Japanese Cooking Pantry Essentials

Everything you need to cook your favorite Japanese meals.

Cold Soba Salad with Dried Shiitake Dressing
Photo: © Dave Lauridsen

Here, the ultimate guide to more than 45 ingredients that are essential for Japanese recipes, from staples like short-grained rice to an intensely flavorful condiment made from salt-cured yuzu peel and hot chiles.

Japanese Pantry Essentials: Dry Goods

Adzuki (azuki) beans

Starch-heavy legumes with a rich, chestnut-like flavor, adzuki beans are often used in sweets in Japan, frequently cooked down with sugar to make red bean paste. They are often paired with glutinous rice in sweet and savory applications.

Dried shiitake mushrooms

Shiitake mushrooms are traditionally cultivated in Japan and China; both fresh and dried shiitakes are widely used in Japanese cooking. Dried shiitakes have an intensely earthy, woody, umami flavor that brings a savory note to broths and sauces. (They are often used for making vegetarian dashi broth.) A high-quality dried shiitake is the tenshiro donko, which is cultivated especially for drying. Most dried shiitakes found in the United States are Chinese in origin.

Noodles (soba, somen, udon)

Japanese noodles, or merui, are common in both restaurant and home cooking throughout Japan. Udon and soba noodles are the most popular. Udon are long, plump noodles made from refined wheat; they're most often eaten in hot soup or stir-fried with other ingredients. Soba are thin noodles made from buckwheat flour, typically served in a hot broth as a noodle soup or chilled with a dipping sauce. Somen are thin, refined wheat-based noodles with a more delicate flavor; they're served similarly to soba.

Stir-Fried Udon Noodles

 © Lucy Schaeffer


Nori, or laver, is a type of seaweed that is widely used in Japanese cuisine. There are three types: yaki nori (dry-roasted), ajitsuke nori (seasoned and roasted), and tsukudani nori (wet seasoned). Dry-roasted nori is crushed and used as a garnish; a packet of seasoned, roasted nori is often eaten at breakfast with a bowl of rice. Nori is perhaps most familiar as the wrapping for onigiri (rice balls) and sushi.


Coarse, airy breadcrumbs made from crustless bread, panko is often used as a coating for fried foods like tonkatsu (pork cutlet). It absorbs less grease during the frying process and results in a flaky, crispy crust.


© Tina Rupp

Rice (various)

Rice (kome when uncooked, gohan when cooked) is the staple grain of Japanese cooking and is included in most meals. Short-grained, sticky japonica rice (cultivated in Japan) is the most widely consumed. The three main groupings of japonica rice are uruchi mai, genmai, and mocha gome. Uruchi mai, the most popular rice in Japan, refers to mild-flavored, polished, short-grain rice that is tender but slightly toothsome when cooked, sticky enough to eat in clumps with chopsticks. Genmai, short-grain brown rice, has the rice bran and germ still intact. It's higher in fiber and more nutritious than polished white rice, with a chewier texture and nuttier flavor. Mochi gome, also known as glutinous rice, is an extremely sticky variety of rice used to make mochi (rice cakes) and mirin (sweet cooking sake).

Pork Fried Rice

© Lucy Schaeffer

Sushi rice

Sushi rice is boiled rice tossed with rice vinegar, sugar, and salt. Traditionally trained sushi chefs spend the first years of their education perfecting their sushi rice-making techniques, before being allowed to cut a piece of fish.

Sushi Rice


Wakame is one of the most popular and common seaweeds used in Japanese cooking. Most often sold either salted or dried, the long, slippery leaves are reconstituted in water or broth and typically eaten in soups (such as miso) or salads.

Wakame-and-Cucumber Salad. Photo © Kate Mathis
© Kate Mathis

Japanese Pantry Essentials: Sauces and Condiments

Chile oil

Japanese chile oil, called rayu, is made by infusing sesame and/or vegetable oil with dried, ground, hot red chiles. It's used as a condiment and an ingredient to add heat to dressings, marinades, and dipping sauces. A variation called taberu rayu incorporates edible chunks of garlic, onion, and sesame seeds.


Dashi is stock traditionally made with bonito flakes and kombu (though other varieties, including vegetarian dashi, are common). Dashi has a strong umami flavor and is used as the base for many soups, sauces, and dressings in Japan. Instant dashi, shelf-stable granules that dissolve in hot water, are a popular shortcut in both Japan and the West. It contains the powdered form of bonito and kombu and often adds sugar, yeast extract, and/or monosodium glutamate, resulting in a more assertive flavor than homemade dashi.

Dashi with Crab and Tofu

© Fredrika Stjärne


A sweet cooking wine, mirin is made by fermenting steamed glutinous rice with shochu (a Japanese distilled spirit). Mirin adds sweetness and a subtle sake-like flavor to sauces and glazes.


One of the most important staples of Japanese cooking, miso is a seasoning paste made by salting and fermenting soybeans with rice and/or barley. Red and white miso are the most popular of the many varieties. Red miso is aged for up to three years and develops a reddish to dark brown color and an intense umami flavor. White miso has a much shorter fermentation time, yielding a mellow, almost sweet flavor. Miso paste is dissolved in dashi broth to make miso soup and used as a flavoring in sauces, marinades, and salad dressings.

Red-Miso-Glazed Carrots
© Con Poulos

Ponzu shoyu

Ponzu shoyu is a widely used condiment made with soy sauce, yuzu (or other citrus) juice, and often mirin, rice vinegar, bonito flakes, and/or seaweed. Its many uses include adding flavor to sauces, dressings, and marinades and acting as a dipping sauce for tempura, sashimi, and noodle dishes.

Rice vinegar (su)

Japanese rice vinegar, made from fermented rice, is much less acidic than Western vinegars. Seasoned rice vinegar, used in the making of sushi rice, is mixed with sugar, salt, and sometimes sake.

Crispy Rice Cakes
Victor Protasio


Sake is a traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage that's rich with enduring culinary and cultural importance. To brew it, steamed rice is mixed with water, yeast, and a strain of mold called koji, then fermented at a high temperature and humidity. Over the course of a closely attended, multi-stage process, the yeast produces enzymes that convert the rice starch into sugar and the sugar into alcohol. The resultant sake (usually about 18% alcohol) is then aged for around six months. Polishing the grains of rice before brewing removes the fats and proteins found in the outer layers of the kernel (which interfere with fermentation and can produce off-flavors) and leaves the pure starch at the center of each grain. Varieties of sake are distinguished by how much of the rice kernel was polished away and whether distilled alcohol was added: Daiginjo (considered the best quality sake) has had 50% of the rice kernel removed, ginjo has had at least 40% of the kernel removed; and honjozo has had 30% of the kernel removed. The designation junmai means that no distilled alcohol was added to the sake.

Strip Loin Steaks with Garlic-Sake Sauce
© Con Poulos

Soy sauce

Also called shoyu, soy sauce is the most important condiment and seasoning in Japanese cooking. Soy sauce is extracted from a fermented paste made from soybeans, wheat, salt, and yeast. There are several primary types of soy sauce, the most popular and widely available in the West being koikuchi — the familiar dark, salty soy sauce.

March 26: Shoyu Ramen

© Kana Okada


Tamari shoyu is a type of soy sauce often (but not always) made without wheat, making it safe for the gluten-intolerant. Tamari has a complex, rounder, and more balanced flavor than other soy sauce varieties.

Toasted sesame oil

Toasted sesame oil is a golden, fragrantly nutty oil made from sesame seeds and used primarily as a flavoring agent rather than a cooking oil. It's used in dressings, marinades, noodles, and stir-fried dishes; sometimes a small amount is added to frying oil to impart flavor.

Cold Peanut-Sesame Noodles

© Con Poulos

Yuzu kosho

Yuzu kosho is a coarse paste consisting of salt-cured yuzu peel and hot chiles. There are two varieties — one made from unripe yuzu and green chiles, the other from ripe yuzu and red chiles. Yuzu kosho is a multi-use condiment, used in dressings, marinades, and soups, and as a topping for grilled meats or sashimi.

Spicy Grilled Shrimp with Yuzu Kosho Pesto

© Anna Williams

Japanese Pantry Essentials: Herbs, Spices, and Seasonings

Bonito flakes

Bonito, also known as katsuo or skipjack tuna, is a migratory fish in the mackerel family. Bonito fillets are cooked, smoked, dried, and cured with mold in a process that can take several months. Once the fillets have hardened, they are shaved into flakes, called katsuobushi. The flakes are used to make dashi and as a seasoning in many other dishes.

Shishito Peppers with Bonito Sand and Tofu Mustard
© Marcus Nilsson

Green tea

Green tea, made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, is widely consumed in Japan as both an everyday beverage and a centerpiece in traditional ceremonies. There are many unique varieties, differing hugely in flavor, quality, and cultural significance. Gyokuro is considered the highest quality green tea: Shade-grown baby leaves are steamed, dried, and rolled, resulting in a delicate, refreshing tea. Sencha is a common everyday tea and is the most heavily consumed tea in Japan. Matcha is powdered young green tea leaves and is used primarily in formal tea ceremonies, though it's also used as a flavoring agent in sweets, such as ice cream.

Matcha White Chocolate Mousse

© Molly Yeh

Kombu (konbu)

Kombu is a type of sea kelp that is dried and used most famously to flavor dashi broth. Kombu is high in glutamates, giving it a savory umami flavor that is often imitated by monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Soba Noodles with Dashi, Poached Egg and Scallions

© Lucy Schaeffer

Karashi (mustard powder)

Karashi is powdered mustard seed, which is sometimes blended with dried horseradish. It needs to be reconstituted with a bit of water, or it can be purchased as a paste. Karashi is hotter and more intense than Western mustard. It's used sparingly as a condiment or as an ingredient in dressings and dipping sauces.

Sansho powder (Japanese pepper)

Sansho powder, or Japanese pepper, is a golden spice ground from the seedpod surrounding the berry of the prickly ash shrub. It has a citrusy, minty aroma and flavor, and a slight tongue-tingling effect. It is used in shichimi togarashi (see below) and as an all-purpose seasoning.

Goma (sesame seeds)

Sesame seeds, both black and white, are used widely in Japanese cooking as a seasoning and garnish in sweet and savory dishes. The seeds benefit from toasting before use to bring out their flavor and aroma.

Crispy Sesame Tuiles
© Ngoc Minh Ngo

Shichimi togarashi

While togarashi simply refers to chiles generally, shichimi togarashi is a blend of seven dried and ground spices that often includes red chiles, sansho (Japanese pepper), roasted orange peel, yellow and black sesame seeds, ginger, hemp seed, and nori. Shichimi togarashi is commonly used to flavor soups and noodle dishes and as an all-purpose seasoning.

Asian-Brined Pork Loin

© Christina Holmes

Wasabi powder and paste

Fresh wasabi (Japanese horseradish) is largely unavailable in the West but is easily found dried in powered form or as a paste. The powder needs to be reconstituted with a bit of water, while the paste is ready to use but quickly loses pungency after opening. Wasabi has a very sharp flavor and aroma and is paired in small amounts with sushi and sashimi.

Dashi-Poached Scallop Salad with Wasabi Dressing

© David Malosh

Japanese Pantry Essentials: Vegetables and Fruits

Daikon radish

The daikon radish, which resembles a large, white carrot, is valued in Japanese cooking for its digestive properties; it's often eaten with fried or greasy foods to counteract the oiliness. It has a pungent, peppery flavor and is used in many pickles, dressings, and simmered meat dishes.

Kombu Roast Chicken with Kabocha Squash and Daikon
Victor Protasio


Edamame are young, green soybeans that are harvested before maturity. Edamame are extremely nutritious and in Japan are often served in the pod, simply boiled and salted, as a bar snack.

Miso Soup with Shrimp and Tofu

© James Baigrie

Shoga (ginger)

Fresh gingerroot (actually a rhizome) is an important ingredient in Japanese cooking. It is used to flavor many dishes and sauces and is prized for its digestive properties. Gingerroot is often thinly sliced, pickled, and served alongside sushi, sashimi, and other seafood dishes.

Roast Salmon with Miso Butter and Radish Salad
© Andrew Purcell

Nasu (Japanese eggplant)

The eggplant most often used in Japanese cooking is longer and skinnier than the large globe eggplant more familiar in the United States. It's used in a variety of dishes, including soups, stir-fries, and pickles.

Kabocha squash

Kabocha, or Japanese pumpkin, has sweet, dense flesh with a chestnut-like aroma and flavor. It is often simmered in dashi or deep-fried in tempura.

Winter Squash Soup with Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

© Anson Smart

Lotus root

The rhizome of the aquatic lotus plant is starchy and slightly sweet; cut into cross sections, it has a striking, lacy appearance. Lotus root is used in Japanese cooking in everything from pickles and soups to stir-fries and tempura.

Maple Root-Vegetable Stir-Fry with Sesame
© Con Poulos


Mizuna is a hearty, slightly spicy, peppery green that's used in many Japanese dishes, from salads and pickles to stir-fries.

Grilled Hen-of-the-Woods Mushrooms with Sesame

© Michael Turek

Mushrooms (kinoko)

Many varieties of mushrooms are used extensively in Japanese cooking in all types of dishes, including soups, salads, sushi, stir-fries, and tempura. Some of the varieties popular in Japan are: shiitake (used fresh or dried in various dishes); maitake (used in kiritanpo, a hot chicken and vegetable stew); enokitake (found frequently in shabu-shabu, a hot-pot dish cooked and served at the table); shimeji (used in various dishes); and nameko (normally sold preserved and often found in soups).

Pickled ginger (gari)

Pickled ginger is made by marinating very thin slices of fresh, young ginger in a mixture of rice vinegar and sugar (using plum vinegar results in the familiar pink hue). It is served as a palate cleanser alongside sushi and sashimi.

Umeboshi (pickled plums)

Ume is a sour fruit similar to plum and apricot. Umeboshi is made by sun-drying and salting the fruit, then pickling it with vinegar and red shiso leaves, which impart a rosy color. Umeboshi is often eaten with rice and miso for breakfast in Japan.

Negi (scallions)

Scallions are used extensively in Japanese cooking, largely as a garnish for soup and noodle dishes. They are also broiled and served with teriyaki.

Soba Bukkake with Chashu Pork and Sesame Vinaigrette
Greg DuPree

Shiso (perilla leaves)

Shiso leaves — one of the most commonly used herbs in Japanese cooking — have a unique citrusy, peppery, minty flavor. There is both red and green shiso; the red is commonly used to flavor and color pickles, like umeboshi, or pickled plums. The green leaf is used to season and garnish many dishes, such as sushi and sashimi, tempura, salads, and noodles.

Sweet potato

Sweet potatoes were traditionally used in Japanese cooking to bulk up rice dishes or were stone-baked and eaten on their own, but now they are seen primarily in tempura and sweets. Shochu, a distilled spirit, can be made with sweet potatoes.

Midori Shochu Sour
Photo by Jennifer Causey / Food Styling by Ali Ramee / Prop Styling by Lydia Pursell


Tofu, made by coagulating the milk of cooked soybeans, is an extremely nutritious staple of Japanese cooking. Lacking flavor on its own, tofu is quite versatile and widely used for stir-frying and deep-frying, in soups and simmered dishes, and as a base for dressings. Firm tofu has a slightly spongy, substantial texture and stands up to cooking, while soft tofu is more silky and custardy. Soft tofu is often eaten uncooked with a variety of condiments for flavor. Another variety is yuba, slightly chewy sheets of tofu skin — a by-product of the tofu-making process.

Tofu Skin Stir Fry
Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Lydia Pursell


Yuzu is the most widely used citrus fruit in Japanese cooking. It has a unique, potent aroma and flavor, and its juice and rind are used to add flavor to dishes such as soups, relishes, salad dressings, dipping sauces, and candies. (The fruit is not eaten on its own, as the taste is too acidic to be pleasant.) Fresh yuzu can be challenging to find in the United States, but bottled yuzu juice is widely available.

Citrus-and-Soy Marinade

© Tina Rupp

Japanese Pantry Essentials: Meats and Seafood

Nerimono (fish pastes)

There are a variety of fish paste products used in Japanese cooking. Fish (usually white fish such as flounder or plaice) is pureed, mixed with salt, sugar, and other seasonings, molded into the desired shape, then steamed, boiled, broiled, or fried. The cooked paste is served with condiments or can be used as an ingredient in soups, hot pots, or other dishes.

Sweet Potato Latkes with Wasabi and Wasabi Tobiko
© Keller & Keller

Tobiko (flying fish roe)

Served raw, the small, brilliantly orange eggs of the flying fish are used for color, flavor, and texture in Japanese cooking, particularly with sushi and sashimi.

Ikura (salmon roe)

Larger than tobiko (flying fish roe), bright pinkish-orange raw ikura is used for color, flavor, and texture as a topping for sushi, over rice dishes, in hors d'oeuvres, and as a bar snack.


Uni refers to the ovaries of the sea urchin, usually eaten raw in sushi. Uni is rich and buttery, and is highly valued both in Japan and in the West.

Grilled Wagyu Rib Eye
Eva Kolenko

Wagyu beef

Wagyu refers to any of several breeds of native Japanese cattle with meat that's naturally highly marbled with intramuscular fat; Wagyu beef is prized for being extremely tender and flavorful. Kobe beef is from a Wagyu breed (Tajima-gyu) raised according to strict traditions and regulations in the Hyogo prefecture of Japan; it cannot be imported into the United States, where Kobe-style beef is often available.

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