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Six Japanese Ingredients You Need Now!

October 12, 2017

When it comes to finding a decent variety of Japanese foods outside of Japan, chances are your local supermarket has come a long way in recent years. Though this almost certainly hints at changing demographics, it’s probably also safe to say it has much to do with a growing interest in “foreign” dining, “foodie” culture, and the adventure of trying it all out at home. Emboldened by an explosion of food programs on TV, and a nearly infinite catalogue of recipes and video tutorials available online, brave kitchen explorers are increasingly trying out Japanese ingredients in their home cooking.
On a recent visit back to Canada, I made a point of scouring the local supermarkets to see just how mainstream Japanese food has become. My hometown, while technically a small city, is really more of a rural bedroom community ringed by the usual “big box” stores, and hardly what you’d call a beacon of diversity and international culinary culture. But I was more than mildly impressed at just how well-stocked the Japanese food sections of the local supermarkets had become. So, here I have collected a few of the most common ingredients you are likely to encounter on your next shopping trip. I’ll link you to some of our JAPANESE FOOD recipes to get you started, and share a few hints and tips to keep in mind when you go off-book and strike out on your own.

Instant Ramen – Whip up a satisfying meal in a hurry with these cheap and easy standbys.

Famous the world over as an after-school snack, and for keeping legions of impoverished college students alive, cheap and easy instant ramen noodles have long been a fixture of supermarket shelves outside of Japan, and thus require little introduction. But, while most of us are bound to be acquainted with the standard preparation (boil, pour, wait, and eat), you may be delighted to discover that healthy, delicious options can arise when you put the flavor packet aside and combine your noodles with common, fresh ingredients. Rather than slurping them out of the same old soup, why not try them in your next stir fry? If this sounds appealing, bear in mind that you will want to boil the noodles for less time than usual, as they will continue cooking in the stir fry. This recipe for spicy soupless noodles with summer vegetables is a quick and easy way to breathe new life into instant ramen.

Japanese Curry Roux – Add a little spice!

Though perhaps not as famous as its South Asian counterparts, comparatively sweet and mild Japanese curry has made inroads into international supermarkets. These brightly-colored boxes of concentrated roux are relatively self-explanatory, and should come with instructions for preparing a standard Japanese curry stew with vegetables and meat. But, like many of the Japanese basics we’re discussing here, a little “out of the box” thinking can yield delicious results! While by-the-numbers Japanese curry is most commonly served over white rice, both of the following recipes double down on the comfort food factor by using thick, chewy udon noodles instead. Have fun with these, but perhaps avoid wearing your best white shirt!
Curry Udon Noodles
Creamy Curry Udon Noodles

Miso – The ultimate umami?

Maybe you’ve heard of this whole “umami” business, but still aren’t quite sure what it’s all about. If so, miso might be a good place to start your education. I would argue that this fermented soybean paste IS umami itself. Tangy, fragrant, and ticking all of the probiotic boxes, miso has to be one of my favorite Japanese flavors.
While most of us are familiar with the ubiquitous miso soup, served as a side at the local Japanese eatery, it’s really just a hint of the possibilities of this pungent paste. I often combine it with mayonnaise as a simple dip for raw vegetables, and have even mixed it with olive oil, chopped shiso leaves, and chicken to make a unique, Japanese-flavored pizza.
On the more orthodox side, mixed with sake and mirin, miso adds an unparalleled depth of flavor when used as a marinade or “rub” for meat and fish. This simple fish recipe is a good introduction to both the ease and satisfaction of cooking with miso.
For more about miso, and other pillars of Japanese flavor, check out our own Madam Akiko’s “The ABCs of Japanese Cooking”.

Panko – A lighter, crispier way to fry.

For the uninitiated, panko are Japanese-style white breadcrumbs, mostly used in fried or baked dishes. Panko are lighter and flakier than their Western cousins, so they absorb less oil and retain their crispness. Even better, they don’t require any special technique, or knowledge of Japanese cooking to get good results. You can easily substitute them for standard breadcrumbs in most recipes, such as breaded meats and fish, and they work really well sprinkled on top of baked casserole-style dishes. They are an easy way to lend a touch of the exotic to plain old macaroni and cheese (baked, of course), and vegans can even use them, instead of eggs, as an effective binder in veggie burger recipes.

Here’s a link to a simple, delicious, and authentically Japanese deep-fried salmon recipe which perfectly showcases panko’s appeal as a crispy breading.

Teriyaki Sauce – A sweet and savory favorite.

Teriyaki is, again, something that needs little introduction. From burgers to beef jerky, to more orthodox fish and meat dishes, this sweet and savory flavor has been a favorite of young and old, both in and out of Japan, for as long as I can remember. Many bottled varieties should be available at your local market, and will work just fine, but these recipes will take you through the simple steps of making it yourself.
Chicken Breast Teriyaki
Swordfish Teriyaki
Meat-stuffed Shiitake Mushroom Teriyaki

For an in-depth rundown on all things teriyaki, you might want to read this article on our site.

Tofu – Sure, it's good for you, but it's so much more.

Though tofu has been widely available outside of Asia for a good many years, Western consumers have spent much of that time relatively immune to its charms. Apparently, a 1986 Roper Poll even declared it America’s most loathed food! Needless to say, things have changed – these days, you can find a dizzying array of tofu-based products, ranging from meatless burger patties to frozen desserts, in supermarkets around the world.
But what to do with plain old tofu? Depending on where you are, and your experience with the jiggly white blocks, it may seem that there are too many options. From soft and creamy to chewy and leathery, and all stages in between, tofu comes in a wide variety of texture and firmness. When I first began to experiment with it as a meat substitute, I found the firm or extra-firm varieties held up best in stir-fries and curries. A warning, though – one problem I had while trying to fry tofu was that I neglected to drain it properly, and spent far too much time dodging red-hot spatter from the frying pan! So, as a general rule of thumb for block-style tofu, it’s best to drain the excess water out by placing the blocks on a dish towel, setting a dish or small cutting board on top with something to weigh it down, and leaving it for at least 5-10 minutes while you prep your other ingredients.
If you are keen on finding out how you can use tofu like they do in Japan, here are a couple of simple, mouthwatering recipes from our own JAPANESE FOOD experts.
Kabayaki Tofu on Rice
Meat-wrapped Tofu with Ginger

Text: Marcus Hutchings

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