peppers and is also the name given to a selection of chilli condiments from mild to hot. Shichimi-togarashi is a seven-spice mix which includes ground red chilli pepper, ground sansho, sesame seeds, dried orange peel, nori seaweed, ground ginger and hemp seeds. Sometimes you will find spice variations that also include shiso, other citrus peels or poppy seeds. Sprinkle over your noodles, yakitori skewers, or on top rice dishes.
A Japanese yellow mustard that is great for dipping. It is used for seasoning and as a condiment and is hotter and spicier than Western mustards. Made from crushed brassica juncea seeds and horseradish, karashi comes in a paste or powder form. It is quite a versatile condiment and can be served alongside pork belly and fried chicken, spread on burgers and sandwiches or used as part of a dipping sauce.
Known as 'Japanese pepper', sansho (or sansyo) is made from finely ground peppercorns or berries from the Japanese prickly ash. It is a key ingredient in a seven-spice mix (shichimi-togarashi) and with its lemon-peppery notes, it is a common seasoning on yakitori and eel, sauces and broths as well as sushi.
The epitome of umami, furikake is a dry seasoning that is typically sprinkled on top of your bowls of rice. Whilst there are many, many versions available most will contain seaweed, dried fish, salt and sugar so grab that shake and flake. Furikake is also very easy to adapt and make at home to suit your tastes. One furikake, you will need the orange peel, sheets of nori, shaved kombu and bonito, black and white sesame seeds and puffed rice. Served it with meat, fish, seafood, vegetables such as eggplant or simply liven up a bowl of white rice for a simple meal.
These skewers are so simple to prepare and yet incredibly delicious. The white miso caramelises under the grill to create a perfectly balanced savoury sweetness that all the family will love.