It’s an experience many of us have had…you enter your local supermarket, only to be confronted by endless shelves of strange ingredients you have no idea how to use. Whether you’re a newcomer to Japan or a veteran resident, don’t resign yourself to sticking with what you know!
It’s easy to enjoy the unique variety of foods available in Japan at home. Japanese cooking is simple, healthy, and mastering a few dishes is sure to impress friends, family, and co-workers. This guide won’t turn you into an Iron Chef, but hopefully it’ll make dinnertime a little more exciting.
Part 1: The Wonderful World of Vegetables
しし唐/ししとう(Shishitō): A smaller, spicier relative of the Japanese green pepper (ピーマン), these are great for grilling, tempura, or stir-fry. They are usually prepared whole, but poke a hole in them before cooking so they don’t explode.
かぼちゃ(Kabocha): This round winter squash is sweet with a soft texture. You can even eat the rind! It breaks down if overcooked, but that makes it easy to turn into soups and sauces. Try it in this traditional simmered dish.
水菜(Mizuna): Also called “spider mustard”, mizuna is a great addition to salads or stir-fries. It can bring a bright flavor to donburi, especially katsu-don or oyako-don.
ニラ(Nira): Asian garlic chives might be flatter than the chive varieties back home, but they taste pretty similar. They’re delicious in stir-fries, soups, omelets, or dumplings.
しそ(Shiso): A member of the mint family, shiso has a distinct, refreshing flavor. It’s usually chopped up and used as a condiment or garnish. Try it on pasta, cold noodle dishes, or in fillings and batters.
ごうや(Goya): Bitter melon is something of an acquired taste. To prepare, cut open, remove the seeds, slice into crescents. If you want to reduce its bitterness, parboil before stir-frying. It’s used in the famous Okinawan dish, goya chanpuru.
ごぼう(Gobo): Burdock root has a sweet, mild, earthy flavor and goes well with pork or carrots. After peeling the root, prevent it from turning brown by soaking it in water. Try it simmered or in soups or salads.
カブ(Kabu): This turnip has a spicier flavor than Western varieties but is still sweet and tender. Typically boiled and high in protein and calcium, you can also simmer and eat the greens so nothing goes to waste!
れんこん(Renkon): Lotus root lends a delicious crunch to almost any type of preparation. Peel the outer skin, slice, and put in water to prevent browning before cooking. Renkon stays crisp if cooked briefly, but goes tender when simmered longer.
里芋(Satoimo): Japanese taro absorbs flavors well and is most often boiled or stewed until it turns soft. Slightly slippery when raw, they can irritate sensitive skin before cooking so take care when peeling. Soups are an easy way to enjoy them.
竹の子(Takenoko): Fresh bamboo shoots are a hassle to prepare, so most people buy them precooked. Drain any liquid, chop up and cook. Don’t worry if you find white stuff inside, just wash it off before using. Takenoko goes well with rice.
Part 2: A Journey Into the Unknown (or All That Other Stuff)
えのき(Enoki): Enoki are a common ingredient in nabe, soups, salads, and simmered dishes. Add at the end of cooking so they don’t lose their delicate flavor or crunch. Cook for about 5 minutes at most or they’ll become stringy and tough.
えりんぎ(Eringi): The king oyster mushroom is meaty with a texture like abalone. You can use the cap and stalk either whole or chopped. For any vegetarians or vegans out there, it makes a good meat substitute since it retains its shape and has a rich umami flavor.
まいたけ(Maitake): These mushrooms might look intimidating but you can use them just like button mushrooms. They have a slightly woodsy flavor and are often called the “chicken of the woods”. Fried, boiled, or sautéed in butter, they’re both versatile and delicious.
なめこ(Nameko): Nameko are used as a topping for noodles or in soups, nabe, and stir-fries. Their slippery, gelatinous coating helps to lightly thicken broths or sauces. They have a nutty flavor and silky texture.
柿/かき(Kaki): Persimmons are a fall fruit with waxy skin that’s usually peeled. They taste best when allowed to soften to ripeness, becoming almost jelly-like in texture. Their flavor is similar to pear and apricot.
梨/なし(Nashi): Asian pears come into season in fall. Crisp, light, and juicy, they taste like a refreshing mix of apple and pear. They’re typically ripe and ready to eat when bought but can be stored in the refrigerator.
ひじき(Hijiki): High in fiber, hijiki comes dried so blanch it in boiling water for a few minutes before use. It greatly increases in volume when rehydrated so only use a small amount! Simmer with other vegetables or add to salads, pastas, or stir-fries.
昆布/こんぶ(Konbu): Typically used to make stock, it can also be eaten stewed in dishes like oden. It gets leathery when cooked so try chopping it up in strips. Wipe the powder off dried konbu before using.
わかめ(Wakame): Wakame is great for salads or soups, and doesn’t need much cooking. Simply rehydrate the dried flakes in water and toss in, or if cooking with liquid throw it in dried. Try putting some in your rice cooker before turning it on to make wakame gohan.
こんやく(Konnyaku): This gelatinous foodstuff comes in blocks or noodles, called shirataki. It’s derived from the konjac plant, has no calories, and is very high in fiber so it’s a perfect diet food. Parboiling before cooking, slicing it thinly, or adding shallow surface cuts will make it more tender. Try it in soups, nabe, or sauteed.