Eat Good Food

Understanding Japanese Pantry Essentials

Understanding Japanese pantry essentials from kombu to shio koji will help you enjoy exploring that country’s rich culinary heritage.

From beautiful and elevated kaiseki cuisine to simple yakitori, the core philosophy for serious cooks has long remained the same: coaxing the best flavor out of high-quality seasonal ingredients.

Since opening our store in April 2013 with a selection of donabes (Japanese clay cooking pots), we have dedicated ourselves to exploring the world of Japanese cookery, while expanding our offering of high quality Japanese pantry essentials.

Many of our products are sourced directly from an eighth generation dashi shop in Tokyo, Yagicho-Honten, as well as other Japanese producers with histories of careful craftsmanship, pristine ingredients, and respect for tradition.

Building on our post Umami in the Japanese Pantry, here is our selection of essential ingredients and some of the the products we offer from our favorite artisan producers.

An essential ingredient in Japanese cooking, dried shiitake mushrooms have an intensely earthy, woody, umami flavor that brings a savory note to broths and sauces. Dried shiitakes are often used for making vegetarian dashi broth.

We source donko (high-grade log-grown) mushrooms from Yagicho-Honten for their superior aroma, flavor, and texture.

Dried, smoked, and fermented skipjack loin that has been shaved, the papery, pinkish-brown flakes known as katsuobushi, or bonito, are just as essential to dashi as kombu. The slightly smoky, fragrant flakes are also used as a topping on such hot dishes as fried tofu, where they’ll flutter as if alive, or added to cold dishes for a bit of texture and aroma.  

We source katsuobushi made in Makurazaki, Kagoshima from Yagicho-Honten.

A type of mold, koji is a live culture traditionally used in a wide variety of Japanese foods such as soy sauce, mirin, miso, and sake. Grains are inoculated with koji in order to start fermentation, the most common form being rice koji.

Shio-koji (rice koji with salt), used as an all-purpose seasoning, works wonders in any style of cooking, as a marinade to tenderize chicken or fish, or as an ingredient to flavor sauces.

Shio koji, made by Aedan Foods in San Francisco, is available in our Larder cooler.

A sweet cooking wine made by fermenting steamed glutinous rice with shochu (a Japanese distilled spirit), mirin adds sweetness and a subtle sake-like flavor to sauces and glazes.

A fermented paste made from soybeans, koji, and salt, miso is one of the most important traditional staples in Japanese cooking. Cooked soybeans are mashed and fermented with salt and koji before being aged.

There are many types of miso. The brand we carry at SHED is made in San Francisco by Aedan Foods, and is available in our Larder cooler.

Rice (kome when uncooked; gohan when cooked) is the staple grain of Japanese cooking and is included in most meals. Short-grained, sticky rice is the most widely consumed.

We carry both white and brown Kokuho Rose short grain rice grown by Koda Farms in California.

An essential seasoning in Japanese cuisine, rice vinegar is a fermented product made from rice, koji, and water. Japanese rice vinegar tends to be pale in color, and is much less acidic than Western vinegars.

• White Rice Vinegar
pure white-rice vinegar is made from house-brewed sake using local, organic rice. The company has been using the same seed vinegar recipe since 1930. It is made in Aya, a town in the Miyazaki Prefecture known for its water, lush laurel forests, and organic agriculture.

• Brown Rice Vinegar
Iio Jozo is a 123 year old vinegar brewery located just outside the seaside town of Miyazu. To make brown rice vinegar, Iio Jozo uses approximately equal parts sake, water and vinegar mother. It takes about 100 days to ferment the sake into vinegar, which is then aged 8 months for a more rounded, appealing flavor.

Fragrant and nutty, toasted sesame oil is used primarily as a flavoring agent. It’s used in dressings, marinades, noodles, and stir-fried dishes, and sometimes a small amount is added to frying oil to impart flavor.

Wadaman Co., Ltd. is located in Osaka and has been a sesame manufacturer for more than 130 years. With a light golden color, their organic golden sesame oil has a fresh roasted nutty quality; the organic black sesame oil has the thick aroma of freshly ground almonds, cacao, and sesame.

As a mountainous island nation with a relatively small landmass for growing food, Japan has traditionally harvested and dried many types of sea vegetables. Here are some of the seaweeds important to Japanese cuisine.

• Kombu (konbu)
Naturally high in glutamates (umami flavor), kombu is dried sea kelp used to flavor dashi broth. Harvested off the coast of Northern Japan, kombu grows in very cold water.

Large, intact pieces are only found in specialty shops such as Yagicho-Honten. Our rishiri and hidaka kombus are harvested in the Rishiri and Rausu peninsulas of Hokkaido.

• Nori
A seaweed that is widely used in Japanese cuisine as a seasoning and to wrap rice balls and sushi. Varieties include yaki nori (dry-roasted), ajitsuke nori (seasoned and roasted) and tsukudani nori (wet-seasoned).

• Wakame
Wakame is one of the most popular and common seaweeds used in Japanese cooking. Most often sold either salted or dried, the long, slippery leaves are reconstituted in water or broth and often eaten in soups (such as miso) or salads.

Black, white, and golden sesame seeds are used widely in Japanese cooking as a seasoning and garnish in sweet and savory dishes. Rich and nutty, sesame seeds are used to flavor sushi, salad dressings, baked goods, ice cream, rice, and ramen.

Also called shoyu, soy sauce is the most important condiment and seasoning in Japanese cooking. Brewed from soybeans, wheat, water, and salt, and aged for a few months to several years, the best-flavored soy sauces have no additives and should be kept refrigerated.

We offer several types of shoyu at SHED:
• Yugeta Shoyu has been making double-brewed soy sauce since 1923 just outside Tokyo. It is naturally brewed using only Japan-grown wheat and soybeans.

• Sakura Cherry Blossom Shoyu is made in Kyoto with white shoyu that has been infused with preserved cherry blossoms. Aged for one year, the delicate flavor is perfect for marinating or topping sashimi.

• Black Garlic Shoyu, also made in Kyoto, follows traditions dating back 3,000 years, while introducing new ingredients to produce an exceptional product. With tasting notes of fig, raisin, molasses, and fermented garlic, this shoyu can stand alone for finishing dishes, or add earthy flavor to vegetable stir fries and vinaigrettes.

A savory and salty Japanese seasoning used to enliven rice, furikake is typically a dry mixture of ingredients such as dried fish, sesame seeds and seaweed. It can be used in Japanese cooking for pickling foods and for onigiri (rice balls). We source a sesame furikake that has been soaked and dried in three flavors – yuzu, plum, and wasabi – from Yagicho-Honten.

Shichimi Togarashi
Shichimi togarashi is a Japanese spice mixture, dating back to the 17th century. A blend of orange zest, black sesame, sesame, poppy seeds, Szechuan pepper, chili flake, nori, and citric acid it is used to enhance the flavor of noodles, grilled meats, udon, and vegetables. We love playing with this “common” spice in unexpected ways. Try sprinkling some on top of avocado toast, ahi tuna, or use as a finishing pepper on a tangy, soft goat cheese.

Shiso (Perilla)
A unique, citrusy, peppery, minty herb that is one of the most commonly used in Japanese cooking, shiso is both red and green. The red is commonly used to flavor and color pickles, like umeboshi, or pickled plums and is a component of our SHED Shiso Salt. The green leaf is used to season and garnish many dishes, such as sushi and sashimi, tempura, salads, and noodles.

Sweet, sour, and supremely salty, umeboshi (fermented plums) are a staple of Japanese diets. Whether eaten whole or ground into paste, the umami-rich umeboshi lend complexity and oomph to rice dishes eaten throughout the day.

Umeboshi vinegar (also called ume plum vinegar) is the by-product of the umeboshi-making process. Traditionally the ume are dried and then preserved in a salt brine with purple perilla (shiso) leaves that add a bright red color. The ume fruits are pressed and the liquid that results is bottled up for use as a condiment. The vinegar is very salty, with a sour, fruity flavor.

At SHED, we offer Yume Boshi from California. This red plum vinegar is perfect for sprinkling on steamed vegetables or for use in salad dressings.

We’ll be adding to our roster as new essentials become available. Did we miss any of your favorites? Let us know in the comments!

Eat Good Food

Umami in the Japanese Pantry

umami japanese pantry

The so-called fifth taste after sweet, sour, bitter, and salty — umami is an essential ingredient in Japanese food and in the Japanese pantry.

Here are a few of our favorite umami-rich Japanese pantry items. We’ve also included a recipe for homemade dashi from chef and author Sonoko Sakai!

Bonito flakes
Smoked, dried, and cured bonito (skipjack tuna) flakes are used to make dashi (see below) and as a seasoning and topping in many other dishes.

Kombu (konbu)
Kombu grows in very cold water off the coast of Northern Japan. Naturally high in glutamates (umami), this dried sea kelp is a fundamental flavor component of dashi broth.

A flavorful, healthy paste that can be used in a host of ways from miso soup to veggie dip, dressings, and marinades, miso is created by fermenting fresh koji (rice inoculated with a special strain of mold) with soybeans, barley, or chickpeas.

Soy sauce
Also called shoyu, soy sauce is the most important condiment and seasoning in Japanese cooking. Soy sauce is extracted from a fermented paste made from soybeans, wheat, salt, and yeast. There are several primary types of soy sauce, the most popular and widely available in the West being koikuchi— the familiar, dark, salty sauce.

Tamari shoyu is a type of soy sauce that is often (but not always) made without wheat, making it safe for the gluten-intolerant. Tamari has a complex, rounder, and more balanced flavor than other soy sauce varieties.

A sour fruit similar to plum and apricot that has been sun-dried, salted, and pickled with vinegar and red shiso leaves. Often eaten with rice and miso for breakfast in Japan. Learn how to make umeboshi in our Preserve the Season section.

A fundamental Japanese soup and cooking stock. Made of kombu (dashikonbu), and katsuobushi (bonito flakes), dashi forms the base for miso soup, clear broth, noodle broth, and many kinds of simmering liquids. Read more about dashi in this conversation with Mamiko Nishiyama, owner of Tokyo’s Yagicho-Honten dashi shop.

Recipe: Make Your Own Dashi

Dashi forms the base of miso soup as well as other healthful one-pot dishes. Here’s a delicious recipe from our friend Sonoko Sakai.

Makes 4 half-cup servings of stock

4 cups water
4 cups of loosely packed bonito flakes
One 3-inch piece of kombu (konbu) seaweed

Using scissors, make several crosswise cuts in the konbu. This helps to extract the flavor during cooking.

Place kombu and water in medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat until water almost boils. Remove kombu just before water boils to avoid fishy odor.

Once water boils, turn off heat and add bonito flakes. Do not stir – let stand for 3-5 minutes to let the flakes steep. Then strain the dashi through a very fine-mesh sieve or a sieve lined with cheesecloth or paper towel.

To avoid clouding the dashi, do not stir or press the bonito flakes.

Discard the bonito flakes and kombu or cook them in 4 cups of water to make a secondary dashi.

Slice the leftover kombu and use it in salads and pickles to add umami flavor.

Dashi will keep fresh for 3-5 days in the refrigerator.

Preserve the Season

Making Umeboshi

Making umeboshi is a simple and satisfying exercise and a lovely way to save the season.

Umeboshi are salted sour plums made from ume, a Japanese fruit related to the apricot family. Long regarded as a tonic, they are part of the traditional Japanese breakfast.

Ume ripen quickly, so look for them in early June and harvest before they turn yellow.

Here in the U.S., ume trees are abundant in areas settled by Japanese immigrants in the early 1900s, including California, Washington, and Oregon. A more common find at the farmers’ market, shiro plums can be substituted for ume. (Shiro are also well-suited for making plum wine.)

Umeboshi improve with age as they continue to ferment, and author Nancy Singleton Hachisu (Preserving the Japanese Way) says that she usually doesn’t start eating hers until at least one year has elapsed.

Her recipe, adapted below, results in umeboshi that can be enjoyed straight out of the jar with hot teas or rice dishes.

Yields 5 pounds

10 pounds sour plums — ume or shiro variety
13 ounces coarse sea salt (8% of the weight of the ume)
Salted red shiso leaves (optional)

Place the ume in a pail and run cold water over them to fill. Soak overnight in a cool spot.

Pour off the water the following day (be mindful- you can reserve and reuse the water). Using a large, wide-mouth wooden, ceramic, or glass jar, start with a layer of coarse salt, cover with a layer of ume plums, then add a bit of the shiso. Repeat the salt-ume-shiso layers, until the ume are used up.

Place a clean cotton towel across the surface of the salted ume and drape it down the sides of the tub. Place a lid that drops down into the jar on top of the sheet and weight with rocks or similar heavy items equaling the weight of the ume.

Store these salt-weighted ume in a cool dark spot, but check after 2 or 3 days to make sure the brine has surfaced. If it has not, massage any residual bottom salt up to the top fruit.

The ume should remain in the brine for several weeks, but check periodically to make sure no mold is forming (if it has, pick the mold off carefully).

After brining for at least 3 weeks (2 weeks for small ume), dry the ume for 3 days in the bright sunlight on bamboo or rattan mats (or the equivalent) stretched across a wooden frame for good air circulation.


On the last day of drying, strain the brine leftover in the bottom of the salting tub through a fine-mesh strainer and store in a clean jar or bottle to use for another application. It makes an excellent plum vinegar.

Pack the dried umeboshi in a re-sealable gallon-sized freezer bags or a glass jar or ceramic crock with a tight fitting lid. A dark, syrupy liquid will pool at the bottom of the container; don’t discard as it aids in the long-term preservation of umeboshi.

Umeboshi keep indefinitely at room temperature packed in an airtight container.