The traditional flavors of Japan go beyond what’s created in the kitchen. To discover what makes them so unique you need to take to the land. These traditions begin in home vegetable gardens and farms where plants are tenderly cultivated to yield the purest flavors. Many ingredients require particular care and attention to flourish like wasabi, which needs constant fresh flowing water to grow, or yuzu that takes over 10 years to grow fruit from seed. Here’s just a snapshot of what it takes to create Japan’s most recognizable flavors!
Japan’s oldest written records of wasabi date all the way back to the 8th century CE. This plant grows naturally in stream beds where it can receive a constant supply of fresh water. This finicky plant does not thrive in mass cultivation, as it’s difficult to recreate its natural habitat. To create wasabi’s signature paste, the plant’s rhizome (subterranean stem) is grated against a metal oroshigane (おろし金) grater that produces fine grating or more traditionally, a paddle with one end covered in dried shark skin. After 15 minutes of being prepared, fresh wasabi paste begins to lose its flavor. To preserve the flavor longer, it’s often processed into a dried powder, or put into airtight tubes. Outside Japan, it is much harder to find real wasabi and restaurants will substitute real wasabi for a mixture of horseradish, starch, mustard, and food coloring or spinach powder. For a snack with real wasabi kick, check out Wasabi no Kiwame Rice Crackers.
Azuki is Japan’s second most beloved bean, right after the soybean. Every year, japan consumes more than 140,000 tons of the sweet red bean. This bean is picky about what temperature it will grow in, requiring soil temperatures of 6°-10°C (30°-34°F) for germination, and temperatures of 15°-30°C (59°-86°F) for growth. While this plant can survive a drought, it cannot withstand frost. After harvest, most of the beans go to red bean paste production and are boiled with sugar to become anko or a similar product like amanatto. As one of Japan's most popular ingredients, it's found its place in a wide variety of treats from wagashi like mochi and monaka to soups like shiruko which inspired this snack.
Japan is one of the largest growers of Yuzu, but patience is required since the tree can take more than 10 years to bear fruit. Once you wait for this plant to spread it leaves, you’ll find yourself with an evergreen shrub or small tree that’s able to withstand much colder temperatures than most citrus trees. The fruit can range from the size of a small lemon, to a small grapefruit, with uneven yellow skin. Yuzu is very aromatic, making its zest and juice a popular addition for food and drinks. Whether added to tea like in Satsumarche Yuzu Ryokucha Green Tea or shining all on its own like it does in the Candied Yuzu Peel, we can't get enough yuzu.
Simply put, matcha is green tea that has been stone-ground to create a fine, dry green powder. But there’s more to matcha than that. To become matcha, the leaves must be shaded for at least 3 weeks before being harvested, and then only the top-most leaves are selected to become matcha. The leaves are then laid flat, dried in the shade, and the stems are removed before grinding. Stones are used to slowly grind the dry leaves to prevent heat damage during the process. Highly perishable after being created, high-grade matcha is usually only sold in small batches. If you're in the market for matcha and matcha flavored snacks, we have a whole section dedicated to it here.
Shichimi is a blend of spices, usually a combination of red chili pepper, sansho, roasted orange peel, black and white sesame seed, ground ginger, and nori or aonori seaweed. Specific quantities and ingredients vary across manufacturers, but those are the seven basic ingredients. Shichimi has been around since the Edo period, being created in 17th century Edo, now known as Tokyo. One of its main ingredients is sansho, “Japanese Pepper”. The peppercorns turn scarlet and are dried and ground to be used for shichimi. Native to Japan, Wakayama prefecture claims 80% of Japan’s sansho cultivation.The spicy kick from shichimi is totally different from that of wasabi. Try it in the Shichimi Seven Flavor Beans to compare.
Sesame is one of the oldest seasonings known to man. Native to Africa and India, it has proven to be a resilient plant that thrives in many types of soil. Despite its distant origins, Japan has become the largest importer of sesame. It’s a little fuzzy when exactly sesame was first introduced to Japan, but we do know that its importance to Japanese cuisine increased as Buddhism became more influential around the 6th century CE. In Japanese goma means sesame in general, and does not differentiate by color. White sesame tends to have the most mild flavor, while black sesame has a stronger nutty flavor. For many snacks and desserts, black sesame is the favored seed for its intensity.
Kinakoliterally means “yellow flour” but refers specifically to roasted soybean powder. Our earliest records of Kinako in Japanese cuisine come from cookbooks from the late Muromachi period (16th century CE), though soybean production in Japan vastly precedes written record, likely beginning between 5000 and 3000 BCE. To make kinako, soybeans are roasted, often without the skin but not necessarily, and ground to a powder. Although Kinako has a savory, nutty flavor, it’s often used in dessert-like sweets like wagashi, mochi, warabimochi, etc. to add notes of umami.
One of Japan’s most important flavors, dashi is a broth made from water, kombu (dried kelp), and katsuobushi (dried shavings of fermented tuna or bonito). The ingredients are combined and either left cool overnight to slowly steep or heated to expedite the process, and then strained so only the liquid is left. The resulting broth is umami-rich due to the natural presence of certain flavor molecules like sodium inosinate and glutamic acids. Dashi is the go to base for many Japanese soups and is often called for in many other Japanese recipes. Nowadays it’s become uncommon to use homemade dashi, and many people prefer to use store-bought instant-dashi granules that can be added to simmering water for a fast and flavorful soup base. It's an unusual ingredient for a snack, but for our Traditional Flavors of Japan Bokksu we found some very special Dashi Agesen Rice Crackers.
Tonkatsu sauce may be the youngest of the flavors introduced here, only created in 1948, but that doesn’t make it any less traditional in our book! Tonkatsu sauce has become a uniquely Japanese flavor, permeating Japanese cuisine. It is a brown sauce, similar to worcestershire sauce, that is vegetable based, featuring a variety of veggie and fruit purees, along with some acidic elements like vinegar or lemon juice. Every company has their own recipe, but the standard ingredients are generally very similar, and all tonkatsu sauce is vegetarian. It gets its name from tonkatsu meaning breaded pork cutlets, the dish it was originally served with. It’s rare to find tonkatsu in Japan without tonkatsu sauce on it or on the side, and the beloved sweet and sour flavor has become a popular condiment to many fried foods in Japan, and occasionally even to flavor a chip like, ahem, Dondon Yaki.
Originating in China, ramen has become embedded in the Japanese culinary pantheon. The original dish lamien was brought over by chinese immigrants in 1859, according to Yokohama Ramen Museum. The first dedicated ramen shop was opened in Yokohama by Chinese immigrants, featuring the chinese style dish. Over the years, Japan embraced and adapted the dish. Ramen today still uses wheat noodles like the Chinese version and a meat-based broth, but variations in broth, topping, and noodle shape have sprung up across the map. Kyushu for example is famous for Tonkotsu ramen made with pork bone broth, while Hokkaido boasts miso ramen. Japan’s many ramen variations have branched out to include pork, chicken, fish and vegetable broths, with additional flavors coming from shoyu (soy sauce), miso, salt, and other flavored add-ins. Toppings range from tender pork belly, soft or hard-boiled eggs, nori, corn, mushrooms, the list goes on! In 1958, the Chinese-Japanese founder of Nissin Foods, Momofuku Ando, created the first instant ramen, making this time-consuming dish possible to eat within minutes. Try the flavor of this beloved dish with the Koikeya Minit's Stick Potato: Nissin Chicken Ramen.
Kuromitsu is a dark sugar syrup that literally translates to “black honey”. It is similar to molasses, but is thinner and milder. It is made from unrefined kokuto or kurozato sugar, which in the west is often called muscovado sugar. This dark brown, unrefined sugar is combined with water and a small amount of refined sugar and heated until it has melted to a cohesive syrup. Cane sugar, which is the raw ingredient of kokuto, growth in Japan is localized to the southwestern islands of the archipelago where the climate is more tropical. Raw cane sugar is processed by crushing the canes to extract liquid, and boiling down the liquid to remove impurities. After boiling, it is poured into molds to cool and solidify naturally. This traditional process began with cane sugar cultivation in the 17th century and kuromitsu followed soon after. Now Kuromitsu features as a syrup to pair with traditional wagashi like warabimochi and is finding its way to new snacks like Funwari Meijin Mochi Puffs: Black Syrup Kinako and Mochi Chocolate: Kuromitsu Kinako.
Hojicha was developed in the 1920s, in Kyoto. It’s green tea that’s been roasted, thereby altering the color of the leaves, and bringing out a nutty, caramel flavor. Hojicha is typically made with bancha, which are the tea leaves harvested later in the year. The roasting process decreases the amount of caffeine, making it a good choice for evening and right before bed. Hojicha has grown in popularity, climbing near matcha as makers experiment more, adding it to snacks and desserts like Hojicha Latte Mochi Chocolate, Hojicha Langue de Chat and more!
Congrats! You made it all the way to the end of this blog. And to think, this really is just an introduction to the wide variety of Japanese flavors. This post is a continuation of the mini intro we included in our June 2019: Traditional Flavors of Japan Bokksu culture guide. Join us and learn more about Japan through delicious snacks every month!