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Episode 2 – 8 essential ingredients you need to cook Japanese food


Cooking Japanese food at home is simple and tasty!

Show Notes

You’re listening to the daidokoro video podcast. Hi, I’m Pat Tokuyama and you’re about to discover some of the tastiest ways to feed your mind, body, and soul. A pharmacist by training, you may know me as the founder of all day I eat like a shark, the food blog, YouTube channel, or as author of several Japanese cookbooks. If you desire to live a healthy life and are looking for a different way forward with a hunger for growth, then this video podcast is for you!


Daidokoro is a Japanese term for kitchen. And I’m glad you’re here! With each episode, we’re going to be bringing clarity to your cooking by blending Japanese tradition and life lessons into bite-sized bits that even a shark would enjoy. Ready to make some magic happen? 

8 essential Japanese ingredients that you must have to cook plant-based Japanese food. The first ingredient is going to be shoyu or soy sauce. So this comes in many different forms. But we’re going to be talking about just a few of them today. In Japanese, it’s also referred to as koikuchi shoyu which means sort of strong flavored soy sauce. When you’re at the market, you want to be looking for something that is made in Japan, so a product of Japan. That way you’ll get the Japanese flavor and the Japanese dishes that you’re trying to cook. Alternatively, if you’re not able to get the product of Japan soy sauce, then the flavor is going to be a little bit off. So if you’re using like a Vietnamese or a Thai soy sauce or an Indonesian soy sauce, they all taste a little bit different maybe even a lot different than Japanese soy sauce, so you probably don’t want to substitute this ingredient specifically addition to just now knowing that you need regular Japanese soy sauce koikuchi shoyu, you can get low sodium soy sauce if you’re mindful of your sodium intake if you’re trying to eat a low salt diet for example, low sodium soy sauce is a good alternative to just regular soy sauce and low sodium soy sauce goes by the name of genen shoyu in Japanese. You don’t want to get that confused with Usukuchi shōyu. Usukuchi shōyu means light soy sauce. So you see that that’s one thing that you need to be careful of. So light soy sauce is actually lighter in color, lighter in flavor, but higher in the sodium content. So it’s going to be the opposite of what you’re hoping to get. So that’s one thing that you should keep in mind. 

Also, when you’re shopping for shoyu another thing that you should be looking out for is marudaizu. Marudaizu means that it’s the whole soybean that was used to make the soy sauce for the cheaper lower quality products used soybean pulp, and you may or may not notice a difference, but to me, it is a little bit different. I prefer the whole bean soy sauce because it’s a little bit more well rounded in flavor, it’s a little bit more robust and I prefer it. I can actually tell, I did a blind taste test one time. And maybe if you are a native not able to tell after doing a blind taste test, it may not matter to you. But in general marudaizu or whole soybeans, soy sauce is considered higher quality. 

Another thing that you can look for is kokkusan. Kokkusan means that it’s made in Japan and the ingredients come from Japan, of course. So this is kind of like what I alluded to, in the very beginning, about that you want it to be a product of Japan. But taking that a step further. products that are made with all ingredients being produced in Japan are also considered higher quality as opposed to something that has been imported and then produced for example. 

Then on top of that there are other types of shoyu or soy sauce. So Tamari is another type of soy sauce that you may see in recipes or at the grocery store. And this is actually if you’ve ever made homemade miso paste, you may have noticed that there’s a liquid brownish liquid that pools at the top of the miso when it’s fermenting, that’s also known as tamari and this has a different flavor profiles a little bit more robust, stronger in flavor, bolder than just regular shoyu and it’s used for different things. I would say that would be the maybe the third most common type of soy sauce that you would see at the grocery store. 

The second essential ingredient for your Japanese cooking is going to be mirin. Mirin comes in two different flavors. So depending on how well your grocery store is stocked or if you have access to an online service like Amazon, you may be able to get hon mirin which is true mirin or aji mirin, which is sort of like a, I guess, flavor of mirin. That’s the literal translation and probably wouldn’t be able to taste the difference if you did like a blind taste test and made the same dish one with hon mirin and one with aji mirin, they’re both going to cause a little bit of sweetness and a little bit of umami to round out the savory flavors in your Japanese dishes. 

And this is very similar to osake which we’re going to be talking about as the third ingredient but it’s a little bit sweeter and its flavor profile. So if you can’t get hon mirin which is true mirin just use aji mirin because they’re interchangeable. Their ingredient is going to be osake. Osake is, I guess if you want to translate it, rice wine, and it’s going to be a little bit drier. It’s not going to be as sweet as mirin and one of the things that you want to look out for is that it does not have any salt. So Osake that has salt is generally called cooking sake. And you don’t necessarily need cooking sake because it has salt that you don’t need to be eating in your cooking because you can always add salt later if it needs to have additional salt or you can also add shoyu which is going to be where most of the salt comes from in your Japanese food. And knowing that salt causes hypertension or high blood pressure, why would you want it in your food if you don’t need to eat it? That is my two cents there for Osake. 

The fourth thing that you want to be looking for for your essential Japanese cooking is going to be Kombu. Kombu is dried kelp. And you want to be looking for dried kelp or kombu that again is produced in Japan. There’s many different types of kombu as well. Some other things that you want to be looking for when you are shopping for kombu is again kokkusan, which means that it’s made in Japan, there’s other countries in Asia that actually produce kombu as well. And you may not notice unless you’re actually looking on the package to see where it was produced. So for the best quality, if you can spend a little bit more, try to get something that’s mid or higher end in terms of the price range as opposed to something that’s very cheap. Because the flavor does taste a little bit better in my opinion, for the mid to more pricier products as opposed to the very cheap stuff. It also depends on what you’re going to be making with it as well so some dishes you may not notice the flavor as much. But if it’s a dish where you’re intending to enjoy the flavor of the kombu dashi or the kombu itself, that’s when it really matters that you use a good quality kombu. Also kombu, if you didn’t know, has one of the three most common umami compounds. In this case, it’s going to be the glutamate or glutamic acid which is one of the flavor enhancing compounds. That is also referred to as umami and if you didn’t know just a fun fact for you guys for umami if you combine all three different types of umami, so, glutamate, inosinate, and guanylate acid. If you combine all three different sources of umami, fun fact for you it’s benefits or the results is actually synergistic, and exponential so it’s more powerful than each individual ingredient alone. So consider that if you’ve ever made dashi from scratch using kombu and shiitake, know that they will work together to be synergistic and make your umami effect a lot more powerful. 

Yeah, the third tip that I have for your kombu is you’re going to be adding your kombu or your kelp to something that’s a simmered food that has soy sauce as a seasoning, or maybe even like a miso soup. You may not notice the difference between a high-quality kombu and a cheaper version so that’s something to keep in mind but if you can give the premium kombu a try and see if you can notice a difference and find out for yourself. 

So the fifth ingredient is going to be shiitake mushrooms. So shiitake mushrooms are those little brown mushrooms that you may have seen before and they come in two forms: fresh and dried. But in terms of what we’re talking about here, for essential ingredients you want the dried form because that’s what you’re going to be using to make dashi. Dashi that multipurpose stock that we can make from kombu, the kelp dried kelp as well as shiitake you can use them together or alone or you can even add in katsuobushi which is the smoked fermented skipjack tuna flakes or a more of a fish-based dashi, but for plant-based japanese cooking you’re gonna be using the kombu and shiitake the most and the reason why dried shiitake is used instead of fresh shiitake mushrooms is because the dried shiitake mushrooms actually are able to release their umami compounds once the drying process has occurred. 

So the cell walls are the structures that are holding all of the umami compounds inside actually break down once the mushroom is dehydrated, and then rehydrated again. So if you can imagine, sometimes when you freeze food it doesn’t really turn out so well because the cell structures burst or they break when the ice forms inside them. So similar thing that happens with the mushroom. So the shitake mushrooms release all of their umami goodness once they have dehydrated and then rehydrated into your dashi stock. 

Another tip that I have for you is if you can try more of a medium range or premium shiitake mushroom to see if you can tell the difference because in my experience, the flavor is a little bit better. And also it does depend on what you’re using it for. So if you like i said if you are like with the kombu or the kelp if you’re going to be using it for some sort of miso soup, or soy sauce base dish, you may not notice the flavor difference, but if you’re going to be using it alone, or for something that isn’t so seasoned, then you may notice a difference, but the only way that you’ll know is to try it yourself. 

The sixth ingredient is going to be miso. So Miso is fermented soybeans and this can be made from many different ingredients and also comes in many different colors and types. I guess some of the most common ingredients that you’re going to be seeing in the ingredients list, if you ever look at that is going to be soybeans, rice and wheat and barley. So those are going to be the three most common types. And then the two colors that you’re going to see most commonly are going to be red, which is going to aka miso so it’s going to be bolder in flavor saltier in flavor, and white which is shiro miso and that’s going to be sweeter in flavor and lighter in color. And you can use them interchangeably if you really really wanted to, but they are sort of used for different things. For example, the aka miso I usually like to use for my soups, or any kind of nabemono or stews if I’m going to be doing something with that, and for the white miso, you might want to be using that for marinades, maybe even like a sauce or dressing because it’s a little bit lighter in flavor and it’s a little bit sweeter. 

So you can use vinegars for dressings, for example to combine those two and I guess a couple of things that you want to look out for like the other ingredients, you want to be looking for products of Japan. So kokkusan is one thing that you want to be mindful of, if possible, they’re going to be tasting a little bit better in my opinion than the misos that are made here in the US but that could just be my personal subjective opinion. I don’t know what you guys think you can let me know if you agree or you disagree. Also, you want to be looking for organic if possible. So yuki is the organic term in Japanese. And also a couple other things that you want to be mindful of is mutenka which means nothing has been added to it. And this is important, especially if you’re going to be using it for something like miso soup and so when you make miso soup from scratch, you usually use dashi plus miso paste, but some miso paste actually has dashi in it already so it’s gonna say dashi iri, and in that case you would only add water to your miso paste because it already has dashi in it. If you added dashi on top of the dashi plus the miso paste, that would be overkill, that’s another thing that you want to be mindful of. And there’s also low sodium miso paste. So if you’re, like I mentioned before, if you’re mindful of your sodium intake, that’s another thing that you can be on the lookout for. 

So the seventh ingredient that you’re going to be looking for for your plant based Japanese cooking is going to be rice vinegar or osu. So there’s many different types of Japanese vinegars. If you want to be looking for the most versatile, it’s going to be just straight rice vinegar, and that’s going to say just rice vinegar on the package, and it’s going to have a very light flavor kind of like, I don’t know, vinegar, and this is going to be you know the vinegar that you can use for any kind of you know, salad dressing any kind of a salad or seasoning. So other types of vinegars are made from brown rice, for example, other mixed grains and even ponzu if you want to call that a vinegar, which is made with citrus and soy sauce, and maybe dashi and some other ingredients to make a dipping sauce. So that’s another type of vinegar as well, but not as versatile as also just straight rice vinegar.

So the eighth essential Japanese ingredient that you’re going to need is Goma-abura. Goma-abura comes in two types. And the first is going to be the white taihaku goma-abura, which is sort of like a clear looking type of oil. It’s very, it’s a little bit lighter in flavor and aroma as compared to the regular goma-abura which is right it’s a roasted sesame oil, so it’s dark brown and has a very robust flavor and aroma. And you can’t use them both for the same things. But the taihaku goma-abura which is the clear one is best used for baked goods because it doesn’t have as strong of a flavor or aroma that’s going to overpower you know your cakes or your cookies or whatever it is that you’re going to bake with. The brown goma-abura or the regular goma-abura is actually good for a variety of things. So I don’t know if I’d really substitute the two but you can use both for dressings for example, or marinades. But the brown I usually use for you know my stir fries and any kind of my salad dressings and things like that. So that is going to be eight essential Japanese ingredients that you’ll need to get started with plant based Japanese food. 

Thanks for joining us today from wherever you’re watching or listening from. And if you haven’t yet, it means a lot to me if you can share your thoughts in a review on iTunes to let me know what you think of this new video podcast. Then I can take that feedback and make things better for next time. And to celebrate the launch of this brand new video podcast we are going to be doing a little giveaway. All you got to do to enter is subscribe and send us a screenshot of your review. Make sure to check out the link in the description or show notes for all the details. And I’d encourage you to share this with a friend or a loved one because if you’ve gotten value out of it, chances are they will too. 

Want to try cooking Japanese food at home from scratch? Head over to alldayieat.com/aisatsu to get started today. And if you’re new here, make sure to check out all alldayieat.com/daidokoro for all the show notes, bonus materials, resources and more.


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Konnichiwa! (Hello!) I'm Pat Tokuyama, a Japanese tofu cookbook author, who travels for music, food, and adventure. If you like Japanese tea, checkout some of the newestorganic japanese tea, matcha bowls and noren and more!

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