I recently looked around my kitchen and realized I have a lot of Japanese condiments! And I use them all the time. When it comes to Japanese cooking, there are a few condiments that are the foundation of what I consider “must-haves” for beginners and experts alike. These condiments will help you further create and expand your Japanese culinary repertoire and will become part of your everyday condiment staples in your kitchen. Most of these are readily available online and at local Japanese and or Asian markets. I keep all of these condiments except for Dashi ingredients in the refrigerator.
My Favorite Condiments for Japanese Cooking
These are truly my favorite things. However, they may include affiliate links, so without costing you anything extra, I’ll earn a small percentage of the sales if you purchase these items through these links. Thank you for your support!
How to Season Japanese Dishes Correctly
Japanese cooking uses a specific condiment order to season recipes and to create those distinctive Japanese flavors.
It goes like this: Sa-Shi-Su-Se-So (さしすせそ): Just like the Japanese alphabet.
す= Rice Vinegar
せ = せうゆ（an old style of writing of ( しょうゆ) – Soy sauce
そ = そinみそ – Miso
Following this order of seasoning will not only make your Japanese dishes easier to make and by far tastier! You will realize that a sweet flavor can be absorbed much better before adding in a salty component.
Dashi, is Japanese soup stock and provides that savory umami flavor that is so important in Japanese cooking. It is the cornerstone of so many recipes, like miso soup, nabemonos, noodle soups and so on. It is typically made from dried kelp, dried bonito shavings, dried shiitake mushrooms or a combo of all. You can make yourself (see my go-to easy recipe below) or you can buy instant dashi granules, or other ready-made dashi products, like powder.
Homemade Dashi Stock Recipe:
Take a 6-inch piece of kelp (kombu), wipe lightly with a damp cloth and put into a pot with 6 cups water.
Bring it just to a boil and remove kelp. Add a generous 3/4 cup of dried bonito shavings (katsuobushi) and boil for one minute.
Turn off heat and after 2 minutes, strain.
Mirin (sweet rice wine)
Mirin, is sweet rice wine, almost syrupy in consistency, with a lower alcohol content than sake but higher sugar content and is another cornerstone condiment in traditional Japanese cooking.
Miso (fermented soybean paste)
Miso (fermented soybean paste) is considered a condiment, spice, and seasoning in Japan. There are several hundred types of miso being sold, each made according to the climate and taste preferences of the region in which it is produced. Miso can range in color from a rich brownish-red to light yellow. It is often said that hatcho miso, made in Aichi Prefecture since the early 1500s, is one of the few remaining traditionally made kinds of miso in Japan, and one of the most flavorful. It is made only from soybeans. It also happens to be one of my favorites.
Rice Vinegar is milder and more delicate than other vinegars but is very versatile and flavorful. I use it to make a variety of salads, salad dressings, pickles, and of course, sushi rice. It should be a staple in your kitchen. You can buy already prepared seasoned rice vinegar to use in sushi rice, but it is very easy to make your own.
Sake (rice wine)
Sake (also called Nihonshu), Japanese rice wine, is not only drunk, but is used extensively in Japanese cooking. It is made of fermented rice. Yes, there is cheap cooking sake, that is readily available, but I prefer if I have it, to use an inexpensive drinking sake when cooking.
Soy Sauce + Tamari
Soy sauce (shoyu) is essential for Japanese cooking. It adds a layer of umami flavor to your dishes, and is made from fermented soybeans, wheat, salt and water. I always have a variety of soy sauces in my frig: currently I have regular soy sauce, clear soy sauce, smoky soy sauce we use for a dipping sauce for sashimi, and tamari, for a less salty and milder taste, which is also gluten-free. There are also low-sodium versions.
If you’re brand new to Japanese cooking, I also very much recommend this starter kit from The Japanese Pantry!
And if you’re not new to Japanese cooking, I’d love to know in the comments below – what are your favorite condiments in Japanese cooking?
Valerie Yoshimura says
Appreciate the lesson on the order. I love UMEBOSHI too.
Rachel Bailey says
What would you suggest we use in place of mirin or sake? I do not drink for medical reasons.
Lucy Seligman says
That’s a great question and I plan to do a blog on substitutes at some point. For sake alternative, you could try rice wine vinegar and water, a 1:3 ratio–1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar to 3 tablespoons water or to taste. As for mirin, combine rice wine vinegar and white sugar to taste. Let me know how it goes and good luck!
Rachel Bailey says
Valerie S. says
Is hatcho miso available at Yaoya-san?
Lucy Seligman says
I believe so!