El Comidista takes up his monthly series of articles on the basic ingredients we must have in the pantry to prepare simple dishes from other kitchens.
The list, which has already travelled to China, Mexico or Morocco, always includes medium and long-lasting foods, which you can keep in the pantry to pull out on the day you have a gastro-trip or see some appealing recipe around.
In the kitchen of the country that took the Games, there is life beyond sushi and sashimi, dishes that are difficult to cook at home because they need the right tools and some traditional knowledge (we are not talking about the ability to roll, because I suppose you developed it with the joints in high school).
Soups, vegetables, fish and meat are also part of the repertoire, and the good news is that the essential simplicity of Japanese cuisine makes many of them relatively easy to prepare.
Rice and Noodles
The quintessential Asian carbohydrate also shines in Japanese cuisine. Rice is used both to make sushi and to accompany meat in general, usually stir-fried with vegetables or eggs.
Short or medium grain rice is used (marketed as sushi rice), and if you’re going to use it for that dish it’s very important to wash it well so that it loses its starch and then compacts more easily. There is also a type of rice, known as glutinous, which is used (whole or ground as flour) to make a dessert called mochi.
The noodles are used both to stir-fry and to put into the famous ramen soup, one of those delicious, simple, and multi-variant recipes that have inspired films such as Tampopo.
It is usually prepared with thin wheat or buckwheat noodles, but thicker wheat noodles can also be used. These are called udon and can be purchased already hydrated, making them very practical for stir-fry.
But if you want to know EVERYTHING about the world of the rising sun noodle, I refer you to this Japanese Eating post, where they list all the types and the soups that can be made with them. And if you feel like cooking, here is a ramen video that feeds just by watching it.
Wasabi is that little green paste that most of us use to spice up our sushi and a few for other purposes. It is made with the root of the Wasabia Japonica, which is a cousin of radish, turnip and mustard, and has a very particular spiciness that rises to the nose and disappears in a short time.
Although there is a widespread idea that you have to make a sopicaldo with the wasabi and soy sauce in which you subsequently dip the sushi rice until it cannot be eaten salted and falls apart, it doesn’t really go like that: you have to take a bit of wasabi with a toothpick, spread it on the fish and dip it slightly in the soy sauce on that same side.
You can also use it to make vinaigrettes or give it a different point by adding a little bit in the mayonnaise. Another popular Japanese spice is sichimi togarashi, or “seven-flavored chili,” which has tangerine peel, Sichuan pepper, nori seaweed, and hemp, poppy, and sesame seeds in addition to chili.
Soya and other sauces (yakisoba, teriyaki)
Japan’s basic soy sauce is different from China’s: because it contains less wheat, it has a more pronounced flavor, and it contains no sugar at all. From here there are numerous versions, such as light soy sauce (stronger taste, but less dark) or tamari, stronger in taste and with a very special, slightly sweet finish.
It is used to season stir-fry, sushi and some soups. Other highly addictive sauces – literally, their umami power is devastating – are yakisoba (basic to making the noodle dish of the same name) and teriyaki, which can be easily prepared at home. It can be used to marinate meat, fish or chicken (and then sauté it or make skewers) or as a sauce.
Another ingredient that is not a sauce itself, but is part of many sauces, is mirin, a sweeter, less alcoholic kind of sake.
Miso is another versatile condiment that we can find in Japanese cuisine. It is a fermented soybean paste with salt and, sometimes, with cereals. Its flavor is intense, between marine and forest. Its intensity varies according to the type: shiromiso (or white miso), with one year of fermentation, is the mildest and sweetest, and hatchomiso – with two and a half years of fermentation and no added cereal – is the most intense.
In addition to being a basic ingredient for miso soup (to which it is best to add it at the last minute so that it does not come to a boil and retains the benefits of the living microorganisms that form it), it can be used to marinate meat, tofu and fish. I like it in vinaigrettes, especially if they contain leftover roasted chicken, and for seasoning vegetables like these green beans with almonds.
Ginger and other pickles
Pickled ginger is that thing they serve next to sushi that looks like cooked ham and tastes a little like soap or cologne. It serves to not only cleanse the palate between bites, but also to separate the flavors.
In Japan, pickles or tsukemono are part of everyday cooking, and in many houses you can find a specific item to prepare it called tsukemonoki. One of my favorite Japanese pickles is turnip, which is crunchy and has a slightly sweet taste at the end (make your joke about it here).
Japanese rice vinegar is less acidic than Chinese vinegar, but still quite aromatic.
In addition to seasoning the rice in sushi or salads, it is used to make much more subtle pickles than those produced by our Mediterranean vineyard, which I suspect are really responsible for the face of Fari and not the innocent lemon that popular culture blames.
It goes very well with aubergines, like the ones that accompany this rice with yogurt sauce.
Katsuobushi is a beautiful fermented, dehydrated and then smoked.
Although it is bought in the form of shavings (thicker to prepare the katsuo dashi we talked about in the next point, thinner and more delicate to put in the takoyaki or on top of okonomiyaki (the Japanese pizza) and other hot dishes with rice or noodles. It has a very strong taste, so it’s very popular.
Note: Katsuo dashi is not only available in the pantry, it is actually a homemade broth made from kombu seaweed, dried bonito strips and water. But since Japan has also come to terms with not having time to cook properly, it is also available in an instant version.
Other versions of dashi (Japanese for broth) are made with shiitake mushrooms, just seaweed, or a small dried sardine called niboshi. Considering that they are very short cooking broths and very versatile in their use (they can be used for all kinds of soups, including miso and ramen), they are worth making.