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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