Cookbook Profile

Japanese Aromatics

Japan is blessed with a variety of fresh herbs and seasonings that, until recently, were almost impossible to obtain abroad. Thanks to the popularity of Japanese cooking, the ingredients featured in this book should now be obtainable at many major markets, in your local Chinatown, or via the Internet. Here are some of the basics.

Note: All page references are for the printed book (Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook ).

1. Naganegi white scallion

Similar to Welsh onion or spring onion, this species, about the thickness of a medium cigar, has a mild onion flavor and is prized for its white stem (produced by growing in a raised "collar" of soil). It is often sliced into ultra-thin, silvery curls for garnishing soup, meat. and poultry dishes (see Sliced Duck Breast with Ponzu Sauce, p.143 of the book).

2. Nira garlic chives

With its subtle, garlic-onion flavor, nira is stir fried or steamed with meat, added to soups or stews, or minced and used in dumplings. Also popular in Chinese and Korean cooking. Yellow nira, grown shielded from the sun, has a more delicate flavor.

Japanese Aromatics

Japanese Aromatics

Japanese Aromatics

3. Yamaimo mountain yam

Also known as tororo imo, this is the oldest variety of potato in Japan, and is one of the Japanese diet's main neba neba, or mucilaginous, foods. It is most commonly grated and eaten raw, mixed with dashi stock, a dab of wasabi and a sprinkling of nori seaweed; or chopped into matchstick-like segments and treated like a salad vegetable. It is also used as a binding ingredient for minced fish or meat balls. Another variety, the naga imo, or long yam, is less slimy and therefore not used for binding, but its clean taste and crispness, when simply grilled over charcoal and eaten with a pinch of salt is heavenly.

4. Shishito pepper

This miniature, sweet. mildly hot pepper is typically deep fried whole as a garnish (p. 55). skewered, salted, and grilled (p. 59), or battered and served as tempura. Remember to pierce the skin before deep-frying, as they may burst in hot oil. Don't substitute similarly-shaped Serrano or Thai bird peppers, as they are extremely hot. Though a different size, Anaheim peppers are good substitute.

5. Sansho peppercorns

A highly distinctive, tangy spice from the Japanese prickly ash tree, sansho is related to the Szechuan pepper. It has a clove-like numbing action on the tongue and is indispensable to offset the sweet richness of broiled eel. Also used to season grilled meats and fish. The leaves of the prickly ash, called kinome, are used as a garnish (pages 42, 98, 99).

6. Yuzu citrus

The delicious aroma of this citrus fruit, a native of Asia, makes it a valuable ingredient either green in summer or ripe in winter, when it sweetens and turns yellow. Its juice evokes both grapefruit and mandarin. The zest is grated into dishes, mixed with ground meat (recipe p. 130), or combined with green chili to make the spicy condiment yuzu-kosho (recipe p. 145). The juice is used in dressings and sauces such as ponzu (recipe p. 145). During winter, yuzu are often floated in bathtubs. Be aware that yuzu's distinctive, powerful flavor can tempt one into overusing it—I confess that when I first discovered yuzu-kosho I smeared it on almost everything, with some ignoble results—so go sparingly.

7. Renkon lotus root

Every part of the lotus can be eaten, and the root is tastiest in winter. It has a nutty, starchy taste and crunchy, juicy texture. The holes in the root are seen by the Japanese as lucky, since one can peer through them and "see the future." The root can be sliced and its holes stuffed with ground meat before deep frying as in the dish renkon no hasami age, or sliced paper-thin and mixed with vegetables in a salad (see Ripe Tomato and Cucumber Salad).

8. Kaiware, daikon radish sprouts

Kaiware means literally, "split shells," and this herb is so named because of its split seed pods upon sprouting. Kaiware are peppery and fresh tasting, slightly bitter like daikon, and rich in minerals and phytochemicals. Wash well before using.

9. Sudachi citrus

This tight-fleshed small citrus, typically weighing around 1 oz. (30g.), has a flavor somewhere between lemon and lime. Sudachi is often drizzled over fish or matsutake mushrooms, and is served in wedges to squeeze into dipping sauces of somen or udon noodles.

10. Kabosu citrus

Bigger than the sudachi but used in the same way, the kabosu is married in the Japanese diner's mind to charcoal-grilled sanma, or Pacific saury, for the fish and fruit come into season together, in September/October.

11. Edamame fresh green soybeans

It has been a decades-long mystery to me, since I first enjoyed these summer beans with a cold beer, why their popularity as a drinking snack was not massive and world-wide. Not only delicious and refreshing, but a healthy alternative to nibbles like fried chips, soybeans are satisfying to eat when popped from their pods straight into your mouth. They are available frozen, though fresh is far superior. Boil in lightly salted water for 3-4 minutes., then drain and sprinkle with mineral-rich sea salt. Some cooks choose to cut them from their branches before preparing—with scissors, cut each pod about 1/8 in. (3mm) below its top—while others like to retain the decorative feel of the stalks, trimming them just enough to fit the serving bowl, and so that guests can pull off their own pods, or pick up a branch bearing several pods.

12. Aonegi green scallion

A ubiquitous garnish, this scallion comes in numerous regional varieties and thicknesses. On average, the stems are about as thick as a pencil. but some varieties will be as thin as chives. These look beautiful sliced very finely and set floating in clear soup. Aonegi tend to be sweeter and juicier than the naganegi white scallion, with a stronger onion aroma.

13. Amanaga pepper

Literally, "sweet and long," the amanaga is milder than the shishito pepper. It is used as a garnish and is popular in kaiseki cuisine, and with its contrasting taste and texture, makes an attractive component of such dishes as Yamariki's Grilled Green Salad (p. 100). The Anaheim pepper is a good substitute.

14. Kyuri Japanese cucumber

About 7 in. (18cm) long and 1 in. (2.5cml thick, the Japanese cucumber is succulent and need not (in fact, should not) be peeled or seeded. It is eaten countless ways, sometimes simply chilled and skewered whole, for sale at summer festivals (think a healthy Dagwood dog), or sliced into a fan shape to soak up a vinegar dressing (p. 16). Substitute English or Mediterranean cucumbers.

15. Mitsuba leaves

Often compared to watercress, parsley or coriander, mitsuba is, as with so many Japanese seasonings, like nothing else. Pungent, refreshing, delicate and a little bitter, it is a unique garnish. It is often hydroponically grown and comes in three forms: ito-mitsuba for clear soups; nemitsuba—the strongest flavored—is blanched and prepared as a chilled appetizer; and kiri-mitsuba, the most subtle and tender variety, for garnishing.

16. Wagarashi Japanese hot mustard

Buy Japanese powdered mustard in small tins, and mix equal amounts of powder and water. Alternatively, buy ready-made in a tube. A dab of Japanese mustard is served with grilled meats (the izakaya Yamariki uses Colman's). mixed into dressings, and whipped with soy sauce and scallions together with natto fermented soybeans.

17. Wasabi root

It should be fairly well known by now that the vast majority of what is passed off as wasabi, in restaurants and supermarkets in Japan and abroad, is not wasabi at all but a concoction of Western horseradish, mustard powder and green/yellow dye. The reason for this is that wasabi is very difficult to grow, requiring large amounts of pristine, flowing water and a just-right climate. If you are lucky enough to find fresh wasabi root (strictly speaking not a root but a rhizome), grate from the stem side and prepare only as much as you need, directly before use. Wasabi's volatile oils quickly dissipate as they oxidize. Serious chefs use a sharkskin grater, believing the softer nature of this material brings out more flavor by crushing the wasabi fibers, rather than cutting them, as the teeth of a metal grater will do. And if you can't find fresh wasabi, don't fret—at least the Western horseradish is a relative (but then again, so is the cabbage!).

18. Kikurage wood ear mushrooms

So named for its resemblance to ears, kikurage tree fungus is readily available dried (most comes from China) and after soaking is shredded or sliced for use in stir-fried dishes and soups. It has a delightful crunchy, gelatinous texture, which it retains throughout cooking.

19. Myoga "Japanese ginger"

Native to Japan and related to ginger, myoga buds are rather like a flower whose magenta-green "petals" are eaten raw or grilled, sliced or whole-as at the Morimoto yakitori pub (p. 121). where it is smeared with miso before broiling. Myoga has a tart, gingery flavor and is also used finely shredded as a garnish.

20. Taka no tsume dried chili

Japanese cuisine is rarely spicy hot. but this universal ingredient is essential to making the grated daikon radish condiment momiji oroshi (p. 20), various pickle dishes, and in stir fries.

21. Shichimi spice powder

Another ubiquitous, spicy condiment. Pour a small mound on your yakitori plate and dip the grilled morsels as you eat. or sprinkle lightly on almost any cooked dish or noodle dipping sauce. Shichimi is usually a blend of the following seven (the name means "seven flavors") ingredients: red chili powder, dried orange peel, black sesame seeds, hemp seeds, ginger powder, powdered mustard seeds, and powdered sansho.

22. Kuchinashi no mi gardenia fruit

Cracked slightly open, gardenia fruit are used to naturally color sweet potatoes, takuan radish pickles, noodles and other foods.

23. Shiso perilla leaves

Often described as "Japanese basil," this sour, minty, refreshing herb goes well with salt and soy sauce and, served whole, is a digestive aid when eaten with sashimi (along with daikon radish). Its tiny bell-like flower buds are also used to garnish sashimi—simply stroke them off the branch into your soy sauce dish. The leaf is julienned for use in salads or dressings. From June to July shiso leaves turn red, and are used for coloring and flavoring umeboshi pickled plums. The leaf is sometimes battered and deep fried as tempura, and is also essential to the yakitori favorite Ume shiso (p. 130).


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Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook


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This page created September 2009