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Basic Asian Condiments Used in Japanese Food and Cooking that You Should Have in Your Kitchen

Updated on July 12, 2011

Golden dashi broth

Basic Must-Have Condiments for Japanese Cooking

As one of the world's major cuisines, it is not too difficult for anyone residing outside of Japan to acquire Japanese condiments to keep in your kitchen should you ever feel like cooking Japanese dishes. Different dishes will obviously require different ingredients and condiments, but there are some staple condiments you should have ready in your kitchen even if you only cook Japanese food once or twice a month (though I don't see why you shouldn't do it more since they are fairly easy to make, delicious and quite healthy!). Make sure you have these:

1. Hon-dashi - Hon-dashi or dashi is basically powdered bonito fish soup stock. However, dashi broth can be obtained from various other sources such as kelp, shiitake mushroom, other kinds of dried fish or a blend of the above. Hon-dashi is probably the most important condiment in Japanese cooking as it is used as a basic flavor for just about any dish - miso soup, hot pots, simmered and stewed dishes, and noodle dishes.

2. Soy sauce - Of course. Soy sauce, or "shouyu" as is called in Japanese, is probably a common household item by now, but is still worth mentioning. Soy sauce is used in many Asian dishes, but many are probably familiar with soy sauce used in Chinese and Japanese cooking, so I'll just discuss the difference between the two. The basic difference between the Chinese according to the Japanese soy sauce manufacturer Kikkoman, is that Chinese soy sauce usually has a shorter brewing process without yeast and contains higher salt content and other chemicals. Japanese soy sauce, on the other hand, brews for many months and contains roasted wheat for a natural aroma.

3. Mirin - Not to be confused with rice wine vinegar, Mirin is sweet cooking wine made from steamed mochi rice, rice yeast and shochu (Japanese liquor).  There are two types of mirin: hon-mirin and shin-mirin, with shin-mirin being the more common kitchen item as it contains almost no alcohol (less than 1%) whereas shin-mirin has a 14% alcohol content and can be found in liquor shops.  Mirin helps tone down the strong flavor and odor in some fish and meat varieties, adds aroma and brings out flavor as well as gives those dishes a glazed appearance.  

4. Japanese cooking sake (Japanese rice wine) - Cooking Sake, or Ryori-shu, is similar to mirin in many ways and performs many similar functions: they both contain alcohol, which gives them both the ability to tone down strong flavor and odor and adds aroma.  However, as opposed to mirin, ryori-shu can help soften ingredients and also add depth to flavor.

Miso good!

5. Miso - Best known for use in miso soup, miso is typically paste made from soybeans and/or barley, fermenting rice, salt and a kind of yeast mold.  There are three main kinds of miso: white miso, red miso and a blend of white and red miso, the difference between them consisting mainly of their fermentation time.  Red miso is kept fermented for a longer period of time, which causes it to have a more salty taste and a reddish color.  White miso is milder, sweeter and is a light yellow color.  Miso is commonly used in soup, noodle dishes, marinades, and braised meat and vegetables.

How to make dashi from fish flakes

The Order of Japanese Cooking

In Japanese cooking, there is a correct order of which to add condiments to food.  Adding condiments in the wrong order will influence the flavor of food and make them not as delicious as it could have been.  The order is easily memorized as "Sa-Shi-Su-Se-So" (the third row of the Japanese Hiragana writing system).  Each letter stands for a different condiment as follow:

Sa - Satou, which is sugar.  For recipes that call for sugar, it is the first ingredient to be added because sugar dissolves slowly and takes time for the flavor to be absorbed into your food.

Shi - Shio, which means salt.  Salt comes second in the pecking order because it draws out liquid from the ingredients, which allows for different flavors to be absorbed easily.

Su - Su means vinegar (Japanese rice vinegar).  I did not include vinegar in the list above because I assume most households already have some at home.  Vinegar comes in the middle because if added in too early on, it will lose its acidity.

Se - Se comes from the old Japanese reading of Shouyu (read Seiu-yu), which is soy sauce.  Soy sauce and miso come last because they are for people to enjoy the flavor as is and so are used as finishing touches to a dish.

So - So refers to the "so" in "miso".  Miso is to be added last (also true for when making miso soup) for the reason stated above.  Furthermore, the heat from cooking may make miso lose its nutrients.

Now, the question is: when do you add ryori-shu and mirin?  It actually depends on what kind of food you are cooking, but the easy, basic answer is to add ryori-shu at the very beginning and mirin at the very last.  Adding ryori-shu in first allows for the alcohol to evaporate and mirin last for balancing out the overall flavor.

Obviously, there are many other condiments and seasonings used in Japanese cooking, but the five mentioned in this hub are the bare minimum and absolute must-haves.  If you will be cooking Japanese more often and more seriously, you will probably need to have many more.  In any case, hopefully your kitchen and pantry are well stocked and that you try it out once in a while.  Enjoy!


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    • profile image

      Rebecca 6 years ago

      Thank you for this! I've now confirmed that I bought normal cooking rice wine instead of rice wine vinegar, which is infuriating but helpful!

    • jojokaya profile image

      jojokaya 7 years ago from USA

      Great hub. ..

    • Anolinde profile image

      Anolinde 7 years ago

      Sorry for the late replies .. been busy!

      @Jgw899 and Jennyjenny: Thanks! I appreciate your compliments :) Hope you have no problems stocking up, jgw!

      @Terry: Hmm .. I haven't had lo-mein in ages! I'm not exactly sure what it is they use in lo-mein and chinese fried rice, though I think chinese dishes use a specific chinese rice wine in their cooking (Shaoxing rice wine?). Also, I believe chicken broth is used (at least for Japanese fried rice ... I use the powdered form). Also, at least in Japanese style fried rice, a little dash of soy sauce in the frying pan towards the end (not on the rice) and a sprinkle of sesame oil over rice make it very flavorful!

      As for barley-free miso, check out this website:

      Hope that helps! :)

    • profile image

      Terry 7 years ago

      I would like to know what the flavor is that I love in Lo-mein, and in some fried rice recipes I have in restaurants?

      I am gluten free, so how can I buy miso that is not made from barley?

      Thank you. By the way, I appreciated your site.

    • jennyjenny profile image

      jennyjenny 7 years ago from Somewhere in Michigan

      What a great hub! It is very indepth and informative! Great background and easy to understand explanations. Thank you! :)

    • jgw899 profile image

      jgw899 7 years ago from Santa Cruz

      nice hub! I love Japanese food because of freshness and simple preparation. I will make sure that I have all these condiments in my kitchen. thanks

    • Anolinde profile image

      Anolinde 7 years ago

      Thanks for your comment, Midasfx, and you're welcome! :)

    • Midasfx profile image

      Midasfx 7 years ago

      This is a great hub! I will have to remember to try these out next time. thank you