28 Japanese Seasonings, Sauces, Condiments, and Spices You Should Add to Your Kitchen
Did you know that you can make a lot of Japanese food at home? All you need are the right Japanese seasonings, sauces, condiments, and spices. But if you don’t read Japanese, it’s hard figuring out what to get and how to use what you bought. We obviously can’t cover everything the Japanese use in their kitchen, but we’ve rounded up some of the most common ingredients so that you can make a wide range of Japanese dishes at home. Itadakimasu!
Jul 07 2022
The Five Basic Seasonings in Japanese Cuisine (Sa-Shi-Su-Se-So)
Sugar (Sato / 砂糖)
Many Japanese foods are somewhat sweet, making sugar an invaluable seasoning.
The most popular type of sugar for cooking is “johakuto” (上白糖), which is plain white sugar with glucose and fructose added to it. This gives it a texture that’s more moist than granulated. Caster sugar (guranyuto / グラニュー糖), which is mainly used for baking or sweetening drinks, is equally as popular.
More health-conscious people lately have been slowly making the move towards cane sugar (kibizato / きび砂糖), which is far less refined than the aforementioned two options. Another popular option is sugar made from sugar beet (tensaito / てんさい糖), an unrefined variety that’s the least sweet of the options aforementioned but also chock full of nutrients.
Finally, there’s wasanbon sugar (和三盆), which feels almost like powdered sugar and has an incredibly high-quality taste. It’s often used when making wagashi (traditional Japanese confections).
Salt (Shio / 塩)
Salt has been used in Japanese cuisine for centuries, first for preserving food and then for both adding and extracting the flavor of ingredients. It is an essential seasoning almost everywhere in the world.
Since Japan is an island nation, sea salt is the most popular kind of salt in Japanese homes. Over the years, Japan has introduced a wide assortment of sea salts to the dining table - from salts made with seaweed concentration to give them an extra oceany kick to flavored specialty salts such as yuzu shio (ゆず塩), which has the citrusy tang of the Japanese yuzu fruit, or matcha shio (抹茶塩), which doesn’t actually taste like “matcha” green tea. This has allowed the Japanese the freedom to mix and match different salts depending on the food they eat, brightening up their dining experience.
Other kinds of salt, such as rock salt (iwa shio / 岩塩), can now also be found in most Japanese supermarkets today. The regular Japanese consumer is truly spoiled for choice when it comes to the sheer variety of salt!
Rice Vinegar (Su / 酢)
Rice vinegar is yet another staple seasoning for most Japanese cuisine. It is made by fermenting rice wine into acetic acid in a process that takes several months. The result is a clear, slightly sweet vinegar that’s surprisingly mild in taste compared to other kinds of vinegar like balsamic vinegar, yet goes splendidly with Japanese food. In fact, it is an essential for one of the most famed Japanese dishes around: sushi!
Soy Sauce (Shoyu or Seuyu / 醤油)
Soy sauce is perhaps one of the most crucial seasonings for almost any Japanese dish. Originally a Chinese invention, it made its way to the Japanese archipelago sometime in the 7th century and has been loved ever since.
Like many other countries, in local supermarkets you’ll find dark soy sauce (koikuchi / 濃口) and light soy sauce (usukuchi / 薄口). Two other more unique varieties are tamari (たまり), which is made without wheat and much thicker than those listed above, and white soy sauce (shiro shoyu / 白醤油), used when wanting the soy sauce flavor without the color. However, what’s most interesting about the soy sauce sold in Japan is that just like salt, you can find varieties infused with dashi, “ponzu” citrus, and other interesting flavors.
Miso is a traditional fermented soybean paste that’s indispensable in Japanese cooking. In fact, you’ll often find it sold in huge tubs at the local supermarket because of how often it’s used to make Japanese cuisine. It is slowly gaining interest overseas for its marvelous umami and health benefits, with some claiming it to be one of the secrets behind Japan’s exceptionally long life expectancy.
The dazzling array of miso paste options available in a Japanese supermarket may surprise you. They can be distinguished by color, production region, and ingredients used to make it. However, for beginners, you can focus on the following three: red miso (aka miso / 赤味噌), which is very rich in taste and quite salty; white miso (shiro miso / 白味噌), which is often used in light soups thanks to its sweeter taste; and blended miso (awase miso / 合わせ味噌), a combination of red and white miso pastes. It’s also pretty common to find varieties with less salt in them.
7 Other Essential Seasonings for Japanese Kitchens
Japanese Rice Wine (Mirin / みりん)
Though mirin is technically not considered one of the five fundamental seasonings in Japanese cooking, it is used so frequently that it might as well be. It is a sweet Japanese rice wine with lower alcohol content than cooking sake. Mirin is used to add a mild sweetness and umami to dishes as well as help mask unwanted smells like seafood. It also adds a sheen to the food, making it perfect for glazed meats. If you can’t procure mirin, you can use a ratio of 3:1 cooking sake and sugar as a substitute, but the final dish may be more sweet or tangy than what you’d get with the real thing.
Cooking Sake (Ryori Shu or O-Sake / 料理酒 or お酒)
Since sake is made from rice and water, many tend to refer to it as a kind of rice wine like mirin, but it actually undergoes a brewing process much like beer. It also has more alcohol than mirin and less sugar, giving it a sharper taste. Like mirin, it might not be considered one of the five fundamental Japanese seasonings, but it is definitely an essential in most Japanese kitchens.
While you can certainly cook using any type of sake, much like wine, many Japanese people prefer to use sake made specifically for cooking. Called ryori shu (料理酒), this sake has salt added to it to make it unfit for drinking, allowing shops without alcohol licenses to carry and sell it. Like wine, Japanese people tend to use cooking sake to remove unpleasant odors, tenderize meat, and so on.
The closest alternative to sake or cooking sake is dry sherry or Chinese rice wine.
Dashi (だし / 出汁)
“Dashi” is Japanese soup stock, and like miso, it is the base for a lot of Japanese dishes. It typically consists of just a handful of ingredients—most commonly “kombu” dried kelp, dried anchovies or sardines (iriko or niboshi dashi), “shiitake” mushrooms, and bonito flakes—and can be made in less than 30 minutes. All of these ingredients are incredibly rich in umami, resulting in a beautifully savory stock that can be used in pretty much any dish you can think of. Ramen? Check. Miso soup? Of course. The combinations are endless.
While you can make dashi from scratch using any combination of the aforementioned ingredients, Japanese companies have come up with more convenient forms of dashi over the years. You can buy dashi in packet form, where the ingredients have been finely cut up and bagged, or in powder form. They’re generally quite inexpensive, easy to find, and last for a long time in the pantry, so why not grab some the next time you visit Japan or pass by a Japanese supermarket?
For more info on dashi, including how to make it: https://www.tsunagujapan.com/cook-the-japanese-way-easy-dashi-recipes-that-anyone-can-follow/
Mentsuyu is a Japanese soup base that makes seasoning Japanese dishes a lot easier. It is made using dashi, soy sauce, mirin, and sugar, and its entire purpose is to add umami to the dish without requiring you to measure out a variety of ingredients. Mentsuyu is used in a wide range of dishes, especially ones that normally require soy sauce, such as “gyudon” beef bowls, as it imparts a more complex flavor and blends in well. It can also be used as a dipping sauce for noodle dishes like cold soba noodles or as a base for hot pot dishes. It’s not a must-have in your pantry, but it does make Japanese cooking a lot more convenient, which is why you’ll find it in many Japanese kitchens.
“Wasabi” is the name for Japanese horseradish, a root vegetable that’s often grinded into a paste which accompanies raw seafood dishes like sashimi and sushi. It has traditionally been used as a Japanese spice to give dishes a bit of a kick as well as get rid of any fishy or otherwise unpleasant flavors. Most of the wasabi found in supermarkets and even restaurants are not real wasabi, as it’s very difficult to cultivate and therefore commands a high price. However, imitation wasabi—made by coloring regular horseradish—works just fine in most cases. This is one spice that might not be essential in your average Japanese kitchen, but is definitely appreciated if you happen to eat a lot of raw meat or seafood.
Love it or hate it, mayonnaise has a huge role to play in many Japanese kitchens. The most famous brand of Japanese mayonnaise is Kewpie, which is known for its incredibly rich egg flavor, creaminess, and sweetness. While other varieties of mayonnaise certainly exist even within Japan, they are closer to Kewpie mayonnaise in terms of texture and taste than overseas mayonnaise brands. Mayonnaise is used for a surprising number of Japanese dishes, from the beloved Japanese potato salad to Japanese pizza.
Ginger (Shoga / 生姜)
Ginger is widely used all around the world for its unique flavor and aroma that’s great for getting the appetite going as well as counteracting strong smells and flavors in meat and seafood. In Japan, it is often either grated and used as a paste or cut up into tiny slivers and put into simmered dishes like “shogayaki” ginger pork stir fry. You will also sometimes see it being referred to as “gari” (ガリ), which is actually pickled sushi ginger used as a palate cleanser, or “beni shoga” (紅生姜), another kind of pickled ginger. You can tell them apart by color: the sushi variety is yellow, the latter is red.
11 Japanese Spices and Condiments You May Have Seen Before
It’s well known that Japanese people eat a lot of rice. But wouldn’t you get bored eating the same thing every day? “Furikake” is a dry Japanese condiment that you sprinkle on top of rice to give it some additional flavor. It typically consists of a mix of dried fish, seaweed, sugar, salt, and so on. Furikake can also be used as a seasoning for other dishes such as salads and even pasta! It comes in a wide assortment of flavors, can be stored in the pantry, and is extremely cheap, so why not consider adding this rice seasoning to your kitchen lineup?
Here’s a couple of our most recommended furikake: https://www.tsunagujapan.com/wow_01403/
Japanese Chili Pepper (Togarashi / 唐辛子)
“Togarashi” is the blanket term for Japanese chili peppers, of which there exists a stunning diversity all across the country. Most people, however, are familiar with two specific Japanese chili spices: shichimi togarashi (七味) and ichimi togarashi (一味).
Shichimi togarashi is actually a Japanese spice blend consisting of ground chili flakes, citrus peel, seaweed flakes, sesame seeds, and so on. It has both a bit of spice and a lot of umami, making it perfect as a topping for all kinds of dishes, whether it be miso soup or ramen. Different brands will have their own shichimi togarashi mixes, so it can take a while to find your favorite, but this is one Japanese spice that we truly recommend for the complexity it adds to food.
Ichimi togarashi simply consists of ground Japanese chili pepper, so it’s quite a bit hotter than shichimi togarashi and can be used in any dish you’d use regular chili powder in.
Bonito Flakes (Katsuobushi / 鰹節)
“Katsuobushi” is the Japanese word for bonito fish flakes. If you’ve ever eaten takoyaki before, it’s the little flakes on top that sway with the wind. Katsuobushi is one of the key components for dashi and is also frequently used as a topping for a dish right before it’s about to be served. You don’t really need it to make most Japanese cuisine, especially if you use powder or packet dashi, but it is a classic ingredient that many Japanese families tend to keep in their kitchens.
Note that there are two types of katsuobushi: arabushi (荒節), where the bonito fish is simmered and smoked before being shredded, and honkarebushi (本枯れ節), where the fish is fermented after being smoked. This process gives it a more balanced and elegant flavor profile that many professional chefs love to utilize when making dashi. The process of making honkarebushi takes far longer than arabushi, so it costs more.
Yuzu Pepper (Yuzu Kosho / 柚子胡椒)
Despite having “pepper” in its name, yuzu kosho is not actually a kind of yuzu-flavored pepper seed powder. It is actually a paste made from chili peppers, yuzu citrus peel, and salt. It originates from Kyushu, and in the local dialect, “kosho” means chili pepper, which is why the paste has the word “pepper” in it.
The taste of yuzu kosho changes depending on the type of chili pepper used to make it. The most common variety used is Japanese green chili pepper, which gives the paste a slight kick and acidity as well as a greenish color. You can also sometimes find red yuzu kosho made with Japanese red chili pepper, which is surprisingly milder than the green kind.
Yuzu kosho is used in all kinds of dishes as either a seasoning or condiment, but it shines the most with chicken and fatty or oily foods. If you’re interested in incorporating some yuzu kosho into your cooking repertoire, you can find it most commonly in tube or jar form. You can also get yuzu kosho as a powder seasoning, but note that it may taste a bit less refreshing. It even comes in liquid form, though this often has vinegar mixed into it and therefore is far more acidic than the paste kind.
Japanese Sansho Pepper (Sansho / 山椒)
This popular Japanese powder spice offers a subtle citrusy scent and a strong peppery kick, courtesy of being made of the seeds and leaves of the sansho peppercorn fruit, which so happens to be related to the famous Sichuan peppercorn that’s a key ingredient in Chinese mala cuisine. Unlike mala, thankfully, the heat from sansho doesn’t linger in the mouth.
You’ll often see sansho being used in “unagi” eel cuisine as well as any other grilled meat or seafood dishes. Not only does it add depth to the flavor of meat and seafood, but it cuts down on their fattiness, making them easier to eat.
Seaweed Flakes (Aonori / 青のり)
“Aonori” refers to green seaweed or laver that’s been dried and powdered or crumbled into fine flakes. You’ll often see it being used as a topping for all kinds of foods, including the famous okonomiyaki, yakisoba, and takoyaki. On top of adding plenty of umami to the dish, aonori is rich in minerals and amino acids. The only downside is that it can sometimes get stuck to your teeth! Use it whenever you feel like you need a bit of umami.
Note that although we refer to aonori as “seaweed flakes,” it is actually a kind of seaweed distinguishable from nori, wakame, or kombu. The closest kind of seaweed to it is “aosa,” (あおさ), which can be used the same way as aonori.
Perilla Leaves (Shiso / しそ)
Shiso is actually a type of mint, and so it has a similar flavor profile - a bit citrusy and very sharp. This makes it great for masking fishy or overly meaty odors and stimulating the appetite. In Japan, there are two particular kinds that you’ll see the most often: green shiso and reddish/purplish shiso leaves.
Green shiso, when whole, is often used as a wrapping or plate for foods and garnishes. You’ll also sometimes find it shredded and used as a topping for salads and other cold foods. Green shiso can even be fried up as tempura!
Red/purple shiso are actually used to give umeboshi (covered later in this article) its signature red color. You’ll also see them dried and crumbled into flakes in furikake, another condiment covered earlier in this article.
Japanese Yellow Mustard (Karashi / からし)
Made from the crushed seeds of the Oriental mustard plant, karashi is a popular condiment/seasoning that is used to add a bit of punch to Japanese dishes such as tonkatsu, oden, and natto. It is hotter than the yellow mustard found in the USA, with a flavor profile more similar to hot English mustard or Chinese mustard. You can find it being sold in paste or powder form. We recommend the powder form since it lasts longer, and all you need to do to reconstitute it into a paste is mix it with some lukewarm water.
Sesame Oil and Seeds (Goma Yu and Goma / ゴマ油 and 胡麻)
Sesame oil isn’t an exclusively Japanese ingredient, but it is used in a surprising number of Japanese dishes, especially Chinese-Japanese fusion fare like Japanese-style mapo tofu.
Sesame seeds, simply called “goma,” are another popular ingredient in Japanese cooking, perhaps even more so than sesame oil. Many Japanese dishes have sesame seeds sprinkled on top, such as the famous onigiri and ramen. They add a nutty flavor and slight bite, and are believed to help improve digestion. Sesame is also a popular flavor in many treats, including ice cream!
In Japan, the varieties you’ll see most often are the normal brown sesame seeds and black ones. Black sesame seeds (黒ごま) have a stronger flavor and are oftentimes preferred over the regular brown kind in Japan.
Japanese Chili Oil (Rayu / ラー油)
Rayu is a popular condiment that you’ll find in most ramen shops and gyoza restaurants. It can appear as either a liquid or in its “taberu rayu” form, where it contains bits of crunchy and delicious garlic, ginger, and spring onions. The “taberu rayu” form is a recent invention that took Japan by storm, as it is often slightly less spicy than the liquid version and adds a satisfying bite to any dish, especially plain white rice.
Umeboshi are pickled plum fruits. They are normally extremely sour and salty, but sweeter versions exist and those usually contain a bit less salt. In Japan, they are most commonly served whole over white rice or in onigiri to amp up their flavors, but you can also find pureed umeboshi paste which can be incorporated into all manner of cooked dishes.
This article we wrote goes into length on why you should implement this Japanese superfood into your diet: https://www.tsunagujapan.com/umeboshi-the-daily-japanese-health-food/
Get Your Sauce Game On With These 5 Japanese Sauces
Worcester Sauce (ウスターソース)
Worcestershire sauce is a fermented condiment that was originally created in Worcester, England, but over time made its way to Japan where it quickly became popular. Known in Japan as “worcester sauce,” it is slightly sweeter than the type sold overseas. Japanese worcester sauce is also often vegetarian, whereas traditional Worcestershire sauce isn’t.
Worcester sauces in Japan differ based on thickness. The regular kind is watery and is usually used during the cooking process, whereas thicker worcester sauces tend to be added once the dish has been fully cooked and served. “Takoyaki” deep-fried octopus balls are a good example of this.
Being incredibly common in Japanese kitchens, worcester sauce is a must-have for those aiming to become masters of Japanese cuisine. We also don’t recommend replacing it with the English equivalent, as the flavor profiles are surprisingly different.
Ponzu Sauce (Ponzu / ポン酢)
“Ponzu” is a Japanese citrus-based sauce with a tart and tangy flavor. Many think of it like a vinaigrette, and indeed, you can use it like one since it has a similar flavor profile. It can also be used as a dipping sauce for dishes like Japanese “shabu-shabu” hot pot and as a marinade for meats and seafood.
If you’re interested in adding ponzu sauce to your pantry, beware - ponzu sauce and soy sauce are not the same thing, and do not even look the same. A lot of the ponzu sauces you see in the supermarket are actually ponzu with soy sauce mixed into it, which is why many people mistakenly think ponzu sauce is just a variation of soy sauce. Real ponzu sauce is light yellow in color.
Unagi Sauce (Unagi no Tare / うなぎのタレ)
Japan has a lot of sauces made for specific foods, and this is one of them. “Unagi” refers to freshwater eel, a delicacy in Japan. It is often served grilled and topped over rice, and to impart even more flavor, unagi sauce is poured over it. The sauce is thick and sweet, made with both sugar and soy sauce, and chock full of umami. Over the years, people have tried using it in a variety of other dishes, with grilled meat and seafood being a popular favorite. Why not buy some and experiment with it yourself?
Tonkatsu Sauce (Tonkatsu no Tare / とんかつのタレ)
This is yet another sauce originally made specifically for tonkatsu, a dish wherein pork is breaded and deep fried until crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside. Compared to unagi sauce, it is a lot thinner and more runny, but has a more complex taste as it’s made with far more ingredients. Use it with tonkatsu or any other deep-fried dish.
Okonomiyaki Sauce (Okonomiyaki no Tare / お好み焼きのタレ)
Think of okonomiyaki sauce like the barbecue sauce of Japan. It’s made with a lot more ingredients than unagi sauce, but it’s also more sticky than tonkatsu sauce. In fact, it was created when okonomiyaki vendors complained about how worcester sauce was too thin and runny to put on okonomiyaki! In Japan, you can find okonomiyaki sauce spread on, of course, okonomiyaki, as well as burgers, steak, and sometimes even pizza. It adds a touch of sweetness and savoriness to any dish, and is a Japanese foodie favorite.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.