Wondering what should be in a Japanese pantry? Whether you’re just starting out or you’re a professional with Japanese dishes, there are a few Japanese pantry items you can’t go without. Keeping these ingredients stocked in your kitchen will let you throw together a delicious Japanese meal on a dime without stressing about running to the grocery store.
If you’re looking for what every Japanese kitchen needs, you’ve come to the right place. Don’t get caught without a key ingredient — check out our list of 30 essential Japanese pantry items to always have on hand. Fill your pantry with this list and enjoy flavorful Japanese meals whenever you want.
1. Soy Sauce
Soy sauce is made from soybeans and is a Japanese staple item — necessary for practically every dish you’ll make. While you could use several soy sauces, finding the right soy sauce will give your dishes a bolder, better flavor. Koikuchi and usukuchi soy sauces have different tastes and colors, while tamari soy sauce has a richer and bolder taste. Use soy sauce to bring out the flavors of your dishes or as a delightful dipping sauce with meals.
2. Sake (Rice Wine)
Sake — Japanese rice wine — is an essential condiment for Japanese cooking. Made from fermented rice, sake balances and tempers the different qualities of various foods. This alcohol is excellent for enhancing the subtle flavors of your dish. It’s incredibly versatile — use it in soups, sauces, marinades and simmered dishes. Try to avoid buying cooking sake — it’s often lower quality and contains sodium. Instead, cook with the same sake you would drink on its own to ensure you get a tasty, complimentary rice wine for your food.
3. Miso (Fermented Bean Paste)
Miso paste is a fermented bean paste that works as a base in soup, dressing, baking, sauces and braises. It’s also great as a dip, spread or glaze. There are several kinds of miso, but red, mixed and white are the three most common. Miso’s umami flavor gives many dishes their savory, round taste. Try making a classic miso soup or mix your miso into a salad dressing for a slightly salty, flavorful dishes.
4. Sesame Oil
Toasted sesame oil has the best flavor, but regular sesame oil is a delicious condiment too. Sesame oil is often used for Chinese-style dishes and it gives a distinct, nutty flavor. It’s an essential topping for any good stir fry dish, but it also perfectly rounds out a salad dressing or bowl of ramen. Sesame oil has a strong flavor, so use it delicately as a finishing oil or flavor enhancer.
5. Mirin (Sweetened Rice Wine)
Mirin is another member of the rice wine family. This sweet condiment works best for tenderizing seafood, meat, and simmered vegetable dishes. It has a lower alcohol content than sake and its higher sugar content makes it the perfect glazing agent. Its slight sugary flavor makes it ideal for bringing out the sweetness in umami dishes and balancing out salty notes in flavors like soy sauce.
6. Rice Vinegar
Rice vinegar or rice wine vinegar is sweeter and milder than Western vinegar. Another fermented rice condiment, it’s typically used for seasoning sushi rice. This condiment isn’t as sweet or syrupy as mirin, with a slightly sour, tangy taste. Rice vinegar is also great for pickling, sauces and salad dressing.
7. Dashi (Japanese Soup Stock)
Dashi is a simple soup stock made from dried bonito flakes and kombu, which give the broth a succulent umami flavor, perfect for creating the base of many soups and stocks. It’s also mixed into some fried dishes like tamago maki, Japanese egg omelet, and the cabbage-based pancake okonomiyaki. Dashi is a key ingredient for many classic dishes like miso soup, udon and tempura dipping sauce. While making dashi from scratch gives you a more flavorful stock, you can buy it in packets to save time.
Mentsuyu is a Japanese noodle soup base, often used as the basic broth for many dishes like hot noodle soups, cold noodles, yaki udon and donburi rice bowls. Mentsuyu combines mirin, sake, soy sauce, dried bonito flakes and konbu. Mixing these ingredients into a soup base gives you a broth or sauce with a savory, delicate flavor. Buy ready-made mentsuyu from the store or make it yourself at home and enjoy it with noodles whenever you’re craving something full and tasty.
9. Tonkatsu Sauce
Tonkatsu sauce is necessary for anyone looking to make Japanese fried dishes like Ebi fry, korokke and tonkatsu. This sauce is a blend of spices, vegetables, fruits, soy sauce, sugar and vinegar. All of these ingredients give tonkatsu sauce a rich and complex flavor — savory, sweet and sour. It’s a unique sauce that lends that extra special something to a fried dish. Dip food in it or layer it on a sandwich for a rich, inviting meal.
10. Japanese Short-Grain Rice
This short and plump rice is typically used for any Japanese dish including sushi. Short-grain rice is chewy and clumps together perfectly without being mushy — the ideal base for many rice dishes. Combine short-grain rice with vinegar, sugar and salt to make sushi rice or cook the rice with egg and soy sauce for a savory breakfast porridge. Many Japanese dishes start with some type of short-grain rice, so including this in your pantry is a must.
11. Soba Noodles
Soba noodles are another essential part of any Japanese kitchen. Made from buckwheat and wheat flour or just buckwheat flour, you can find soba noodles in dozens of dishes. Find them dried, fresh or frozen at your local Asian grocery store. Incorporate soba noodles hot into soups or even chilled with a dipping sauce. They’re more delicate than other noodles but are a great addition to any broth.
12. Ramen Noodles
Buy ramen noodles fresh or dried at most grocery stores. These noodles are springy and fun, making them a wonderful texture for your food. Pair them with miso, sesame oil or chili oil when making soups to get a delicious, hearty meal in minutes. Throw in any vegetables you like to get a well-rounded ramen dish full of flavor and texture whenever you’re craving noodles.
13. Udon Noodles
Udon noodles are a sturdier Japanese noodle. They’re fairly thick and chewy, so they work best in soups and stir-fries. Made from wheat flour, udon noodles quickly absorb the flavors of their dish, making them the perfect noodle to use in your cooking. Like other noodles, they can be dipped cold in sauce, mixed into hot soups or cooked with veggies. You can also make a curry sauce and include udon noodles for a beautiful, bright Japanese curry udon.
14. Panko (Japanese Bread Crumbs)
Panko breadcrumbs are usually used as the bread coating for deep-fried food in Japanese cuisine. The flakes are lighter and larger than Western breadcrumbs, so they have crunchier texture and don’t pickup as much grease when the food is frying. It’s also an excellent binder for meat patties and is the perfect crunchy topping for casseroles. Spice up any meal with a crumbly layer of panko!
15. Potato Starch
Potato starch acts as a thickening agent, just like corn starch does. It’s used to make slurries, thicken sauces, coat foods for frying and prevent sticking. It has a thicker texture than cornstarch, leading to a slightly different result with food, although they’re often interchangeable.
16. Toasted White Sesame Seeds
Toasted white sesame seeds are frequently used in Japanese cooking. Throw them on dishes with a heavy hand and use them to make goma-ae, a dish dressed with a sesame sauce, to top salads, soups and noodles. Mix them into dressings and sauces for a delicious flavor or add them as a garnish to any meal. Incredibly versatile, you can even employ sesame seeds as a crust for tofu or fish. Toasting sesame seeds gives them a more robust flavor, but also means they can become rancid if left out long enough. To prevent this, buy untoasted seeds and toast them when you’re ready to use them in a dish.
17. Shichimi Togarashi
Shichimi Togarashi or seven-ingredient red pepper powder, is a key spice in Japanese cooking. This blend of aromatics, whole and ground spices includes dried orange peel, nori, shiso, chili flakes, Sichuan pepper, sesame seeds and ginger. This pepper powder replaces sriracha and hot sauce in many meals, giving you a superb, spicy kick with just a few dashes. You can bring any dish alive with this spice.
Also called Japanese pepper, sansho is an unique, citrusy spice. Often compared to Sichuan peppercorn, it’s an essential part of shichimi togarashi. Sprinkle it on vegetables, eel, chicken and fish. Greenish-brown in color, you can throw it on virtually anything for an extra bite of flavor. Not only is it great on meats and veggies, but you can also include it in hot pots and miso soup for an ever tastier meal.
Real, fresh wasabi is extremely expensive and hard to obtain, but you can get a regular horseradish substitute instead of actual Japanese horseradish from most stores. This imitation wasabi comes as a powder or paste, dyed bright green to mimic the color of authentic wasabi. While imitation wasabi won’t have quite the same mustardy punch as the real thing, it will still have a good, sharp spice that perfectly complements sushi and stews.
20. Curry Roux
Curry roux is the famous key ingredient in Japanese curries, including katsu curry, curry udon and beef curry. Made from flour, butter and several spices like cardamom, turmeric, cumin, cayenne and Japanese curry powder, it’s a flavorful combination that produces a rich curry dish. Curry roux often comes prepackaged at the store — just break off the portion you need for a convenient start to your meal.
21. Nori Seaweed
Dried Nori seaweed is great for adding flavor to food while being nutritious. This thin, crispy seaweed is cut into sheets and roasted until fragrant. Nori is typically used as the casing for sushi rolls or dried into flakes as a topping. It can come in flat sheets, strips or flakes, but it’s the perfect texture and flavor to eat with rice or use with your Japanese cooking.
22. Wakame Seaweed
Wakame is one of the key ingredients in dashi — it’s often sold in a dried form or salted, and once it’s soaked in water, it loses its hardness and becomes wiggly. It’s the perfect accent to miso soup or Japanese salads. Quite versatile, whether crumbly or slippery, with wakame you’ll add a healthy, tasty treat to your cooking. Wakame is ideal for any soups, complementing umami flavors in your meals.
Ginger is a staple of Japanese cooking. Its spicy and refreshing taste makes it a star player in various cuisines. Grated ginger goes perfectly on seafood and pork dishes, while many soups include ginger and garlic as their recipes’ aromatic base. Whether you’re making a pickled dish, soups, curries, salad dressings or marinades, you’ll want to include ginger to bring bold, vibrant flavor to the meal.
Garlic is a well-known aromatic, used in many styles of cooking. Its distinct flavor means it’s a must-have if you’re going to cook anything. Mince garlic and cook it in stir-fries, soups, meat dishes and dressings. Mix it into sauces and marinade for a even better, more potent taste. You can even place it on the side of a bonito dish to make the fish even more delicious.
25. Green Onions
Green onions, or scallions, are an easy way to infuse flavor into a dish. Not as oniony as regular onions, they have a crispiness to them that adds aroma, crunch and texture to any food. You can sauté green onions in with a dish, cook them in your soup, toss them into a salad or sprinkle them on top of your meal as a garnish. Keep a bunch in your fridge and throw them in whatever you are cooking for a tasty, bright texture.
Of course, you can’t make a Japanese dish without some delicious, healthy vegetables. Napa cabbage, spinach, carrots, tomatoes, onions and green beans are must-haves for any meal. Use Japanese root vegetables like daikon radishes, gobo, Japanese sweet potatoes and renkon for healthy, earthy flavors. Vegetables are nutrient-dense, easy to find and delicious, especially when leveled up with Japanese spices and sauces.
27. Shiitake Mushrooms
Shiitake mushrooms add a rich, earthy flavor to your food. Known for their complex, savory notes, they make great additions to stocks, sautés and salads. Use fresh ones in all your food for a deep umami flavor and throw dried and rehydrated shiitake mushrooms into simmered dishes and soups for added richness and depth.
Stay prepared with a stash of tofu in your fridge or pantry and you’ll always have a versatile protein to throw into a dish. Made from soybeans, tofu will take on the flavor of whatever you cook it in. Marinate it in soy sauce or fry it for a crunchy, gold-brown delight. Serve tofu unseasoned in soups for a nice, smooth texture. Put it in salads or mix it with teriyaki sauce and serve with vegetables if you want a tasty, protein-rich substitute for meat.
29. Eggs, Seafood and Meat
You’ll want a variety of animal proteins for your Japanese pantry. Throw eggs, beef, pork, and shrimp into stir-fries for delicious, meaty flavors. Grilled fish a popular dish for any meal. Grilled eel is eaten on a special occasion as it is very expensive. Try putting it on rice with sansho for a wonderful, satisfying meal. Incorporate eggs into rice breakfasts or egg drop soup. The sky’s the limit with animal proteins — cook them with veggies and rice, adding sauces, dips and spices to create complex meals.
30. Green Tea
Green tea is a delicious drink with less caffeine than black tea or coffee. Have hot or iced green tea on its own, or sweeten it with sugar or honey. You could also try matcha, a bright green, slightly bitter powder made from green tea that you can mix with milk or include in smoothies. Matcha and green tea make for a refreshing start to any day and a relaxing drink to end a great meal.
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