About Japanese ingredients and substitutions

[Updated to add Substitution section.]

I haven’t exactly counted it up, but of the thousands of comments left on Just Hungry, not to mention Just Bento, probably at least a quarter are questions about ingredients or ingredient substitutions. So I thought I might put down what my criteria are for what kind of ingredients I choose to feature in the recipes on either site, especially when it comes to Japanese recipes. [Update added on August 15th, 2008]: I’ve also added some suggested, and acceptable, substitutions.

Can I get a hold of it?

In case you didn’t know, at the moment I live in a country with a fairly miniscule Japanese expat or immigrant population (the last I heard there were less than 2000 Japanese people living in the Zürich area). There is only one real Japanese grocery store near me, and it is quite small with a limited selection of products. There’s also an equally small (though slightly better stocked) Korean grocery store, and a couple of Chinese grocery stores. (See Where I shope for Japanese/Asian ingredients in Zürich.) I supplement what I can get locally by placing an order with Japan Centre a few times a year.

My point is, that what I can get is fairly limited compared to many people, though more generous than others. So by sticking to what I can get here, I think that I’m in a good middle ground for people trying to cook anything Japanese. If you live in a region (e.g. most of California, New York City, or Hawaii) with big Japanese expat/immigrant populations, you have a much bigger selection available to you than I do!

(My mom also sends me things from Japan periodically, but I do not include the more exotic things in the recipes here, though I might mention then in passing.)

Is it available by mailorder?

I also periodically check to see if certain ingredients are available online. Some online merchants don’t have very comprehensive listings on their web sites, but by emailing them they can tell you if they have something in stock.

Where to look for Japanese ingredients

In order of the likelihood of finding Japanese ingredients:

  • Japanese grocery stores, including online stores. This is obvious. Please consult the Worldwide Japanese grocery store list for your area, and go to your nearest store to see what they have! That’s the best way to get acquainted with unfamiliar ingredients.
  • Korean grocery stores. A lot of Japanese ingredients are used in Korean cooking.
  • Chinese grocery stores and general Asian grocery stores. Chinese grocery stores tend to stock less Japanese ingredients than Korean grocery stores, but you can still find a lot of things.
  • Health food stores, including online stores. Many dry and/or vegan ingredients, such as rice flour, kuzu powder, agar-agar, miso and so on can be found at health food stores.
  • South East Asian grocery stores (Thai, etc.) These stores don’t stock Japanese ingredients per se, but some of the fresh product and things can be used.
  • South Asian grocery stores (Indian, Sri Lankan, etc.) These can be a surprisingly good source for ‘exotic’ vegetables and such that are used in Japanese cooking.

Is it a widely used ingredient in Japanese cooking?

In general, I try to stay away from any ingredient that might be considered to be too regional or esoteric in Japan, and stick to ingredients that are likely to be in any Japanese kitchen.

Is the recipe something that is normally made in Japan?

When I do traditional Japanese recipes here, I try to stick to ones that are commonly made in Japanese homes (vs. something exotic, regional or so complicated it’s only available in restaurants).

The exception to this rule is when I try to make something that is readily available in Japan, but not necessarily elsewhere. An example of this is really fresh tofu. The hard work required is worth it for the results.

Ingredient substitutions

In certain cases, you can make substitutions without a problem. I try to include substitution recommendations whenever possible, or when I am fairly sure it would work. For instance, many Japanese recipes call for katokuriko (片栗粉)which is a flour made from potato starch, but this is hard to get outside of Japan in most places. Cornstarch (or cornflour) has a very similar texture and performs the same function, so that is an easy substitute. Using honey or syrup instead of maple syrup will change the flavor a bit but also works.

In some cases though there is no substitution. If you are making kuzumochi, you really can’t use anything other than kuzu powder if you want the same texture.

Sometimes you just need to try out a substitution to see if it works. For instance, when I call for a specific rice flour like shiratama-ko or joushinko, but you can’t get it, try substituting a rice flour you can get and see how it goes. (I ‘ve made rice dumplings with red rice flour from Sri Lanka, and it turned out fairly well.) The worst that can happen is that you end up with an inedible dish that you have to throw away, but that’s not the end of the world. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes!

Some acceptable substitutions

[This section added on August 15, 2008]

  • Mirin and sake. I think more people ask about substitutes for these two ingredients than anything else put together. Both are alcoholic beverages (though mirin is never drunk and is only used in cooking). Mirin is stronger and sweeter than sake. Sake can be used as a substitute for mirin (with an added pinch of sugar), and vice versa. If you cannot get a hold of either, you can use sweet sherry or Chinese shiaoxing wine. If you cannot use alcohol for religious or other reasons, even though most of the alcohol will evaporate after cooking, just leave it out - it will affect the flavor, but there’s no reasonable non-alcoholic substitute that I can think of. See also: The role of alcohol, onion and garlic in Japanese meat dishes (also applies to fish dishes in many cases) (Vinegar is not a good substitute. Vinegar makes things sour. I can’t believe there are people saying that vinegar is a substitute for sake. Is vinegar a good substitute for wine in a recipe? Please.) Mirin style seasoning or mirin choumiryou (example here) has less than 1% alcohol content, so it can be used as a mirin substitute in terms of flavor. However, mirin style seasoning often has additives like MSG and sugar, so I’m not a fan of it. If you do leave out mirin from a recipe, you can add a bit of (or more) sugar to the recipe to compensate for the sweetness at least.
  • Japanese-style or sushi rice. Keep in mind that ‘sushi rice’ is a name given by non-Japanese sellers to Japanese style or japonica medium grain rice. Medium-grain Italian rices that are used for risotto, such as vialone and arborio, are acceptable substitutes for Japanese rice; long grain rices including basmati and jasmine rice are not.
  • Dashi stock. Japanese stock is usually made from kombu seaweed, dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi), dried fish called niboshi, or a combination of all or two of these. (See basic dashi recipe.) You may find it difficult to find these ingredients, or they may be too expensive. Powdered or granular dashi stock is similar to stock cubes, and can be used instead of made-from-scratch dashi; keep in mind that dashi granules are saltier and often contain MSG. See also vegan dashi stock made with dried shiitake mushrooms and kombu seaweed. If you can’t get a hold of any of these, you can use a basic vegetable stock instead - it won’t taste that Japanese but it’s better than plain water at least!
  • Miso and soy sauce. There are no substitutes for these. As to whether you should stick to Japanese soy sauce or use other kinds - I do believe that Japanese soy sauce tastes quite different from, say, Chinese soy sauce, but your palate may not be able to detect a big difference. Kikkoman is the most famous Japanese brand, and is available worldwide.
  • Japanese tonkatsu sauce or okonomiyaki sauce, or “bulldog” sauce. Bulldog is the brand name of a popular line of barbeque-type sauces that are used in a lot of dishes, from panfried noodles (yakisoba) to deep fried pork cutlets (tonkatsu) , okonomiyaki, takoyaki and more. If you’re in the U.S., you can use A-1 Steak Sauce, maybe tempered with a little added sugar and/or ketchup. Elsewhere, you can use Worcestershire sauce for the flavor if not the texture.
  • Rice vinegar. White balsamic vinegar is the best substitute, but that’s rather more exotic I think than rice vinegar! You can use also use a mild white wine vinegar instead, with a pinch of sugar to mellow it out.

In the vast majority of recipes here on Just Hungry as well as on Just Bento, I try to stick to these flavoring ingredients, plus universal ones like salt, pepper and sugar, so hopefully you won’t run into too many problems around here at least.

Are there any other ingredients you’d like to know possible substitions for? Let me know in the comments.

See also

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An awesome site when it

An awesome site when it comes to food substitutions is The Cook’s Thesaurus. That might come in handy for some readers, too!

Dina | 7 June, 2008 - 10:26

kinome?

Can you recommend a substitute for kinome? What does it taste like?

Jude | 7 June, 2008 - 16:18

Kinome have a peppery sort

Kinome have a peppery sort of flavor. I can’t think of anything that would be a substitute flavor-wise, but as a green garnish (which is the role it plays in most dishes) you could use a lot of other things - green shiso leaves, finely chopped green onion, even parsley etc.

maki | 8 June, 2008 - 13:01

That’s great! We moved

That’s great! We moved back to the U.S. after living in Japan for the past 4 years, and there are so many things I miss being able to just run out and buy. My husband is headed back for a few weeks this summer, and you better believe I’m sending him with a list of things to buy! ; )

Cheryl | 7 June, 2008 - 20:19

Re: Kinome

For a peppery flavour, try rocket. : )

Fiona | 15 August, 2008 - 03:09

hehe, I recently ran out of

hehe, I recently ran out of mirin and tried rice vinegar + sugar as a replacement. Didn’t work very well, glad to see that affirmed somewhat here, will save me the trouble of further alchemical experimentation.

M. Nestor | 15 August, 2008 - 11:36

Replacement veggies?

Hi Maki.

I’m having so much fun with your blogs! Cooking’s become fun again after a down period, especially as it’s quite a challenge to find replacement ingredients. My only local shop deals more in Chinese/Thai/Vietnamese goods than Japanese ones, and with such magnanimously helpful and descriptive labels as “bean paste”, “noodles” and “seaweed” I never know quite what I’m getting! It makes for interesting cooking, though ;-)
But I have one big problem - vegetables. The few books on Japanese food in English that I’ve found almost always include veggies that I can’t get hold of. And since I don’t know what the original tastes like it’s difficult to know what to replace them with.
Could you consider starting a “replacement vegetables” list?

Also - I’d like to try making fish cakes with a more Japanese flavour. Although we don’t have readymade Japanese-style fish cakes here we do have a lot of fresh fish (coast of Norway, and yes - I do know how lucky I am!). Do you have a recipe or any idea of what kind of ingredients (apart from fish) I could use?
Thanks for sharing your ideas with us!

Niki | 18 August, 2008 - 23:54

Replacement veggies?

Hi Maki.

I’m having so much fun with your blogs! Cooking’s become fun again after a down period, especially as it’s quite a challenge to find replacement ingredients. My only local shop deals more in Chinese/Thai/Vietnamese goods than Japanese ones, and with such magnanimously helpful and descriptive labels as “bean paste”, “noodles” and “seaweed” I never know quite what I’m getting! It makes for interesting cooking, though ;-)
But I have one big problem - vegetables. The few books on Japanese food in English that I’ve found almost always include veggies that I can’t get hold of. And since I don’t know what the original tastes like it’s difficult to know what to replace them with.
Could you consider starting a “replacement vegetables” list?

Also - I’d like to try making fish cakes with a more Japanese flavour. Although we don’t have readymade Japanese-style fish cakes here we do have a lot of fresh fish (coast of Norway, and yes - I do know how lucky I am!). Do you have a recipe or any idea of what kind of ingredients (apart from fish) I could use?
Thanks for sharing your ideas with us!

Niki | 18 August, 2008 - 23:55

Re: vegetables. I think you

Re: vegetables. I think you have given me an idea for a post :)

Fish cakes - when I get the right kind of fish I’ll post a recipe.

maki | 20 August, 2008 - 18:49

Thanks for the very useful info

Thanks for such extensive information. I live in Basel and this is very helpful for me.

Janet | 30 August, 2008 - 16:53

Where can I buy Shiso leaves in CH?

Do you know where I can buy Shiso leaves? It tastes very good when eat raw with sushi or fry them like tempura or Yakitori with chicken and plum sauce. I hope I can make this myself at home.

Janet | 30 August, 2008 - 16:57

There is a plant seller at

There is a plant seller at the Bürkliplatz market in Zürich that sells green shiso plants - that’ s the only place I’ve seen shiso leaves for sale, on or off the plant. Some other plant sellers occasionaly have red shiso plants as ornamentals (usually labeled perilla, though the one that sells the green shiso plants calls them shiso!)

maki | 30 August, 2008 - 18:21

Thank you

Thank you. I just found your other post which has a lot info about growing the shiso yourself. I would like to try, but maybe need to way until next May? Do you buy your seeds online?

Janet | 1 September, 2008 - 12:06

If you live in Switzerland

If you live in Switzerland (well other than the Ticino maybe), shiso seeds should be started indoors sometime in March or April to get the most results. I actually get my seeds from Japan, but you can also get them via mailorder from Evergreen Seeds, a great family run company. They ship very fast to Switzerland!

maki | 1 September, 2008 - 13:12

Re: About Japanese ingredients and substitutions

I read somewhere that rice vinegar diluted with water would be an okay sake replacement. Is this true? At least, is it better than omitting sake altogether? Thanks!

anon. | 11 March, 2009 - 20:03

Re: About Japanese ingredients and substitutions

Rice vinegar still tastes like vinegar, so it is not a good substitute for sake in my opinion. I don't really understand that advice at all, unless the same person thinks wine vinegar is a good substitute for wine in a recipe. If you simply cannot have sake in a recipe for some reason, leave it out, though it will affect the flavor. Sherry is a good substitute for sake in most recipes.

maki | 11 March, 2009 - 23:28

Re: About Japanese ingredients and substitutions

I am trying to find a site where I can buy the dried bonito used to make bonito flakes. All that I have been able to find are the pre-shaved flakes. Help! I have the best "shaver" that I really want to use!

Jennifer | 2 April, 2009 - 00:26

Re: About Japanese ingredients and substitutions

Shizuo Tsuji, author of Japanese Cooking A Simple Art, says that sugar is a good substitute for mirin. Mirin is primarily a sweetening agent in Japanese recipes. (Don't use as much sugar. Mirin is much less sweet per serving.)

There are now several non-alcoholic Japanese-brand mirin-like sweeteners sold in the US. Kikkoman's has no alcohol at all. Mitsukan's "Honteri" has 0.9% alcohol (you'd have to drink a gallon for the effect of one beer. That single tablespoon is not likely to hurt you).

Sake is more problematic. It's primarily used to reduce strong odors (Like real fishy things). Sometimes you can do this by blanching strong-smelling things before you cook them.

Arthur3030 | 12 October, 2009 - 01:33

Re: About Japanese ingredients and substitutions

Hi.
I'm looking for a KOMBUCHA mushrum, Could you please let me know were I can find it?
Thank you.
I'm living in Chula Vista Ca. Coul you please let me know if you have some store here?

Gabriela Del Canto Sosa | 20 October, 2009 - 00:45

Re: About Japanese ingredients and substitutions

Kombucha mushroom is a Russian thing I believe. It may sound similar to Konbucha or Kobucha ('tea' made from kombu seaweed) but is totally unrelated. I myself think it's disgusting, and the touted health benefits to be bogus.

Also, THIS IS NOT A STORE. I have no idea why people keep asking to buy stuff from here.

maki | 20 October, 2009 - 02:33

Re: About Japanese ingredients and substitutions

Just an FYI, Kombucha is also called "Manchurian Mushroom". It's origins are of Manchurian China. The health benefits are not bogus, but are fairly overrated. I've made it for years and can attest to improved health and digestion. But, making and consuming it doesn't negate the overall effects poor diet. It's more of an adjunct and only really has the desired effect when made (read: fermented) properly with natural ingredients and along side healthy eating. People expect miracles from one thing when other aspects of their lifestyle suffer. It's not a magic bullet. Anyway, kombucha should never be used for cooking as it destroys any live, healthy organisms as what you would find in kimchi. Nor (as stated) does it have anything specific to do with Japenese cooking and diet.

Matthew | 9 November, 2011 - 19:56

Re: About Japanese ingredients and substitutions

How long will mirin and sake keep in the fridge once opened? It takes me quite a while to get through a whole bottle, and after a while I always become unsure if it's still useable. Thanks!

t | 1 March, 2010 - 04:35

Re: About Japanese ingredients and substitutions

You don't have to refrigerate them - they have high enough alcohol content that they will keep indefinitely. Just be sure to store them in a dark place, and to keep the caps closed between uses. It takes me quite a while to get through a bottle too! They do deteriorate a bit in flavor, but not enough that you would really notice in cooking .

maki | 1 March, 2010 - 12:29

Re: About Japanese ingredients and substitutions

I found a recipe for okonomaki (jampanese pancakes w/veggies & meat). It calls for "tempura flakes" for the batter. Is this the powder used to mix the tempura batter or the little crumbly pieces of tempura that you sometimes use for sushi?

boojieboo | 27 January, 2011 - 18:31

Re: About Japanese ingredients and substitutions

Well, check out my recipe for okonomiyaki, which explains what it is, and how to make a reasonable subsititute too ^_^

maki | 27 January, 2011 - 19:05

Re: About Japanese ingredients and substitutions

Is there good substitute for mitsuba? Cilantro, perhaps, or maybe Italian parsley? Thank you!

Kinako | 29 February, 2012 - 21:02
Jackie | 24 March, 2012 - 05:59

Re: About Japanese ingredients and substitutions

Hi there!
I am trying to make a substitute for shiso vinegar as I am having trouble finding it (& need it for a recipe this weekend!). I don't think I've tasted shiso before so am flying blind. From what I've read i am thinking of soaking thai basil, a little vietnamese mint and a little lemon thyme in rice wine vinegar overnight. What do you think? Have you tried anything like this before or do you have any ideas/suggestions that could help me? I understand the flavour is quite difficult to describe so if you have suggestions for substitutes I would appreciate as much detail as you can give...
Many thanks,
Paulus

Paulus | 26 April, 2012 - 15:12

Re: About Japanese ingredients and substitutions

Heinz 57 seems to be a simple replacement for kontatsu sauce. It's a bit lighter in flavor than A.1.

Angela | 8 October, 2012 - 09:24

Re: About Japanese ingredients and substitutions

I was told that Apple Juice could be a good alternative to Mirin, because of Mirin being a sweet drink. Is this true, or just another piece of mis-information flying around like using Vinegar as an alternative?

Keith | 10 November, 2012 - 16:24

Re: About Japanese ingredients and substitutions

Re apple juice ~= mirin: That is an interesting suggestion. Just tasted a teaspoon of the Shirakiku mirin I have in the fridge (8% alcohol, got it from marukai). It has roughly the same sweetness as some apple juice (like Mott's or something, not sugar-free organic and such), but I think the apple flavor would come through too much if used in equal proportions. Maybe half apple juice/half water, with some extra sugar added under medium heat to maintain the sweetness level without concentrating the apple flavor. It would have way more depth than just sugar/water and be a pretty harmonious flavor vs sake I think. Some sakes have apple notes to them. The raw mirin sample I just tried really does taste like a sweet weak basic sake. Sake + sugar seems to be the key substitute. Rice vinegar is right out, even 'seasoned' rice or something non-rice like apple cider vinegar. There is no sour in mirin. Bon apetite!

dave | 10 June, 2014 - 06:19

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