Masterchef champion and Nanban author Tim Anderson talks us through his five essential ingredients in Japanese cooking. If you're new to Japanese cooking, Tim's quick and simple guide tells you what to buy and why to buy it.
1. Dashi powder
Dashi, essentially a light broth made from dried seaweed and fish, is the fundamental flavour in Japanese cookery. Dishes that call for it will be noticeable lacking character and depth if it's omitted, and there's nothing that can really take its place. A stick made from smoked fish will do adequately, but you're better off just getting a pack of dashi powder. It's available at any good East Asian supermarket or from online suppliers, it's inexpensive and it's tremendously convenient. Also, it tastes great on chips. If you buy a single Japanese ingredient, it should be this - or if you're really striving for authenticity and refinement, get the ingredients to make dashi from scratch. (There is a great recipe in Tim's new book Nanban). £3.60 from japancentre.com
2. Miso (paste, not powder)
Miso is a paste made from fermented soybeans, rice, barley and/or other grains, and it has what I think of as a 'complete' flavour: it's salty, umami-rich, sweet and a little sour, with lots of complex aromas running the gamut from fruity to earthy. There are countless varieties depending on the ingredients, types of mould, length of fermentation and texture, but they are generally (and roughly) divided into three main categories:
- White (shiro) miso, made with a high proportion of white rice, tends to be light, sweet, salty and creamy tasting. The lighter colour of the white miso indicates that it's young and fresh - the flavour is more akin to a tangy chèvre than, say, a very old cave-aged Gruyère.
- Red (aka) miso is darker in colour than shiro miso, sometimes because of the ingredients used (such as brown rice or red beans), but more often because it has been aged for longer. Over time, amino acids and sugars in the miso break down and react to become darker, more aromatic and unusual compounds, giving it a richer, more complex flavour. Take to an extreme, red miso can become a deep, chocolaty brown, as in the famous Hatcho miso. This delightfully rich miso has flavours of balsamic vinegar, Marmite, cocoa and toast.
- 'Mixed' (awase) miso is a catch-all category that is somewhere between white and red, typically capturing the best of both worlds - the light, tangy, fruity freshness of white miso and the lingering caramelly umami of red miso. This is the one I'd recommend you buy as I think it is the most versatile. I should note that you may come across miso soup powder in the supermarket. This stuff's not bad, but it isn't quite right as a substitute for actual miso paste, since it's the wrong consistency and it has other flavours in it. Also, when choosing a miso paste, try not to choose any that say they have dashi added - these are meant for stirring into hot water for a quick soup, but they'll add a fishy flavour to other dishes that call for plain miso. This would be especially unwelcome in something like the miso caramel ice cream recipe in Nanban! £12.95 from finefoodspecialist.co.uk
Mirin is a sweet cooking liquor, often described as 'sweet sake', but it's actually closer to a sweetened, diluted shochu. It brings a mellow, tangy, honey-sweet flavour to dishes, not far off white port. If you've bought shochu, you can use that in its place (just add a little water and sugar), but mirin is easy to find and not very expensive, so you may as well get some. It's very versatile, and a must-have for most traditional Japanese recipes. £2.85 from waiyeehong.com
4. Shoyu (soy sauce)
Soy sauce comes in many, many forms, far beyond the 'light' and 'dark' varieties found at most supermarkets. But ignore the faux-Chinese stuff - most of the mainstream brands are just salty vinegar dyed brown and laced with MSG (check the ingredients if you don't believe me!). What you should get is good quality shoyu, the most basic and versatile type of Japanese soy sauce - Kikkoman is a good brand that's widely available, with a nice balance of richness, salt and tang. If you're gluten free, get tamari - the flavour is a little richer because it's not brewed with wheat, but it's a good all-purpose substitute. Low-sodium shoyu tend to be surprisingly good as well. £2.95 from souschef.co.uk
5. Rice vinegar
Rice vinegar (kome-zu) brings a crisp, sweet acidity to brighten up all sorts of dishes, and, like dashi, it will bring a distinctly 'Japanese' flavour to your cooking. You can substitute white wine or cider vinegar, but rice vinegar is widely available at large supermarkets these days. I prefer its smoother, cleaner flavour to any alternatives and generally use it as my go-to acidifier in any kind of cooking, not just Japanese. You may also want to try genmai-su, brown rice vinegar, which has a slightly richer flavour and is generally preferred by top-tier sushi chefs. £2.55 from orientalmart.co.uk