Stock your pantry with these items found in most Japanese pantries
By ERICA EARL | Stars and Stripes | Published: December 23, 2020
Immerse yourself and your family in Japanese culture while still social distancing and staying home during the coronavirus pandemic by sampling local cuisine in your own kitchen.
The first step must be a trip to a Japanese grocery store, still an essential activity. My friend Michele Tanabe, an English teacher and Japan Air Self-Defense Forces spouse, and I assembled a list of quintessential items to get you started.
This is a quick and easy way to make soup stock and saves a lot of time in the kitchen. It typically comes in pre-packaged sticks with instructions for the powder-to-water ratio. The instructions also typically include pictures, adding ease. Dashi is a base ingredient for many Japanese culinary classics such as miso soup, udon and tempura dishes — so having an instant option will make these recipes a lot easier. Dashi powder can be found in the spices and dry mix aisles.
Ready to make yakisoba
Most grocery stores sell kits that include everything you need to whip up a bowl of this noodle stir-fry dish. All you need to do is mix everything that comes in the package and heat. Tanabe referred to these ready-made meals as “the bachelor food of Japan,” but noted they are also great for busy families or those whose kitchens have limited prep space. For the more tentative palate, yakisoba is popular festival fare. These kits can be found in the pre-made meal section of most Japanese grocery stores.
Rice is a staple in most Japanese meals — so this dry condiment, meant to flavor rice, is a must. Even if you are not a big fan of rice, you may become one by finding a furikake flavor you like. Choices range from plum and wasabi to fish and egg. Furikake is so popular that it often has its own dedicated section in stores, but can also typically be found near the rice.
This clear noodle soup is a good option for children or picky eaters. Usually found near ramen and other dry soup mixes, this low-sodium choice is popular among parents because of the simple flavor and cute packaging, often featuring cartoon characters. If your family is feeling more adventurous, a wealth of recipes online will elevate harusume soup — but it is also tasty and quick to make as is.
Rare is the Japanese household that does not have sesame oil on hand, Tanabe said. She recommends starting with light sesame oil; it is more versatile and has a less robust flavor than the dark variety, although both have a distinct, nutty aroma. A variety of traditional Japanese recipes require sesame oil, including curries, stir fry, dressing and desserts.
A curry sauce mix that is sold as a block, Golden Curry is considered a winter essential for many Japanese families, Tanabe said. It is especially popular around Christmas. Most grocery stores in Japan have an entire aisle dedicated to curry blocks, and Golden Curry is one of the most common. Flavors include mild or spicy with vegetables as well as seasonal picks like apples and honey.
This popular fried pork dish comes in bento options that require no prep and can be carried away from the deli section in a box ready to be heated. Tanabe described katsudon as “a foreign-friendly dish that still feels like you are being adventurous.”
Most fruits and vegetables are the same as what you would find in American markets, but there are a few unique to Asia — including the lotus root, or rencon in Japanese. A cross between a potato and a water chestnut in appearance and flavor, the lotus root has a crunchy and starchy texture and a lot of recipe potential. It is usually served in stir fry but can also be served boiled and salted. Just don’t eat it raw, as it may taste unpleasant.
Nikuman is the Japanese name for the Chinese dish baozi, a doughy bun typically filled with meat. (Vegetarian options are also available, just not as easy to find.) Nikuman can be found both fresh and frozen in most grocery stores. These are great options to pack for school lunches or to make when you are in the mood for a no-fuss meal; just pop them in the microwave or oven. Common flavors include pork, beef and pizza. Nikuman is a common street food and is frequently sold at festivals and convenience stores.
Miso is another must-have ingredient for most Japanese cuisine. Made from fermented soybeans, miso paste usually used for soup, miso is also used in many recipes as a flavoring agent due to its strong salty taste — so a little goes a long way. Tanabe suggests purchasing the tube version as it has a longer shelf life.
Congee, a type of rice porridge, has long been revered as a dish that brings good health, making it a good choice for 2021. Tanabe said congee rice porridge is a common choice for Japanese to eat when one is feeling ill. A simple choice for breakfast, lunch or dinner, congee can be served savory, with seasoning and meat mixed in, or sweet, with fruit mixed in. (Plum is common.) Congee is often found in the soup aisle.
Nori, or dried seaweed, is a must for making your own sushi, hand rolls or onigiri. It can also be used as a crunchy topping for salads or pasta dishes. Produced in sheets since the Edo period in the 1600s, nori is an ingredient that contributes to some of Japan’s most famous dishes.
Condensed milk in a tube is so popular that, if you get to the grocery store later in the evening, you may find the shelves nearly cleared of it. This runny, sweet milk is often squirted over fruit or spread on toast. In winter, it is commonly eaten with strawberries. It is also a sweetener for desserts and baked treats. While not unique to Japan, it is a common ingredient. The tube packaging also makes for easier storage. You can usually find condensed milk in the baking supplies section, or in the produce section near the strawberries.
You can keep this traditional Japanese festival food right in your own freezer. Taiyaki, a fish-shaped, waffle-like cake, not only looks adorable and photographs well, but is a choice the whole family might enjoy. Taiyaki is a sweet treat commonly filled with red bean paste, but chocolate, custard or ice cream fillings are also common. Unless you are eating the ice cream variety, I would recommend allowing the taiyaki to thaw, then heating it in a frying pan until it is golden brown. Frozen taiyaki can be found in the ice cream and confectionary aisle.
Billed as a probiotic, Yakult is a sweetened, milky yogurt beverage with a citrusy, vanilla flavor. It is a great item to have on-hand as a snack and is a delicious go-to for both children and adults. Yakult can be found in the dairy aisle.
I saved my biggest personal vice for last. I can never make a trip to the store without coming home with melon pan. A sweet bread with a very distinctive pillowy top featuring a crisscross design to resemble a melon — although it is not actually melon flavored. This soft bread with a crisp outer shell is delicious with butter and jam, although it's most commonly eaten plain. Other varieties of melon pan are filled with custard, strawberry or chocolate chips. It can be found in the bakery section or bread aisle of most grocery stores.