I grew up eating dishes passed down from my great-grandmother, who moved to the U.S. from a tiny fishing village in Japan. Watching my mother make these recipes, I was surprised at their simplicity -- many contained only three or four ingredients. Now that I've embarked upon a self-study of the cuisine, I've realized that many of the new recipes I've been poring over in various cookbooks contain the same basic ingredients.
Last week I wrote about dashi, the basic sea stock that appears in most soups and many non-soup recipes. In addition to dashi, here are four pantry staples that appear frequently in Japanese recipes. (Shown here, clockwise from front):
(read on for more)
Soy sauce: Made from fermented soy beans, this black, watery sauce is already a familiar ingredient in many Western kitchens. (My mom puts a dash in her Italian pasta sauce.) Stick with Japanese soy sauce; other versions used in different Asian cuisines can be thicker and stronger. I use Kikkoman, which you can find in most regular grocery stores.
Sake: The national drink of Japan, rice wine adds a distinct flavor to marinades, sauces, and cooked dishes. The alcohol burns off through cooking, but the remaining flavor adds an edge that is distinctly Japanese. You can find sake in the wine aisle of most grocery stores, or at Asian markets that sell alcohol.
Mirin: This sweet cooking wine is also made from rice. Unlike sake, it's more for cooking than drinking. Its sweetness rounds out the saltiness of some dishes, and subdues the fishiness of others. You might be able to find mirin at some specialty grocery stores, but definitely at an Asian market.
Rice vinegar: Made from (you guessed it!) rice, rice vinegar is milder and sweeter than regular vinegar. It is combined with salt and sugar to season sushi rice (though you can also buy pre-made sushi-rice vinegar). It's also great for salads and dipping sauces. I like to sprinkle it over blanched fresh spinach with a dash of soy sauce and a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds for a superquick side dish.
You'll see a combination of soy sauce, sake, dashi, mirin, and regular granulated sugar in a variety of meat and vegetable dishes. (Usually in quantities no greater than a few teaspoons or tablespoons.) Combined, they create a sweet-and-savory flavor that is subtle, yet distinct. Some people posit that this satisfies cravings for sweets, which is why dessert seldom accompanies a Japanese meal.
For a more extensive list of Japanese pantry essentials, see this post on Just Hungry, my new favorite Japanese-food blog. The author is a Japanese ex-pat who writes wonderfully in English in a way that's very approachable for cooks who live outside of Japan. She's got some great recipes and wonderful in-depth resources about equipment, ingredients, techniques, and online shopping links.