Stocking a Japanese Pantry
When making Japanese cuisine at home, simple doesn't always mean quick and easy. With all the washing, cleaning, chopping, cooking, arranging and garnishing, the preparation of many Japanese dishes can be very labor intensive. And the amount of work that goes into a traditional Japanese meal is the same, whether you make it with cheap, inferior ingredients or costly top-quality ones. Therefore, it is always important to buy the freshest and very best products you can afford to ensure that your labor of love doesn't end up a big disappointment because you tried to cut corners. So don't skimp. Buy the best!
Where to Look
If you live in a large metropolitan area, you should have no problem locating an Asian grocery, if not several of them, one or more of which may specialize exclusively in Japanese foods. If you live in the suburbs or in a rural area, your quest may be a little more difficult. You might have to drive into the city to find the things you need, although many upscale grocery stores and gourmet food shops in smaller towns often carry a limited inventory of Japanese ingredients. If there is a sushi bar in your town, you might consider asking the proprietor to give you the names of his suppliers, or even to sell you small quantities of his bulk ingredients. Of course, buying local is always your best bet, since you can examine the quality of the ingredients and compare products. But in a pinch, it's also possible to order the basics online at one of the following websites:
Seagull-NY - This site offers quite a wide selection of hard-to-find Japanese ingredients at reasonable prices
Ethnic Grocer - Offers a reasonably good selection of Japanese ingredients at fair market prices, but with several conspicuous omissions.
Cooking.com - Offers a limited supply of basic Japanese ingredients.
What to Keep on Hand
If you plan to cook traditional Japanese cuisine on a regular basis, there are several items with a very long shelf life that you may want to keep on hand. Those ingredients include:
A mild soy sauce such as Takara, or Kikkoman. Beware of cheap soy sauces, as they may tend to be thick, heavy and overly salty. Soy sauce keeps indefinitely at room temperature in a tightly sealed container.
Pickled Ginger, available in jars, bottles and occasionally in plastic containers in the produce section. Keeps indefinitely in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator. Just be sure that the ginger is fully immersed in the rice wine vinegar.
Wasabi, available in prepared form in small, squeezable tubes, or in powdered form to mix with water into a soft paste. Keeps indefinitely in an airtight, bug proof container. (Believe it or not, grain moths love the stuff.)
Sesame seeds, available in the spice and baking ingredients section of your grocery store. Japanese markets also carry a black, toasted variety. Will keep indefinitely in a sealed container in the refrigerator. Untoasted sesame seeds tend to go rancid at room temperature and are also a tasty target for grain moths.
Sesame oil also goes rancid if left unrefrigerated, but will keep indefinitely at cooler temperatures in a tightly sealed container, although it does tend to become viscous and may need to warm up a bit before use.
Dried seaweed of all types keeps indefinitely in sealed bags or containers, but is probably best kept in the fridge to prevent unwelcome pests. Some cats love nori.
Katsuo, flakes of dried bonito will keep indefinitely in sealed bags or containers and should also be kept in the fridge just to be sure. Of course, they're so tasty and versatile, chances are they won't last long enough to spoil.
Rice wine vinegar, like all vinegars, will keep indefinitely at room temperature, but would best be kept in the fridge with the rest of your Japanese ingredients.
Mirin, sweet cooking sake, also has an indefinite shelf life in the refrigerator.
Miso, savory soybean paste available in both red and white, does have a somewhat limited shelf life, but will keep for several months in a sealed container in the refrigerator. White miso is creamy and mild, while red miso is heavier, richer and more savory. They're virtually interchangeable in recipes, so choose according to your own taste. Beware however, that miso often contains MSG, so read the ingredient label if you're sensitive or allergic.
Noodles are also a good buy-ahead staple. So if you find a not-so-nearby source of high quality ramen or dry soba noodles, feel free to buy several packages. Udon, however, often comes in sealed packages, pre-cooked and ready to heat and serve. You should find an expiration date somewhere on the package.
Rice can also be purchased in large quantities and stored for long periods of time. Be aware however, that you will get the best results if you buy Japanese rice, and for making sushi in particular, if you purchase rice specifically intended for that purpose. Of course much of the outcome depends on the cooking process, however, sushi rice tends to be a little more sticky than the other varieties and therefore holds together better for nigiri and makizushi.
Sembei crackers are a tasty little starter for any Japanese meal. They come in dozens of varieties, from bite-sized bits and nori-wrapped nibbles, to large, crunchy rounds. They're wonderful to munch while you're cooking, or to keep your guests from getting too restless if dinner is a little delayed. They come in airtight bags and will keep indefinitely at room temperature.
What to Buy Absolutely Fresh
For the best outcome of your culinary efforts, try to shop for your fresh ingredients on the day before you plan to cook, or even on the same day if time allows, especially for the fish if you plan to serve it raw. It's even a good idea to check with the proprietor of your local fish market or your supermarket butcher a few days ahead to request that he set aside his best cuts for you. Always avoid frozen ingredients, and use them only if you can't find fresh, and only if you plan to cook them.
Leafy vegetables can become limp and dehydrated in the refrigerator overnight if not stored properly, and although tofu keeps for weeks in its original sealed package, it goes bad very quickly once it's been opened.
Remember, buy only the freshest and the best, and serve it as soon as possible.