Japanese Pantry: Expand your culinary repertoire with these staples

Thanks to the sushi boom, Americans are becoming more familiar with the flavors of Japan. There is, of course, much more to the cuisine than sushi rolls, tempura and miso soup, and the best way to explore Japanese food further may be to make it at home.

To cook Japanese cuisine like a pro, embrace the basics. The adage goes, “A stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet,” so let’s get friendly with some staples of the Japanese pantry. Here’s a short list, in order of importance, of the essentials:

Soy sauce
Shoyu is made by fermenting soybeans with wheat and salt. There are many varieties of shoyu, each with its own flavor ranging in saltiness, color and process used.
How to use: Soy sauce is vital in Japanese cuisine and is used in some way in almost everything – soups, dressings and sauces, and as a condiment.

Soup stock
Dashi is the essential soup stock used in Japanese cuisine. It’s made from skipjack tuna flakes and kelp, but can also be made with kelp alone, from mushrooms and from dried sardines. While dashi can be prepared at home, a granulated, instant variety of the stock is available to make Japanese cooking quick and easy.
How to use: Dashi is used in soups and sauces. It’s indispensible in the Japanese kitchen and adds depth and flavor to recipes.

Rice wine
Sake comes in many varieties, but the best to cook with is cooking sake, according to chef Kenji Nemoto of Sekisui on South Grand Boulevard.
How to use: Use sake as a marinade for meat and seafood, in sauces, soups and dressings, and to steam delicate dishes.

Sweet cooking rice wine
Mirin is a pale yellow, sweet cooking wine made from fermented rice. It has less alcohol and more sugar than sake. One of mirin’s many uses is in teriyaki-style cooking. “Mirin is something you use to make things shiny,” Nemoto said. The “teri” in teriyaki means shine, and mirin imparts a luster to vegetable and meat dishes. (See accompanying recipe for teriyaki sauce.)
How to use: Mirin imparts sheen and adds a bit of sweetness to dishes. It is also used in soups, sauces and dressings.

This kelp has other uses besides being a main ingredient in dashi - it’s also used to flavor vegetables, rice and meat. Kombu brings out the subtle flavors in delicate vegetables and enhances them.
How to use: Kombu is often cooked with a recipe and then removed before serving, much like bay leaves. Pieces will need to be wiped down with a damp cloth to remove any residue prior to cooking.

Bonito flakes
Katsuobushi are thinly shaved pieces of smoked skipjack tuna, also known as bonito. These pinkish-brown flakes are a main ingredient in dashi and are used as a condiment.
How to use: Katsuobushi are used to flavor dashi, to top dishes and as a stuffing for rice balls. The flakes are so finely cut that when they’re sprinkled on hot dishes, they wave back and forth, earning them the nickname “dancing fish flakes.”

Rice vinegar
Made from fermented rice, kome su has a sharp, bright tang with a dollop of natural sweetness.
How to use: Use kome su in making dressings for cold noodle dishes, for preparing quick pickles and for seasoning sushi rice.

Sugar adds a certain je ne sais quoi to Japanese dishes, or as the Japanese say, a certain kakushi aji. Kakushi aji translates as “hidden flavor,” and a bit of sato brings out the natural sweetness in vegetables, said sushi chef and owner Noboru “Nobu” Kidera of Nobu’s in University City.
How to use: Use sato to enhance vegetable dishes and to add a hint of sweetness to soups and sauces.

Fermented soybean paste
There are many varieties of miso, all with their own subtle flavors. Shiro (white), hatcho (yellow) and aka (red) are readily available. Shiro miso is the mildest of the bunch and aka miso the most robust, while hatcho falls between shiro and aka. Nemoto suggested trying awase miso (mixed miso), a blend of red and white miso that’s the “best bet” for first-time miso users.
How to use: It comes down to personal preference as how to use each variety. Never overcook or boil miso, as the flavor will be dulled.

Nori is a class of seaweed known as laver. After nori is harvested, it’s made into sheets, which are then dried and roasted.
How to use: Nori is essential in making rolled sushi, but it’s also used as a condiment, either as strips or a powder.

Sesame seeds
There are two types of sesame seeds used in Japanese cooking: shirogoma (white sesame) and kurogoma (black sesame). Shirogoma have a light, nutty flavor, which goes well with vegetable and tofu dishes. Kurogoma have a stronger, deeper flavor, which is almost bitter, but which is fabulous in desserts.
How to use: White sesame seeds are typically used in sauces, dressings and as a condiment. Black sesame seeds are most often used in sweets, where sugar tempers the strong flavor. Toast sesame seeds and lightly crush them with a mortar and pestle right before using them.

This tender root is used quite a bit in Japanese cuisine. The fresh root is grated to flavor sauces and dressings, and two pickled varieties of ginger, gari and beni shoga, are used as condiments. Gari is thinly sliced pink, sweet pickled ginger, often served with sushi. Beni shoga is a grated, red and salty variety of pickled ginger.
How to use: Use freshly grated root ginger in dressings and sauces. Use the pickled varieties as condiments for soups, noodles and main dishes.

Japanese horseradish
Most wasabi sold in the U.S. is actually a mixture of wasabi, horseradish, hot mustard and green food coloring.
How to use: Sushi chefs use wasabi to flavor sushi and sashimi. Use it at home as an accompaniment to fish, rice, noodles and tofu. Wasabi is also used in flavoring shoyu and dressings.