Japanese pantry staples?
October 4, 2016 11:45 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking to expand my home cooking horizons in the direction of Japan (not sushi, everything else). What are some long-lasting pantry staples I should be looking to acquire on my first trip to a local Asian supermarket? So far I'm planning on Mirin, Hon-Dashi and dark and light Miso. What other specialist ingredients like these should I aim to stock my cupboard with?
posted by simonw to Food & Drink (30 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
I like having a few flavors of furikake on hand.
posted by phunniemee at 11:56 AM on October 4, 2016 [11 favorites]

Rice vinegar
Bonito flakes
Sesame seeds
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:58 AM on October 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

If you can find this episode of Good Eats, it will definitely give you a good primer.
posted by General Malaise at 12:10 PM on October 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Sesame seed oil, udon and soba noodles, soy sauce if you don't have it, panko, Japanese curry, Japanese rice, bulldog tonkatsu sauce, gyoza wrappers which you can freeze. Plus yes to everything mentioned above.
posted by umwhat at 12:10 PM on October 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Toasted sesame oil
Mochiko (glutinous rice flour)
Konbu kelp
posted by capricorn at 12:11 PM on October 4, 2016

Rice. Many Japanese rice-based recipes won't work well with just any old rice. Especially anything where the rice is meant to stick together slightly, like onigiri.

Higher quality brands of ramen noodle packs. I especially love Myojo Chukazanmai brand. Here in California, our Japanese groceries also carry fresh ramen noodles in the fridge section. Fresh udon and yakisoba are also a good choice.

I'm a gigantic sucker for Japanese snack foods. Green tea kit-kat bars and oreos, unusual flavors of chips, pocky, ramune, etc. Last time we hit the Japanese grocery I came home with lychee-flavored pop rocks, of all things. There's also arare, wasabi peas (and many variations on that theme), and bottled tea and coffee drinks, if you like less sugary processed stuff but still want to experiment with snacks.
posted by Sara C. at 12:11 PM on October 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Usukuchi soy sauce
A rice cooker if you don't have one, and good quality short/medium grain. I like Kokuho rose.
posted by dadaclonefly at 12:12 PM on October 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Rice vinegar, bonito flakes, sesame seed oil, Mirin, sheets of Nori or Kombu (or other dried seaweed), and Miso basically get you 90% of the way there. I personally just go for one type of miso (red for me!) rather than having both lighter and darker varieties around. Japanese curry powder is sweeter and more subtle, so if you're going to head in that direction it might be worth picking some up (it comes in both kits and powders. I like S&B)

Furikake is fun to experiment with; and I like having Ponzu on hand. Light soy sauce does taste remarkably different than the darker varieties, but that might be too much to fuss with for your first trip.

If you don't have good sushi grade rice, it's always nice to stock up on that at an Asian market (also much cheaper). Also noodles. ALL THE NOODLES. (I usually get dried as I don't have freezer space) but Udon, soba, ramen...

and since you're at the Asian supermarket anyways.... POCKY! all the POCKY! in all the weird flavors!
posted by larthegreat at 12:15 PM on October 4, 2016

Peeks at my grocery list:

Kewpie mayo
Ponzu sauce
Dried noodles, like soba or somen
Shichimi togarashi
Karashi (Japanese mustard; I like the tube more than the powder stuff)
Bulldog sauce (aka the Heinz ketchup of Japan)
Dried mushrooms
Japanese curry mix
Imported rice
posted by Diagonalize at 12:16 PM on October 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

Oh, and sake! Definitely want some of that on hand for cooking.
posted by Diagonalize at 12:18 PM on October 4, 2016

Oh man I totally forgot to mention curry. I prefer the chocolate-bar shaped solid concentrate packs (sort of like curry bouillon cubes?) to powder. This, some meat and/or veg, and rice = a great quick dinner staple for nights when you don't know what to cook.
posted by Sara C. at 12:20 PM on October 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: These answers are fantastic! I'm so glad I asked here. Thank you all very much.

I just stumbled across How to Stock a Japanese Pantry on Serious Eats which I'm finding useful too.
posted by simonw at 12:25 PM on October 4, 2016

Oh man I totally forgot to mention curry.

Oh yeah, those little bricks of Japanese curry base are great!
posted by phunniemee at 12:35 PM on October 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

A couple more staples in my pantry:
Ochazuke mix (I usually get the salmon (sake; not the same as the drink) one that looks like this because it's cheap and readily available). Add to rice and hot water, boom, instant sick day food.
Mugicha (roasted barley "tea")
Katakuriko (potato starch, for frying or keeping mochi-type stuff from sticking)
All the fish balls/cake you can carry
posted by Diagonalize at 12:44 PM on October 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Umeboshi (dried, pickled plums)
posted by Candleman at 1:01 PM on October 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

I like Nishiki rice.

I'm going to suggest an Insta Pot instead of a rice cooker. More versatile for the same amount of space.

The BEST way to cook Japanese rice with or without a rice cooker is to rinse it 3 or 4x's (YouTube for rinsing technique) and let it sit in a colander for 30min to 1 hr. Equal amount of rice to water. If using a covered pot on the stove, bring to a high boil, immediately kick down the heat to lowest flame for about 5 min, then turn off the heat and let sit, covered, for 10 to 20min. Do not lift the lid. Do not lift the lid. Do not lift the lid. Enjoy!!!

Yamamoto Nori is great, adding this even though you said no sushi.

Kadoya brand toasted sesame oil is the best. Store it in your fridge.

I actually love Hawaiian type red miso and just letting you know you will also shun all other miso types if you can find this. It's also non-gmo!

Frozen gyoza and frozen shumai.

Frozen prepared eel. Because broiled eel is delicious on rice. Crumble some nori on top.

Keep sesame seeds in your fridge. Buy a small batch because they will go rancid before you use them up.

Goma (sesame) creamy salad dressing. So many calories, so evil, so so damn amazing!!

Dried Wakame seaweed for miso soup, and teach yourself to make sunomono (cucumber salad) too!

Dried Kombu (kelp) seaweed because you can't make really great dashi (broth) without it.

Shaved bonito flakes for dashi, too. Keep it in your freezer. I add it as the umami for so many soups and sauces in many different types of cuisine - just a small pinch! - THIS IS ONE OF MY CULINARY SECRET WEAPONS.


This is the best hot sauce on Earth, made by the same folks who make sriracha, but so so much tastier. In fact, sriracha can suck it, and chili garlic is the bomb. There. I said it. Anyway, store it in the fridge, too.

Get yourself quality soy sauce and mirin. Store both in the fridge. Ponzu sauce is also useful.

Note: Once you learn to make dashi from scratch (I think it takes an extra 5 min compared to using hon dashi powder?) you will not need hon dashi, an ingredient I keep throwing away because it goes bad before I use it up. I love furikake, but this is another thing I tend to toss before using up. It's easier to scissor or crumble nori and sprinkle sesame seeds and other ingredients onto rice without the fillers and preservatives.

Japanese packaged items and staples tend to be chock full of sugar and preservatives, so that's why I keep quality basics on hand and go from scratch. Mostly it's quick to fabricate recipes and google is your friend. Go nuts!
posted by jbenben at 1:07 PM on October 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

+1 umeboshi! And similar is gari (pickled ginger.) Careful because both tend to have a lot of sugar or fillers, read the labels to find the one with the least extra unwanted ingredients.

Gari is dead simple to make at home. Umeboshi, buy at the store.
posted by jbenben at 1:12 PM on October 4, 2016

nthing the curry bricks. We have a Japanese curry restaurant in my neighborhood. It just opened a year ago or so but I. Had. No. Idea.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 1:42 PM on October 4, 2016

Yes, good quality rice is essential.
posted by reren at 2:06 PM on October 4, 2016

With the Japanese curry bricks, they're pretty mild. You can just get the hot ones if you like moderate spice levels. They are so convenient!

Maybe I will have curried cauliflower tonight.
posted by Frowner at 2:08 PM on October 4, 2016

Yuzu juice (bottled from the Japanese/Asian grocery). If you like citrus, its incredible - very distinctive sour notes with a sweet backing. I love using it in not-explicitly-Japanese dishes that call for lemon also. It can be pricey (and should be - the cheap options are usually from concentrate/sweetened and otherwise adulterated) but its worth it.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 2:22 PM on October 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

side note: if you, or anyone you know has seafood/shellfish allergies, Japanese food can be a bit of a minefield including the sauces.... Ponzu sauce I'm looking at you. I recommend a careful review of the ingredient label.
posted by larthegreat at 2:35 PM on October 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh curry bricks have saved me a many of potlucks.
posted by AlexiaSky at 3:25 PM on October 4, 2016

Even the smallest Japanese grocery will have one aisle of cooking supplies, where you can find the kinds of spatulas that actually work well with fish, cooking chopsticks, big melamine pho/ramen-sized bowls (and the matching small sauce/dip/prep bowls), sometimes the really good vegetable peelers and shape-cutters. And if they have a tamagoyaki pan for less than $20, go ahead and do it or you'll get home and then be sorry you didn't. I keep not buying a tofu press and then wishing I'd bought the tofu press, too.

Usually somewhere near the curry roux bricks will also be the sauce/marinade packets and pastes, which you should examine and pick a few to sample. Definitely get some of the good instant ramen/udon/soba bowls (I will make fish and a simple vegetable for dinner, split one of the big ramen bowls between the two of us, and then add a hard or soft-boiled egg and quick-pickled cucumbers to round it out.

Coconut milk is almost guaranteed to be half the price or less of the same cans at the grocery store.

Also look for one of the big multipack bags of miso soup (the linked one is 40 miso paste packets + 10 each of 4 flavors of "add-ins" like tofu, dried mushrooms, nori strips etc). The best ones have absolutely no English on them.

You can get large quantities of sesame seeds (freeze most of it so they don't go rancid).

Do as I say, not as I do: presumably you will be allowed to go to the Asian market again in your lifetime, so you don't absolutely need to buy all nine kinds of furikake or a 50lb bag of short grain rice. DO pick up one or two vegetables you're less familiar with, like lotus root (though check the freezer section too), and if your market offers a cold bar of side dishes (tsukemono), try a few.

Someone above mentioned the Instant Pot, and it has definitely upped my game in many ways, including making rice, soft and hard boiled eggs (and steamed eggs, so good), rice porridge, and bulk-cooking proteins that I use later in more thrown-together bento-y meals.

(If you want some additional inspiration, this Japanese breakfast video turned me into a fiend for Japanese breakfast.)
posted by Lyn Never at 6:04 PM on October 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Kewpie mayonnaise. It is crazy good! You can use it to top okonomiyaki, yakisoba, and add it to tuna rice balls.

I also like keeping sweet soy sauce on hand for broiling salmon for breakfast. I also mix it with dashi to make broth for noodles.

If your store carries freeze-dried (or fresh!!) mochi, get some. Freeze dried mochi turns soft again when you grill it. Oh, and adzuki beans, because grilled mochi in sweet azuki bean puree is AMAZING.

Nthing curry stock bricks. Total game changer.
posted by ananci at 6:48 PM on October 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

On the recommendation of a Japanese friend, Torigara changed my ramen game.
posted by rhizome at 10:32 PM on October 4, 2016

Another post on how to stock a Japanese pantry at Just Hungry. Website no longer updates, but it's still an excellent source for recipes.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 12:32 AM on October 5, 2016

I once commented to a friend of mine, who is from Japan, that I am highly allergic to MSG. She was shocked and stated that MSG is kept on the table along the lines of how we keep salt and pepper on the table here. So, you might add some MSG.
posted by vignettist at 9:17 AM on October 5, 2016

Pro-tip for miso: it keeps remarkably well in the freezer, and doesn't harden so you can just scoop however much you want when you need it.
posted by destrius at 9:03 AM on October 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just got back from the Japanese supermarket, and here are some things we bought that aren't already here. None of these are "staples" in the sense of being must have in order to cook Japanese food, but they are good purchases:

- A 5-pack of Sapporo's tonkotsu ramen. Sapporo ramen is easy to find in most regular supermarkets where I live, but there are a few varieties you can only get in Japanese specialty stores.

- frozen gyoza. no brainer.

- frozen yaki-onigiri. This was a first time purchase, so no idea if it'll rise to the level of "staple".

- karashi takana, a spicy tsukemono (Japanese pickle) made with mustard greens. We had just come from a ramen place that had this as a condiment and happened to see it in the tsukemono section. (Which you should thoroughly explore, yourself.)

- pre-packaged sesame-miso soup base. This is another first time purchase. We're hoping that this plus some udon noodles, tofu, and veg is going to be another quick dinner option like the curry bricks.

- shrimp chips. I'm frankly shocked that I didn't mention this in my first answer to this.

- Every time we go to the Japanese grocery, we scan the shelves for strange snack foods to impress/disgust our friends, or just to expand our taste horizons. This time it's lemon flavored potato chips and umeboshi flavored pringles.
posted by Sara C. at 6:35 PM on October 6, 2016

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