Always wanted to try cooking Japanese food, but weren’t sure where to start? Stocking up on seven key Japanese ingredients will allow you to make everything from sushi to tempura and miso-glazed aubergine, says Tim Anderson, the American winner of 2011’s MasterChef and owner of Nanban.
Here he shares his store cupboard essentials for fuss-free Japanese food (and some British dishes too)…
“Soy sauce adds salt, umami and a little acidity to dishes – I always compare the flavour profile to less-intense Marmite. I season nearly all my cooking, Japanese or otherwise, with a little bit of soy sauce in addition to or instead of salt, because of the rich, satisfying depth it provides. Try it in a bolognese, or in a caramel sauce.
“Chances are you already have soy sauce at home. However, you should make sure you use a Japanese soy sauce rather than a Chinese one, as the flavour can be remarkably different. Kikkoman is the most widely available brand, and it is quite good. It is a little bit more expensive than some, but the quality is superior.”
You can buy 1 litre of Kikkoman soy sauce on Amazon for £6.75
“Mirin adds sweetness to dishes, and is comparable to very light honey in flavour (but it’s much less viscous). It is a kind of fortified, highly sweetened sake – nothing you’d ever want to drink, but it is essential to the sweet-and-salty flavour profile found in many Japanese dishes.
“In European cookery, very few ingredients are used to add sweetness to savoury dishes, but next time you think a dish needs a little something, it may not be salt – try a splash of mirin instead. Sometimes that mellow sweetness is all it takes to round out a sauce or gravy perfectly.”
You can buy 1 litre of Morita Kuradashi Hon Mirin, £17.50, Amazon
“Rice vinegar adds acidity to dishes, providing a lip-smacking zing and balancing out rich, fatty or sweet flavours. Japanese food isn’t often outright sour; rice vinegar is generally used in small amounts as a light seasoning, as in sushi rice, where the vinegar is mainly there to get the mouth watering.
“As with soy sauce, try to get a Japanese rice vinegar rather than a Chinese one; Chinese rice vinegar tends to be a little more harshly acidic, whereas Japanese rice vinegar has a faint malty flavour.”
You can buy 500ml of Amoy White Rice Vinegar on Amazon for £5.30
“Dashi adds umami to dishes. It is essentially a light broth – actually more of an infusion, like tea – made from kombu, a type of dried kelp, and katsuobushi, which is made from smoked, fermented and dried tuna. The kombu lends dashi a briny flavour and rich, moreish umami, which is amplified by the smoky, meaty flavour of the katsuobushi.
“I’d highly recommend you buy a pack of dashi powder – it’s so delicious I’ve even seen it used in Michelin-starred kitchens. It couldn’t be simpler to use – just add water, following the packet instructions. Dashi is sometimes the front-and-centre featured component of dishes, but perhaps more often it is a foundation onto which other, more prominent flavours are built. Either way, it is essential.”
You can buy 50g of Shimaya Bonito Dashi Stock Powder on Amazon for £5.10
“Sake adds umami, fragrance and subtle notes of sweetness and acidity to dishes – you can think of it like Japanese white wine. Most cooking sake has a distinctly earthy aroma reminiscent of mushrooms, but its flavour is subtle and lends a rich savouriness to foods – I sometimes describe it as like a light soy sauce without the salt.
“It provides some of the same depth as soy sauce but without the big whack of tangy salinity that comes with it. For this reason, it is often put to use ‘diluting’ sauces, to tame powerful flavours so others may shine.”
Buy 72cl of Akashi Tai Tokubetsu Honjozo Sake on Amazon for £19.95
“Miso is so awesome, and here’s why: it adds umami, sweetness, acidity, salt, fragrance, complexity and sometimes even bitterness to dishes. It is what I call a ‘complete flavour’ because it has so much going on and works as a wonderful seasoning all by itself. It is essentially a paste made from fermented rice and soybeans. The types you are most likely to encounter are white (shiro) miso and red (aka) miso.
“White miso is not aged for very long, and it tends to be made with a high proportion of rice, which makes it fresh, salty, sweet and light. Red miso is aged for much longer and it has a higher proportion of soybeans (and sometimes has no rice at all, or includes other grains, like barley), which makes it richer and more complex.”
“I read somewhere that Japanese food has no ‘centre’ – there are no main courses and no central ingredients – but rather a ‘destination’, and that destination is rice. Rice simply completes a Japanese meal. Some Japanese dishes stand alone – things like ramen are substantial enough to be a meal in their own right. But many others are smaller and lighter – things like pieces of grilled fish, salads and miso soup – and a bowlful of rice is required to round out the meal and ensure satiety.
“I love the plump, toothsome grains, its slight stickiness and its rich aroma. It’s easy to get – typically labelled ‘sushi rice’ at supermarkets (it’s not just for sushi), but you’re better off buying it at an Asian grocer if you can, as it is far cheaper and tends to be better quality.”
You can buy 1kg of traditional Toyama Koshihikari sushi rice on Amazon for £4.50
Extracted from JapanEasy: Classic & Modern Japanese Recipes To Cook At Home by Tim Anderson, published by Hardie Grant, priced £15.98. Photography Laura Edwards.
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