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Basic Japanese Dishes and Ingredients

Turning Japanese: a Japanese Cuisine Primer

We know it best for sushi, ramen, and teriyaki chicken, but Japanese cuisine actually encompasses a vast range of dishes and flavors. Japan may be a relatively small island nation, but its topography is peppered with snow-capped mountains, broad agricultural fields, and plenty of seashore. Pasture land is at a premium, so the diet tends to be low in animal fats and relies heavily on locally sourced vegetables, grains, sea plants, and fish, with recipes adapted to the country's diverse regional preferences. But before you write it off as complicated and intimidating, know that you can complete your Japanese pantry with just a few staples, and most dishes are designed to be prepared in under an hour — perfect for a weeknight meal! Ready to learn more about turning your kitchen Japanese? Get started when you keep reading.

Preparation Techniques and Standard Dishes

At first glance, a Japanese menu contains a plethora of options and confronts the reader with terms like donburi, yakitori, and agedashi. Fear not: Japanese cooking can actually be broken down into a handful of preparation techniques from which most dishes originate. Unlike European preparations which call for long cook times, Japanese cooking is fast and flexible, allowing you to throw together meals in minutes.

  • Grilling (yakimono): Meat and fish are cut into small pieces or thin fillets to speed up cooking time. Popular dishes include teriyaki (grilled meat basted with a sweet soy-ginger sauce), yakitori (grilled skewered chicken), and okonomiyaki (savory meat-and-vegetable pancake).
  • Simmering (nimono): Cooking ingredients in flavorful broths and sauces is a great way to soften meats and vegetables while retaining the food's nutritional value. Use a miso- or soy sauce-based broth to stew just about any meat or vegetable.
  • One-pot cooking (nabemono): The Japanese version of fondue, nabemono is a quick meal that can be prepared ahead of time or cooked at the table. As with yakimono, ingredients are cut into small pieces to ensure quick cooking. Popular dishes include shabu shabu (thinly sliced meats and vegetables cooked in a light broth) and sukiyaki (thinly sliced beef and vegetables cooked in a soy sauce-based broth).
  • Frying (agemono): Japanese fried dishes are light and crisp with breading made from potato starch, wheat flour, or airy-light bread crumbs (panko). Popular dishes include tempura (battered fried seafood and vegetables), karaage (bite-sized meat and vegetables floured and deep-fried), and tonkatsu (fried panko-encrusted pork cutlets).
  • Soup (suimono and shirumono): A typical Japanese meal includes three dishes — steamed rice, pickles, and a light soup. The most popular is miso soup, which combines fermented soybean paste with dashi, a broth of kelp and dried fish.
  • Pickling (tsukemono): A Japanese meal wouldn't be complete without a few types of pickles made from radish, cabbage, sour apricot, or cucumber, to name a few ingredients.
  • Sashimi (raw fish and meats): Small quantities of raw fish are often a component of Japanese meals. It's served with a dipping sauce (usually soy sauce and wasabi) and can include anything from tuna, salmon, and mackerel to scallops, squid, and octopus and sometimes even raw chicken, beef, and horse meat.

Basic Pantry Items

  • Short-grain rice: White rice is the traditional variety, but these days healthier brown rice is popular.
  • Noodles: Soba (buckwheat), udon (thick wheat noodles), somen (thin wheat noodles), and ramen (egg noodles) are common types. Try them all to find your favorite!
  • Soy sauce, rice wine (sake), sweet cooking wine (mirin), and rice vinegar: for sauces, soups, and dressings.
  • Fermented soybean paste (miso): for miso soup, simmering sauces, and marinades.
  • Dried kelp (kombu) and dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi): for making dashi. You can also use packaged dashi powder.
  • Dried shiitake mushrooms: great for nabemono and vegetarian dashi.
  • Sesame seeds: to garnish dishes or make sesame paste.

Just add your choice of vegetables, tofu, and meat!

Source: Flickr User InterContinental Hong Kong

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Nicole-Perry Nicole-Perry 4 years
I love this breakdown of cooking techniques! I eat an awful lot of Japanese food (holy yum!), but it still can be confusing when trying something new to me, thanks for laying it all out. 
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