Japanese Cooking Tips for Beginners

If you want to try Japanese cooking at home you must understand the concept of home cooking Japanese style. Japanese food has variety, balance, seasonality, and attention to detail at its heart. Food is taken very seriously because it plays a big part in everyday life.

japanese food

If you have access to a Japanese online store, the following tips will help you make the best use of any ingredients available.

Stock Up With Basic Japanese Staples

Building up your store cupboard is a good place to start, whatever style of cooking you’re trying.

When you’re cooking Japanese food, key staples include noodles and rice. Essential condiments, spices, and dry goods include dashi (soup stock), soy sauce, miso, sake, and rice vinegar. These tend to be used in different combinations to form fundamental Japanese flavours.

Other useful ingredients to include are sesame seeds, Japanese mayonnaise, sesame oil, kombu kelp, katsuobushi (bonito flakes), and shiitake mushrooms.

Alternatives for Hard-to-Find Ingredients

There are likely going to be some ingredients you struggle to find. It’s not too much of a problem, because there are generally substitutions you can make.

Try not to be intimidated by foreign-sounding ingredients. Unless they’re key, you can probably make do with produce that is available.

If there are recipes that feature meat, try them out using other proteins. There’s plenty of flexibility for vegans and vegetarians.

Prepping and Shopping

You’ll find meal planning very helpful if you’re cooking Japanese food regularly. Start by planning for 3-4 main meals as this will determine the ingredients you need for the week.

There are plenty of list-making apps you can use or take the old-fashioned route and use a pen and a piece of paper.

When you get home from your weekly shop, organize your refrigerator so you can see the ingredients easily. This should ensure they get used before rotting away.

The whole idea of planning is to give yourself some flexibility and plan enough so you’re not wasting food.

Cooking Tools

Some must-have tools that are essential for Japanese cooking include:

  • Rice cooker: This is a great time saver and very convenient to have if you’re planning to cook Japanese meals regularly.
  • Frying pans: These are essential for stir-frying, grilling, pan-frying, and making Japanese-western pasta dishes.
  • Pots: You’ll need a variety of these for making dashi (Japanese soup stock), miso soup, simmering dishes, and making sauces.

Other good-to-have tools include:

  • Wok
  • Griddle pan
  • Sushi-making kit
  • Donabe (Japanese earthenware pot)
  • Portable butane stove that you’ll use for making hot pots
  • Pressure cooker

Don’t rush out and buy everything at once. Start with the must-haves and then build on what you’ve got as you gain more experience.

Knife Skills

Japanese cooking requires a lot of chopping, mincing, and slicing and if your knife skills are good, you’ll work very efficiently in the kitchen.

When you’re cutting up ingredients, aim for an even, uniform size because this ensures everything cooks evenly.

Heat and Oil Temperature Control

Heat and oil determine the food’s texture so it’s important to get it right. Here are a few quick tips:

  • Use the right oil
  • Make sure your ingredients are dry
  • Check your pan is hot enough before adding the ingredients
  • If you’re deep frying, use a thermometer

Flavour Balance

People often describe Japanese food as very delicate while at the same time, full of umami.

To achieve umami, Japanese cooking relies on a few important ingredients that include soy sauce, sake, mirin, miso, bonito flakes, kombu, and dried shiitake mushrooms.

The ultimate umami flavour works best when you combine it with sweet, salty, smoky, sour, and bitter basic tastes.

Japanese food also focuses on the enjoyment of natural flavours. They must come through rather than being overpowered by salt, sugar, soy sauce, and various other seasonings.

Food presentation

Food presentation is what probably stands out the most in terms of Japanese food. It’s not just about how you arrange the dish on a plate. It starts with how the ingredients are prepared, includes temperature control, and transferring cooked food to a dish.

There are no strict rules to follow, but here are a few pointers:

  • Study images of recipes you find appealing
  • Use bowls and plates that have simple designs and earth-tone colours
  • Do be tempted to put too much on a plate
  • Toppings and garnishes create added colour and dimension

Practice, Practice, and Practice Some More

Finally, and most important of all, get in as much practice as you can. The more time you spend in the kitchen cooking Japanese dishes, the more confident you’ll become.

You’re going to make mistakes and fail along the way. Look at them as valuable lessons and opportunities to learn. You won’t become a good Japanese cook overnight. It takes years of practice, just like any other skill.





About Joel Levy 2552 Articles
Editor-In-Chief at Toronto Guardian. Photographer and Writer for Toronto Guardian and Joel Levy Photography