A sample Japanese pantry

A sample Japanese pantry

There’s a difference between the contents of this list and what a Japanese household would keep on hand. For example, a Japanese family would likely buy fresh shiitake rather than dried in most cases, though dried shiitake would also have a place for stock making because of its more intense flavor. However, this list was designed for an American household that wants to sometimes cook Japanese food, and emphasizes things that live happily in a corner of a cupboard until you need them rather than ingredients you have to buy fresh in bulk and use daily.

Essentials to keep on hand

If you have some of each of these on hand, you can make a lot of Japanese food without any trouble at all.


  • Japanese style short grain rice
    Nishiki and Botan Calrose are two varieties commonly available in the US. Jasmine or basmati or other long-grain American-style rice won’t work for Japanese cooking because it cooks differently and has a different texture and won’t behave the same way when you try to shape it.

  • Dried soba noodles
    Unlike the ten-for-a-dollar prepackaged ramen that bears no resemblance to the real stuff, dried soba noodles are easy to find and comparable to the fresh variety. (You can’t find dried udon that bears a resemblance to the real stuff, though – it suffers from ramen syndrome. There are little plastic cellophane packages of fresh precooked udon available; they last a few weeks, but not indefinitely. Dried soba noodles can live in a corner of your pantry until you’re ready for them.)

  • Soy sauce (shoyu)
    Kikkoman and Yamasa are two Japanese varieties. Chinese varieties have different strengths and different nuances and I don’t know them as well. Get the regular kind, not the "reduced salt" kind – basically they add water and black food coloring to make it reduced salt; if that’s what you want, save the money and the food coloring and use less soy sauce! Light vs dark is mostly a cosmetic difference, though sometimes the light varieties can be saltier. Dark soy sauce is the most commonly used variety.

  • Green tea (sencha)
    I’m not the teabag-police; the things are darn handy. The Japanese also sell fill-your-own teabags that I’ve bought at Am-ko and purloined for use in making sweet milky orange Thai iced tea (all of which are thoughts that would unnerve a Japanese tea purist). If you’ve got a good strainer, there’s something to be said for letting the leaves float around unhindered in the hot water though; you really do get more of the flavor out of them. In the end, though, freshness is more important than bagness. It’s better to get smaller packages more often than larger packages once in a blue moon.

Building blocks

  • Miso
    Shiro-miso (white) is the mildest kind; aka-miso (red) is stronger, and the darker the miso color is, the stronger it is. It keeps for several months in the refrigerator as long as you keep the container sealed airtight, and it keeps for longer than that if you keep it in the freezer.

  • Rice vinegar
    If you don’t want to have to adjust the sugar level yourself, you can get it pre-seasoned; I haven’t heard of any Japanese rice vinegar recipes that don’t also involve at least some sugar. Otherwise, you can get it unseasoned and season it yourself to taste.

  • Mirin or honteri and/or sake
    Mirin is sweetened lower-alcohol rice wine used for cooking; honteri is another variation of it, often with less alcohol than mirin, sometimes with no alcohol at all. Sake is alcohol used for both cooking and drinking. It’s fairly strong. You used to have to buy big 750-ml bottles of it and then have it sitting around going stale, but fortunately World Market now carries little individual glass jars of the stuff made by Gekkeikan with about 3/4 cup of sake, which will last you through several recipes but not be hanging around forever. The mirin and honteri, on the other hand, does store for months to years in the refrigerator without losing its flavor; sake itself, being higher in alcohol, tends to go stale more quickly.

  • Wakame
    You can get a small package of dried wakame for about a dollar or two. The stuff expands exponentially when reconstituted. If you don’t like the briny scent of it, you can substitute spinach on an approximately one-for-one ratio, as described below.

  • Nori
    Packets of ten or twenty sheets are available for a couple of dollars. You can use them as sheets or crumble them up to make ao-nori substitute for sprinkling as furikake, in soups, or on okonomiyaki. If you can find an appropriately-sized tin or tupperware, keep the nori in that (and toss any of those extra silicon packets in with it to keep it dry.)

  • Hon-dashi granules
    When you don’t have hours to make your soup stock and want a warm bowl of soup in a few minutes, these do the trick. Once you’ve opened a package, reseal it and put it in the refrigerator in an airtight container to keep its flavor. (Small pickle jars or baby-food jars are handy for this.)

  • Shichimi-togarashi / nanami-togarashi
    When you don’t want to deal with seeding and grinding your own dragon’s-tooth peppers.
    Adds a spark that’s different than wasabi.

  • Sesame seeds
    Great for both garnish and flavoring. If you’re feeling extravagant, get black, white, and soy-roasted varieties.

  • Furikake
    Pick a flavor and keep a jar on hand and you’ll have onigiri whenever you like, as well as a way to liven up a pile of rice.

  • A can or two of prepared fish
    Whether you prefer saba, sanma, ika, unagi, or whatever, the little tins of already-cooked-and-marinated fish are great for a fast no-hassle donburi or bento assembly, as described under umeboshi below.

  • Shelf-stable tofu
    It used to be that you could only find big vats of tofu with water you had to change daily and which really needed to be eaten within 48 hours of opening. That’s not the case anymore – Mori-nu sells little brick-boxes that are hermetically sealed and can survive just fine on a cupboard shelf for several months (with a use-by date clearly stamped on the end). Most if not all of the Champaign-Urbana-area Asian groceries carry these, and I believe so do some of the American groceries like Meijer and Schnucks. Of course, once you open the brick, you still have to change the water daily and use within a couple of days – but it’s a lot easier to do with a brick that comes with two or three servings rather than a dozen servings.

  • Umeboshi
    If you like them, get a little package and tuck it in the fridge. (I recommend the shiso kind; the pale kind is too salty in my opinion. Also, the red cabbage colored version doesn’t ‘bleed’ color into the rice as much as the food coloring version does.) Like most pickles, they keep for a long time in the refrigerator, and a bowl of miso, a bowl of rice with a piece of fish and umeboshi, and a cup of hot green tea is simple and quick anytime (particularly if you keep some precooked rice in the freezer; if you happen to also have any edamame or spinach in the freezer from the nice-options list, so much the better).

  • Wasabi powder
    Keep the tin well sealed and dry and it’ll last quite a while.
    When you want it, mix a spoonful with a few drops of water and let it rest a few minutes.

Nice extras to have around

These are either ingredients that aren’t absolutely essential to more than half of Japanese recipes or they don’t store as long, unlike the above which generally store from months to indefinitely.

  • Frozen shelled edamame
    Instant vegetable okazu (side dish) whenever you like. Fiber, protein, vitamins, and they even taste good out of the freezer, unlike, say, peas or green beans.

  • Frozen spinach
    When you’ve got fresh spinach and free time, feel free to go through the full wash-rewash-re-rewash-chop-parboil-strain-etc dance; the rest of the time, frozen spinach (in water, not butter sauce) is a quick substitution for fresh spinach in most Japanese recipes. And if you don’t like the briny scent of seaweed, you can also substitute it for wakame to reduce the ocean-taste. (It doesn’t work for nori or konbu, though.)

  • Dried shiitake mushrooms
    They store well, reconstitute quickly, and are a whole lot cheaper than fresh. In addition, their flavor is more intense, and the liquid they soak in can be strained and used as a flavoring by itself. (Shiitake and konbu dashi is the most frequent all-vegan substitute for regular dashi.)

  • Gari (pink thin-sliced pickled ginger) and/or beni-shoga (red julienned pickled ginger)
    Which one you prefer depends on whether you like making sushi or okonomiyaki and yakisoba more often. Gari suits sushi because it’s delicate and crisp; the stronger flavor of the beni-shoga stands up to the heavier taste of fried food like okonomiyaki, yakisoba, tempura, teriyaki, etc. Of course, it’s all personal preference in the end… I keep some of each on hand. There’s an expiration date on the packages, but as far as I can tell the stuff won’t go bad per se, just lose some of its flavor. It’s in such a strongly acidic vinegar solution that it’s soundly in the ‘pickle that’s nearly impossible to kill’ category in terms of preservation.

  • Takuan
    In terms of how often this shows up with a
    donburi meal, it really belongs in the essentials category. However, I rarely keep it on hand because it takes me so darn long to go through a whole one and I don’t have a good storage container to keep it refrigerated in. I’m also not sure what sort of liquid to store it in – seasoned rice vinegar flavors the takuan, but water leaches the flavor out, and I don’t feel like keeping a pot of bran mash under my garbage disposal and praying it doesn’t stink up the entire house… so I tend to only pick up a package when I know there’s a sushi party coming. There are also smaller plastic packages of presliced ones available, and they come in juice; I sometimes transfer the contents of those into an empty pickle jar. Sometimes the cut of those is too delicate for what you want it for, though, and a solid piece of takuan is what you’re after. Also, I tend to go for the non-colored, non-MSG versions just through preference, though the yellow dye is common in Japan (along with other pickles dyed startling blue and orchid and magenta colors – electric magenta isn’t my first thought of color when it comes to substances to put into my mouth, but when in Rome…)
  • Konbu (also spelled kombu depending on which romanization you learned)
    Konbu is a type of seaweed most commonly used for making soup stock; some people eat it, others don’t like the rubber-band-ish texture. (Learn from my mistakes and don’t think "seaweed is seaweed, it calls for konbu but I have nori, close enough for government work." That’s how I invented Dagobah Swamp Ramen by accident when I was first learning to cook Japanese food; the nori disintegrated and turned my bowl of soup into an oozing green sludge… it tasted better than it looked, and would be fabulous for horrifying impressionable trick-or-treaters, but still… it’d be hard for it to have tasted worse than it looked.)
  • Katsuo-bushi
    Along with konbu, this is the other main ingredient in homemade rather than instant dashi. If you take the time to make homemade dashi, it’s fabulous stuff. It also takes multiple hours of work, bringing water to a boil and then cooling it and then reheating it. Me, I just use the instant hon-dashi granules unless I’ve got to make clear soup, and so far I’ve managed to avoid having to make clear soup… Even if you don’t plan to make clear soup, though, get a package of this for sprinkling over your okonomiyaki. You can get a kind that has five small packets inside a larger packet; even the small packets last several servings, so that’s a handy way to keep it fresh between cooking sprees.
  • Mochiko
    This is flour made from sweet glutinous rice (which is different than everyday rice). Sweet glutinous rice is traditionally steamed and pounded into a sticky marshmallow-like substance called mochi for celebrations, most often around New Year’s. However, if you have more respect for your fingers than to allow someone to swing a heavy wooden mallet at your hands while you’ve got your hands in a vat of sticky steamed rice, mochiko is a convenient way to make mochi and dango. It’s also useful in frying (tempura batter) and thickening (mitarashi dango sauce).
  • Can of inarizushi-no-moto (aka abura-age)
    Inari sushi is named for the god of foxes and rice, Inari. Legend has it that foxes like fried sweetened tofu pouches (abura-age tofu); that’s why kitsune soba ("fox noodles") is named the way it is. I’ve heard it has something to do with the little pouches being shaped like a fox’s ear when cut in triangle shapes for soba rather than rectangle shapes for sushi.

  • Can of chestnuts in syrup
    These go into a lot of Japanese desserts, along with koshi-an below. They also go into mixed rice at times.
  • Frozen narutomaki / kamaboko / chikuwa (fish cakes of various shapes)
    Keep a package of these along with some vegetables in the freezer, and you can make great soba or ramen with actual ingredients whenever you like. (Vastly better than the unspeakable ten-for-a-dollar variety…)

Fresh items to be bought when needed

  • Eggs or egg-beaters
  • Daikon (large white mild radish)
  • Green onions
  • Carrots
  • Yuzu or lemon
  • Koshi-an (sweet bean paste) – it’s shelf stable but needs to be used fairly quickly once opened, so have a use in mind for it!