Everyone Is Using Japanese Ingredients to CookNovember 27, 2014
Around the world, Japanese cuisine is some of the most ubiquitous, as loved as American, Italian, French or Spanish. Maybe it’s because the variety of it is seemingly endless, and the fresh, clean flavors which dominate it are susceptible to almost all palates. Lately, there’s been a global trend that is taking modern cuisine further—using Japanese ingredients and condiments in cooking.
There’s something about the heady mix of mirin, soy, and sake that creates the most umami of flavors, or the heat of wasabi that provides a kick distinct from chili. Even in Manila, restaurants are taking on the trend, such as Mecha Uma, Bruce Ricketts’ second, well-received outpost, or 12/10 by the young upstarts behind Girl and the Bull. Here are a few ingredients and condiments that are making the rounds of kitchens.
1. Wasabi and Rayu
To add heat to Japanese dishes, wasabi and rayu are the popular condiments of choice. Wasabi’s spice envelops the nose just like horseradish or mustard, and whether freshly shaved or straight out of the tube, enhances everything from raw fish, to grilled beef to mushrooms. Rayu serves less of a kick, and is made using infusing sesame oil with chili, and has the sweet nutty flavor of the seed followed by a bearable heat.
2. Yuzu, Ponzu, Miso, Mirin, Tare
Yuzu is a Japanese citrus which may look like a lemon, but has an entirely different profile to its acidity. The rind and juice can be used in everything from savory to sweet applications, and while the fruit is almost impossible to find here, the bottled and powdered variety are key components to a lot of dishes in Metro Manila. Ponzu is another condiment that adds acidity, and is made combining soy sauce, citrus juice or vinegar, with bonito flakes. As a dipping sauce it is versatile, but can add tartness in recipes. Miso is probably the most important base in Japanese cooking, made by fermenting soybeans.
It comes in either the red or white variety, which can either be intensely umami or sweet, making this perfect with dashi to make soup, or flavor marinades and sauces. Mirin is an intense, clear distilled liquid that is the Japanese equivalent of cooking wine. Made with sticky rice and shochu, it is sweet but adds the flavors of sake to a dish. Tare has been making the rounds too, a thick sauce that we know as either yakitori, yakiniku or even teriyaki sauce. It’s basically thick, reduced soy with dashi and rice vinegar.
3. Mentaiko and Roe
The Japanese equivalent of caviar, mentaiko is the roe of cod or pollock then marinated, incredibly salty an usually eaten with onigiri. Lately, we’ve been seeing it mixed in pasta, or shaved on top of dishes to add a salty element. There’s also ikura or salmon roe, with larger spheres that have a briny taste once it pops in the mouth, or the tinier tobiko which is used more as a topping for their tiny size and texture.
4. Kewpie Mayonnaise
I never eat bottled mayonnaise, because the texture is gross, often with the oily fat separating from the cream, and the taste unappealing. Kewpie mayo, or Japanese mayo however, is the only manufactured one I’ll ever eat, just because it marries Japanese ingredients so well. By using rice vinegar instead, it has a much sweeter taste that masks the disgusting fattiness that mayonnaise actually is. It can be used on top of anything, from okonomiyaki, to takoyaki, to any type of roll or fried dish, and is especially good when combined with rayu and sesame seeds.
5. Shichimi Togarashi, Sansho
These two bottles are often sat beside each other at your counter when you’re dining in a Japanese restaurant. The red label means you’re shaking shichimi togarashi all over your food, or a seven flavor chili pepper, which has sesame seeds, chili pepper, sansho, and nori. It isn’t as spicy as the peppers we are used to, so is often used as seasoning to many dishes, providing a more subtle level of heat. The green bottle is sansho powder, also a component in shichimi togarashi. It’s ground up from the leaves and berries of the prickly ash tree, and has a bit of a peppery-lemon taste, but is not as distinct as its Chinese counterpart, the Szechuan pepper.
6. Sesame Oil, Black and White Sesame Seeds
In Japanese cuisine, sesame oil is used to flavor dishes rather than to cook with. The aroma is fragrant and nutty, and can be used in virtually any dish, responsible for what people usually call “that Asian taste”. It can come from either black or white sesame seeds, which can be sprinkled on top of anything, or toasted to coax that flavor and aroma out, whether in sweet or savory applications.
7. Shiso Leaf, Seaweed
Also known as the perilla leaves we fold Korean barbeque into, the shiso leaf has become one of the it ingredients of the year, making an appearance on the menu of places such as Blackbird and Vask. It has a very pungent flavor, which is all at once citrusy, peppery, and minty. Seaweed, nori, or wakame, has become a staple too, whether diced finely and adding a bit of crunch to dishes, or boiled until soft and eaten heartily in broths and soups.