Ten more ingredients you might want

Ten more ingredients you might want

Tim Anderson
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Laura Edwards


There are basically two kinds of tofu you need for Japanese cooking: silken and… uh, not silken? It’s tricky to name the non-silken kind because everybody seems to label it differently, but perhaps most commonly as ‘block’ tofu. Silken tofu comes in little Tetra Paks that have to be snipped open at the seams, while block tofu is packaged submerged in water in plastic tubs. Silken tofu is extremely delicate (don’t be fooled by the ‘firm’ silken tofu; it ain’t that firm), so it’s best in raw dishes like Hiyayakko or in dishes where it’s not cooked or handled with much movement (like miso soup). Block tofu is denser and more robust, so it holds up better in stir-fries or hot pots.

Toasted sesame seeds

Sesame seeds are almost always sold raw, which I find irksome. Raw sesame seeds taste like paper. But toasted sesame seeds are SO delicious! They’re all nutty and rich and like a million times better than they are raw. So you have two options: buy them already toasted (any Chinese supermarket will sell them this way), or toast them yourself. The easiest way to do this is in a carefully watched dry frying pan (skillet) over a medium heat. Keep the seeds moving and pull them off the heat when they are golden brown and smell delicious.

Nori, wakame & friends

Who’d have thought seaweed could be such a versatile foodstuff? The Japanese, that’s who. They harvest a huge variety of seaweeds for various purposes, but the two you’re most likely to encounter are nori and wakame. Nori is sold as dried, dark green sheets, most commonly used to wrap sushi rolls, but it can also be snipped with scissors into fine shreds to add a lovely ‘sea breeze’ aroma to dishes. Wakame is sold dehydrated, and after a soak in cold water it becomes supple and silky and tender and, I think, healthy, but don’t quote me on that. It’s most commonly found in miso soup and similar brothy dishes, but also in Japanese salads. A couple of others to keep your eye out for are hijiki (a bit like wakame but smaller and nuttier) and aonori (a bit like nori but greener, more intense, and sold as flakes).

Shiitake, shimeji & friends

Nowadays big supermarkets are actually a pretty good source for Japanese mushrooms, including shiitake, shimeji, enoki and eringi.

Shiitake are meaty and intense, and need to be de-stemmed before using. Shimeji are often sold as beech mushrooms, and resemble (and taste like) an elongated chestnut mushroom, but with a firmer texture. Enoki are the long, skinny ones that become almost noodly when cooked, while eringi (my favourite) are like oyster mushrooms on steroids – meaty, sweet and full of mushroomy juice. Most, if not all, of these mushrooms are typically found in those ‘exotic’ mushroom packs at the supermarket, which is a great way to try them all.


This is the definitive Japanese noodle power ranking:

Ramen, the one true king of noodles



Weird obscure ones like somen and shirataki

Just kidding. They all have their charms, of course, but I do think you can tell a lot about a person by which noodle they prefer. If you like ramen, you’re a charismatic go-getter and sensation-seeker who likes to party and experiment with psychotropic drugs. If you like soba, you’re more of an introvert who prefers to stay home with your cat, drinking tea and watching pensive documentaries about typeface design. If you like udon, you’re a lovelorn romantic perpetually in need of a hug.

But perhaps more accurately: if you like ramen, you like thin wheat noodles with a springy texture. If you like soba, you like thin buckwheat noodles with a nutty flavour and delicate bite. If you like udon, you like big, fat, chewy wheat noodles, so chunky they’re almost like dumplings.

Soba is almost exclusively sold dried, and most brands are pretty good, but look for noodles that have a visible grain in them from the buckwheat. Udon is sold dried, fresh or frozen, and I’d strongly advise you to avoid dried – they just aren’t fat enough, and tend to have a soft, sad texture. Ramen is characterised by its alkaline salts that affect gluten, giving them a characteristic ‘bouncy’ texture. Fresh is best, but if that’s not an option, go for instant ramen. For some reason it has a better texture than dried ramen, and you can use the little seasoning packets to sprinkle on popcorn or oven chips (sooo goooood).


Kombu is dried kelp, and the essential ingredient in dashi – and therefore, the backbone of Japanese cookery. Steeping kombu in warm water releases its briny flavour and a powerful, lip-smacking, mouth-watering, tummy-filling umami (basically, it’s full of natural MSG) that makes so much Japanese food so satisfying even when it’s quite light. However, if you don’t plan on making dashi from scratch, kombu won’t be of much use to you. But it’s worth getting a pack just to try – I find its meaty flavour to be a wonderful helper in the kitchen, especially in hearty comfort-food dishes like stews and soups.


Katsuobushi is the other essential ingredient in dashi, and it delivers a strongly ‘Japanese’ flavour of concentrated fish. And that’s basically what it is: loins of smallish tuna (katsuo) are smoked, fermented and dried until they resemble a chunk of fishy driftwood, then shaved into fine, papery flakes (bushi). It has a very moreish smoked fish flavour that will be familiar to you from a number of Japanese broths and sauces. It is also used as a topping for certain dishes, adding an umami boost as well as a striking appearance – it seems to dance and flutter when currents of hot, tasty food vapour rise off the dish it’s adorning.


Panko (literally ‘bread particles’) are Japanese dried breadcrumbs, characterised by a coarser, airier texture than Western breadcrumbs. They really are superior, so if you’re making tonkatsu or croquettes, seek them out – you can even find them at some big supermarkets.

Sesame oil

Just a few drops of toasted sesame oil is enough to impart a rich, meaty nuttiness to dishes – you won’t often find it used in great quantities in Japanese cuisine (except in Sesame Sauce), but it really rounds out the flavours of Chinese-influenced dishes and hearty stir-fries like Stir-Fried Pork with Ginger Sauce and Fried Rice.

Pickled ginger

There are two types of pickled ginger: red and pink (or white). The pale pink stuff is pretty much exclusively used as a palate-cleanser with sushi, whereas the red stuff (called beni shoga) is found in all sorts of dishes – it has a special affinity with Sweet Soy Sauce and Tonkatsu Sauce which makes it excellent (indispensible, actually) with Yakisoba.

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