Like most cuisines, Japanese cooking employs a variety of fragrant herbs, spices, and condiments called yakumi to help create those delectable Japanese flavors and tastes. As the world becomes smaller, many of these can now be found overseas and are being used innovatively in many other cuisines. Here are some of the more important seasonings in the Japanese flavor palette.
Note: Herbs and spices like ginger and wasabi must be peeled and grated to release the full impact of their flavor.
Elements of the Japanese Palate
Sansho (aromatic Japanese pepper) also known as prickly ash, is an invigorating spice. The young leaves, called kinome, are used as a garnish in rice and simmered dishes to herald spring.(ground sansho) can be used as a seasoning and spice, and is always served with grilled eel. Sansho powder goes well with simmered meat (dipped in Ponzu sauce) or even sautéed meat, too. Try sprinkling it on your grilled steak for a change. Tip: I store my Sansho in a closed ziplock bag and store in the freezer to preserve freshness.
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Shiso (perilla), a member of the mint family, is originally from China, Burma, and the Himalayas. There are green and red varieties, and both can be eaten raw or cooked. The buds (ho-jiso), which are grown in darkness, are used in the dipping sauce for sashimi. Aka-jiso, the red variety, is used to make pickled plums (umeboshi). The green variety, ao-jiso, is used as a garnish, in sushi rolls, and in tenpura. It is also great in salad dressings, and I often use it as a substitute for basil in pasta dishes.
Shoga (ginger) was initially used in the dipping sauce for sashimi before the advent of wasabi. One of the most commonly used spices in Japan, it can be eaten raw or cooked, but don’t forget to peel it. Its sharp, pungent taste is the perfect foil to oily dishes, and it is used in finely grated form in tenpura dipping sauce. Vinegared sliced ginger, called gari, accompanies sushi and helps to refresh the palate.
Togarashi is the Japanese word for red chiles and refers to a number of condiments. I like to have two dried spice combinations on hand, both of which are traditionally used as flavoring agents in soba noodle dishes: ichimi togarashi (ground, dried red pepper) and shichimi togarashi (a fragrant blend of seven different spices). Tip: I keep my togarashi condiments in a closed ziplock bag and store in the freezer to preserve freshness.
One of the most famous spices is the pungent and bitingly fiery native Japanese horseradish, Wasabi. Grated fresh wasabi, which has quite a kick to it, is served with sashimi and sushi and used to flavor cold soba noodle dipping sauces. Try mixing some prepared wasabi into mayonnaise and using it as a sandwich spread or in salad dressings. Wasabi zuke (pickles) are a special product of Shizuoka.
There are a number of other herbs and spices that are not so easy to find but are worth seeking out.
Karashi (Japanese mustard) is bitter and hot and should be eaten sparingly; it accompanies oden (hodgepodge stew) and is often mixed with soy sauce to make a tangy sauce for boiled greens.
Mitsuba (trefoil), a member of the parsley family with a very assertive taste that can be used in several ways, both raw or cooked. Chopped up (including part of the upper stem) into soups or salads, as a garnish for chawanmushi, or even as oshitashi (boiled greens topped with dried bonito shavings).
Myoga: an edible bud that has a refreshingly crunchy texture. Great chopped up into salads or as a garnish in hiya somen. Always eaten raw.
Negi (Spring onion): Used in a variety of ways. Raw, it’s found chopped up used as a garnish on top of noodles and in dipping sauces. It is one of the most important ingredients in nabe (stews). Also chopped up in aji no tataki (raw horse mackerel), along with grated ginger. I use Konegi (thin Negi) or Asatsuki for Tataki if I can find it. I use all varieties of negi for miso soup. I love grilled negi, eaten with red miso.
Seri (Japanese parsley): used in clear soups as a flavoring, or as oshitashi.
Yuzu: Japanese citron, has a delicious citrus bouquet. I always use yuzu juice to make homemade Ponzu sauce if I can find it fresh here in the Bay area. Ponzu is great for a nabe dipping sauce, Katsuo no Tataki, and also with boiled sliced pork (preferably with sansho or ichimi or shichimi togarashi mixed in it). Can also be grated and added to miso to make sauces, or used in baking, such as my yuzu-meyer-lemon-poundcake. Tip: Dry fresh yuzu halves and grate to add to your shichimi togarashi in the autumn or winter for a delicious taste.