About 4 ingredients are all you need to produce a couple dozen recipes from soups to teriyaki sauce (soy sauce, mirin, and sugar is all you need).
I will not forget when the extent of what I knew or my attempts at cooking was a casserole dish, chicken drumsticks, BBQ sauce, and the oven. The outcome is why I did not cook, but somehow I learned how the hell to cook (I really do not remember how that all came about). So if you may be in the same boat, and you will know if you are thinking any of the below questions.
The short list of what you will need is soup stock, soy sauce, mirin (sweet cooking wine), and sake.
If you are thinking to yourself any of these questions:
- Where do I start? you’re here, so you’re off to a good start.
- What ingredients do I need? I’m going to suggest the bare minimum of ingredients for anybody on a budget, but I’ll also include higher priced/premium options.
- What brands should I buy? to me, this is the one major variable which will vary your results, especially if you limit yourself to the “Oriental” aisle of your typical mainstream market.
- Where do I buy these ingredients? if you don’t live in a major coastal city, this can be a challenge although I’ll provide some options.
- How hard is it to cook Japanese food? it depends on how many fires you started in your kitchen, and if that number takes more than two hands to count. If that is the case, it might be a challenge for you.
- Where’s the best place to find recipes? inside the heads of some Japanese people, but since that information isn’t readily available, I’ll provide a few resources with easier access.
- When does the 5th season of Black Mirror or Stranger Things season 3 come out? I don’t have an inside scoop, but I can google like a semi-pro.
If you thought of any of these things, you’ve come to the right place (even the last question).
Starting off is as easy as 1, 2, 3, 4
You can do a lot with these four ingredients:
1). Shoyu (Soy sauce)
You probably are not surprised to see this one, but you might not know of all the types of soy sauces which range from koikuchi (dark, and the most common and general purpose one), usukuchi (light, it’s not less sodium), tamari (typically gluten-free when it is pure soy with no wheat blend), to shiro (white soy sauce, it’s not literally white though but it’s very light in color).
- Recommended brands: The big brands are Kikkoman, Marukin, and Yamasa although there are a number of smaller and artisanal brands such as Shoda, Inoue, Horikaway Nomura, Yugeta, and a whole lot more. BTW, if you want your food to taste Japanese, don’t try substituting your soy sauce for a Hawaiian brand like Aloha.
- Where to find it: most mainstream markets carry soy sauce now, but for the specialized ones, you will need to find a Japanese to a Korean market although more Asian (Chinese, Vietnamese, etc.) markets are carrying Japanese soy sauces. If you’re located in SoCal or want to buy online: check out the top Japanese markets in SoCal.
- Pricing: a small bottle (15oz) of Kikkoman will be about $2.69 to a 1L or 1 gallon jug will run you about $11-13. If you’re too lazy to go look, and you want to buy it online, here’s the Amazon link to what I use which is in a 33.8oz bottle.
2a). Dashi (Seafood Based Stock)
Katsuobushi is made from a smoked, dried, and fermented fish called bonito or skipjack tuna. It is the most commonly used dashi (stock), and you will find it in just about every Japanese dish you can think of. The other is iriko or niboshi which are not as commonly used as katsuobushi, but they are the bulk of dashi’s used in Japanese cuisine.
Hon-dashi (the easiest/recommended way)
- Recommended brands: Ajinomoto, and I don’t think I have bought any other brand, or know of any other brand. Oh, and for a full-bodied dashi, hon-dashi and katsuobushi both need kombu (dried kelp) which is called awase dashi.
- Where to find it: some mainstream grocery stores are starting to carry this hondashi, but you’ll most likely be paying a premium for it. If you’re located in SoCal or want to buy online: check out the top Japanese markets in SoCal.
- Pricing: I buy the big ole box ($13.88/1.32lbs) where a teaspoon is enough for about a cup of dashi, I think? (too lazy to go check) although a small bottle ($2.98/2.11oz) or package will do for starters. If you’re not afraid of committment, Amazon sells a 4.23oz 1-pack for $5.96 to a 3-pack for $13.09.
This preserved piece of fish is also one of the hardest foods in the world (so hard, some Japanese dude carved a knife out of a block of katsuobushi). The block (fillet) of bonito is then shaved off into thin shavings (called hanakatsuo), so if you ever took a wood shop class, this is nothing foreign to you.
- Recommended brands: Yamaki, Kaneso, Kanei, JFC, Ninben, to Yamahide.
- Where to find it: hondashi should be the easiest to find, but katsuobushi might be a little harder to find which is why I will recommend that you buy it online. If you’re located in SoCal or want to buy online: check out the top Japanese markets in SoCal.
- Pricing: 2.82oz of Yamaki Otokuyo Hana Katsuo is $8.78, but 3.52oz of Kanseo Hana katsuo will only set you back $5.38.
If you like miso soup, there’s only two basic ingredients for it which are miso and a dashi. A popular dashi, especially in Western Japan are iriko or baby anchovies (I know, you read “anchovies,” but don’t worry, it smells nothing like your friend on a hot summers day)
- Recommended brands: Yamaki, Shirakiku (food distributor),
- Where to find it: this is distributed by a number of food distributors, and you’ll be able to find this ingredient primarily in Japanese and Korean markets. If you’re located in SoCal or want to buy online: check out the top Japanese markets in SoCal.
- Pricing: 200g of niboshi by Yamaki goes for $12.23. 3oz on Amazon goes for $8.15 from an “Amazon’s Choice” seller.
2b). Dashi (Vegetarian Stock)
There are two types of vegetarian stock, and they are kombu (dried kelp) and shiitake (dried mushroom). Kombu is sold in dry large strips, and the highest quality ones come from the Hokkaido region of Japan. Both of these ingredients for dashi come dried.
- Recommended brands: Wel-pac, Shirakiku, Fujikko Hayani (shabu shabu), Shimaya, Kaneshichi (stick).
- Where to find it: this is such a core ingredient, but finding a quality (hidaka/ma/rausu/rishiri) kombu can be tough to find. What you will find quite easily are the cheaper Wel-pac kombu which isn’t anywhere near the quality of the higher priced kombu’s (there is a discernible taste difference). If you’re located in SoCal or want to buy online: check out the top Japanese markets in SoCal.
- Pricing: when it comes to pricing for kombu, it can vary dramatically from $2.28(0.14ozx12), $4.48(0.7oz), $1.28(2.0oz), $3.28(4oz) to a rishiri-konbu by Uneno Co., Ltd for $20.25 (65g) and a ma-konbu that’ll go for $39.55 (100g) – the latter two are premium products by the Japanese Pantry.
3. Mirin (Sweet Cooking Wine)
When you want to go broil some fish, and you want to give it a nice tasty glaze, you will wish you had mirin in your life much earlier. Especially if you have had Nobu Matsuhisa’s broiled miso cod which is perfectly grilled to perfection with mirin.
- Recommended brands: Kikkoman Aji-mirin is very popular, but if you could afford to spend more, I suggest finding a hon-mirin (Takara or Mizkan).
- Where to find it: because of the alcohol content of mirin, you will have to find it locally because of the laws prohibiting and the restrictions of shipping alcohol. If you’re located in SoCal: check out the top Japanese markets in SoCal.
- Pricing: the most common mirin would be Kikkoman’s aji-mirin which will run you about $3 for a small 10oz bottle. It’s easy to go through this ingredient which is why I recommend that you buy a 60oz bottle that’ll run you about $20 (that’s if you plan on sticking to Japanese cooking unlike how you gave up on playing the guitar. Now I bet that guitar just sits somewhere as a decorative piece).
4. Sake (Rice Wine)
This the one ingredient where you don’t have to learn to cook at all, and you could just plop down on the couch and drink it (I mean, I have a friend named “Freg” that did that with a couple of bottles which is why he’s out of it to cook with).
- Recommended brands: Ozeki and Sho Chiku Bai are my goto’s although I prefer Ozeki out of the two (both are often used in restaurant kitchens).
- Where to find it: in California, we can buy alcohol in markets, but I was just reminded that in Colorado that they do not allow alcohol above 3.2% (alcohol content) in markets. That means possibly mirin and especially sake, you have to buy from a liquor store. If you’re located in SoCal: check out the top Japanese markets in SoCal.
- Pricing: when it comes to pricing, living in SoCal, I could typically pick up a 1.5L for a little over $6 (outside of L.A., expect to pay $12+). If you don’t have that luxury, totalwine sells the smaller bottle (750ml) for $5.99 (out of stock at the time of this post).
How Hard is it to Cook Japanese Food
Here are some examples of some dishes that you can do with your new entourage of ingredients (basic ingredients list to give you an idea):
- Sukiyaki: soy sauce, mirin, sake, sugar, and dashi.
- Gyudon (beef bowl/Yoshinoya): soy sauce, mirin, sake, sugar, dashi
- Teriyaki sauce: soy sauce, mirin, sake, brown sugar, garlic, ginger, and cornstarch.
- Udon: dashi, soy sauce, mirin, sugar.
- Karaage (Japanese fried chicken): soy sauce, sake, sugar, garlic, ginger, and potato starch.
- Edamame: salt (I threw this one in, so that it’ll boost your confidence level).
By now, you may have started to notice a trend with the ingredients. If you haven’t noticed one, might I just suggest you order a pizza instead.
Where to Find Japanese Recipes
There are a few sites dedicated only to Japanese food, and I stick with these:
- Justonecookbook.com by far, the dominant resource online because Namiko Chen goes into a lot of detail with a number of her recipes. Not to mention she dominates on SEO, so her site will typically come up in most of your Google searches anyways.
- Japanesecooking101.com it seems as though they are somewhat outdated, but I find some of their recipes useful to use in contrast to JOCB.
Out of the mainstream websites, some of the news outlets will post recipes from guest chefs that are fairly legit, but outside of those resources, there is only one recommended site:
- SeriousEats.com (J. Kenji Lopez-Alt)
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I suggest you stay away from garbage sites like Bon Appetit and Food & Wine (they must be owned by the same company) because the vast majority of their cultural expertise doesn’t go beyond a meatball or a potato salad. That ineptitude doesn’t stop them because they still attempt to cash in on Asian food/dishes.
Black Mirror Season 5 and Stranger Things Season 3 Release Dates
You didn’t think I wasn’t going to come through, did you? Well, I’m really not, but I didn’t forget. I’m also going to ruin your hopes of being able to watch any of these shows anytime soon because neither of them offer up a specific release date. The tentative release dates that are announced for Stranger Things is most likely set for Summer 2019 and Black Mirror season 5 is very vaguely set for “early 2019?” So very, very sad.