What are the Japanese Condiments?
Are there as many varieties of condiments as variety of dishes?
The main uses of condiments are to make a dish more appetizing with an appealing aroma, to suppress certain smell of the food, or to prevent food poisoning with their antibacterial properties.
What makes the Japanese use of condiments so unique is that it recognizes the subtle differences in flavors of different ingredients and uses them effectively to fit a particular purpose. A good example is with kabosu, yuzu, and sudachi citrus.
Different condiments are effectively chosen to improve the presentation of a particular dish well as to add health benefit based on their unique colors and flavors. Here are some examples.
Root vegetables are mainly used to add flavor, to mask smell, and to control bacteria.
Wasabi adds different hotness than that of chili peppers. It gives the nasal burning sensation but the burning sensation does not linger. It also refreshes a dish.
Wasabi is one of few condiments which had been traditionally used in the ancient Japanese cooking while many other condiments were introduced to Japan from other countries. Wasabi is known to have been naturalized in Japan as far back as the Nara period (710-794). Therefore, it is clearly distinguishable from the Western varieties of horseradish.
Furthermore, the Japanese horseradish can be separated into two distinct varieties based on how they are grown. Sawa wasabi can only be grown in the cold, clear marshes in the mountains. They are highly prized because it is difficult to grow. It takes several years before they can be harvested. Hata wasabi, on the other hand, is more commonly available because it is easy to grow.
It is possible to grow wasabi year around in a green house. However, the peak season is fall and winter when their hotness is more intense.
In typical households until about 1990, the most common wasabi product was the wasabi powder which is mixed with water to make a paste. Since about 2000, it has become easier to enjoy more authentic fresh wasabi taste at home with an introduction of wasabi paste sold in tubes.
In recent years, they have developed new and different ways to enjoy wasabi; in sorbet, mayonnaise, and salad dressing.
Wasabi has been commonly used with traditional Japanese foods such as soba noodles, ochazuke, and seafood dishes such as sashimi, sushi, and kamaboko fish cakes. Today, it is increasingly used in meat dishes such as steaks as well.
Ginger is often used as a spice in many parts of the world. In Japan, ginger is more commonly considered a condiment.
A year-old oyashoga rhizome is typically used for condiment because it is very fibrous and is difficult to chew. Its hotness is also more intense. Shinshoga ginger is the new growth on the old ginger and can be eaten as food.
Oyashoga ginger’s peak season is September through November. In Japan, oyashoga is more commonly used as a seasoning. To make grilled pork with ginger, pork is marinated in soy sauce and grated ginger. Thin slices of ginger can be added to mask the smell of mackerel when making mackerel stewed in miso sauce.
Grated ginger is used instead of wasabi for bluefish sashimi (mackerel and sardines) which has strong smell.
It is also used in the dipping sauce for tempura.
Ginger is used to make some foods more refreshing in hot weather. It is grated and served with somen noodles and hiyamugi noodles while wasabi is used with soba noodles.
Chopped ginger is called hari shoga and is used in a variety of dishes. For example, it is used as a garnish for stewed fish.
Other root vegetables used as condiments include garlic and grated daikon radish. They are often used with fermented food such as soy sauce and ponzu citrus soy sauce.
Root vegetables are also used in hot pot and shabu shabu sauces.
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Citrus is mainly used to add acidity and aroma to a dish.
Yuzu is a citrus fruit with bright yellow peel and just the right acidity with a refreshing aroma.
Its peel or juice is most commonly used as condiment. The peel can be finely chopped or grated. Half of a yuzu can be served with food. A splash of yuzu juice is used to add flavor. The yuzu citrus harvested in August and September are called green yuzu because of their green peel. These yuzu can also be used as condiments although they are not ripe yet.
Green yuzu has greater acidity and have more refreshing flavor.
Yuzu harvested in November are ripe, are yellow in color, and have more complex aroma.
Yuzu peels are finely chopped (or thinly sliced) and added to soups and ozoni.
A wedge or a half of yuzu is served with grilled fish to add a splash of its juice.
An interesting variation of its use is yuzu miso dressing and yuzu zest & chili pepper paste. In these cases, yuzu is used to add flavor to other seasonings. Yuzu, with its complex aroma, also is used in sauces such as ponzu citrus sauce, shichimi ("seven flavor chili pepper"), salad dressing, and shochu.
Sudachi is the size of a golf ball. They are sourer than yuzu and have less sugar content.
Most of sudachis are grown in Tokushima Prefecture in Shikoku. It is necessary to harvest them while they are still green since they will lose the aroma once they ripen and become yellow. When harvested, they are classified based on their size and their appearance. Regular sudachis have much more intense acidity than those grown in greenhouse. Sudachi also contains more vitamin C than lemons.
Sudachi has similar usage as that of yuzu and kabosu. Because of its smaller size, sudachi is also used as a garnish.
Other citrus fruits used for condiments include kabosu.
They are used mainly to add hotness to a dish.
1. Japanese Prickly Ash
Powdered Japanese prickly ash is often used in Japanese cooking. Eel dishes are almost always served with Japanese prickly ash.
Green Japanese prickly ash peppercorns are harvested before ripening; right after the bloom is gone. A popular use of these peppercorns is to make chirimenzansho with baby sardines. Peels of ripe peppercorns fallen from the trees are made into powder and used as seasoning.
New sprouts and leaves on Japanese prickly ash are called kinome and can be served with sashimi or used as a garnish for grilled fish. Because kinome also has the same unique aroma, it is “slapped” a few times before being placed as a garnish. This garnish is added to a dish right before serving because the aroma last only for a short time.
Other spices include mustard and red peppers. They are typically served with food. Powdered or ground versions are served in a separate jar.
1. Nori (Seaweed)
Red alga, blue-green alga, and green alga are spread thin and sun-dried. These paper-like seaweed products are called itanori.
They are typically finely chopped or roasted then broken into small pieces to be used as toppings for a dish right before serving.
The peak season for wild seaweed is from November to March.
Seaweed is used as a condiment for its rich aroma.
Seaweed can make a dish more appetizing to the Japanese because of its savory aroma. It is served even with non-seafood items such as soba noodles, rice bowls, and onigiri.
Green laver has more intense aroma than itanori. Green laver is different seaweed and is mostly available in a form of fine powder.
Soba noodles cannot be enjoyed the same way without torn roasted nori toppings. Green laver is equally important when serving okonomiyaki savory pancakes and takoyaki octopus dumplings.
There are other seaweeds enjoyed as toppings for rice. They are prepared by simmering in broth and seasoning.
1. Green Onions
Green onions are the first thing that comes to mind when Japanese thinks of condiments.
Naganegi onions and chives are most often used as condiments. They are usually thinly sliced or julienned.
The white part of naganegi onions cut into very thin strips to resemble fine grey hair is called shiraga negi. Their beautiful appearance provides an added benefit as a garnish when served with stewed fish or vegetables.
Generous portion of round sliced green onions are added to soba noodles and udon noodles. They also add flavor and refreshing spiciness to cold tofu dishes and ramen noodle soup.
Green onions go well with wild duck meat. Kamo nanban soba noodle soup is a very popular dish which uses naganegi onions with wild duck meat in hot broth.
Scallions and chives are the varieties of green onions used to add color in stewed dishes and miso soup. They also go well with fish. Negitoro, tuna sashimi tossed with scallions, is a very popular dish.
Vegetables are often used with root vegetables to make condiments. Sometimes, more than one vegetables are combined to make a condiment.
Other vegetables used as condiments include green onions, perilla leaves, and myoga (Japanese ginger). They add spiciness and intense aroma to a dish as well as serve as a garnish.
“Grate Wasabi on Sharkskin Grater with a Smile.
Wasabi’s hotness is more intense when it is grated very finely as its cells break down more. There are graters made of sharkskin, and they are perfect for this purpose.
Metal graters tend to compromise the benefit of wasabi because wasabi reacts with metal, ruining the flavor and stickiness of wasabi.
There is a famous saying among the professionals. “Grate wasabi with a smile!” Grating wasabi with a relaxed hand helps wasabi maintain its flavor better.
”Green Onions Come Riding on Wild Duck’s Back”
This is a saying that every Japanese person knows.
Because green onions and wild ducks go so well with each other, it would be very convenient if they came together that way. It is a metaphor for a very convenient situation.
In the Kanto region, green onions have been traditionally grown covered by a heap of soil. The covered white part of the onion is favored for eating. In the Kansai region, green part of the onion, exposed to the sun, is favored. These historical preferences may have had an influence on their cooking. The people in Kansai use green onions in okonomiyaki savory pancakes and stewed dishes.
It is good to note that some condiments have different names in different parts of the county. In the Kushu region, chili peppers are called kosho which typically refers to white pepper in other parts of the country.
This is evident with yuzu kosho from the Kushu region. This product is made with zest of yuzu citrus and chili pepper, not white pepper.
- Different spices are used according to red, white meat and blue-skinned fish.
- General spices used are grated ginger and green onion, cold and hot noodles each have their own spices.
- In contrast to udon, soba uses grated wasabi and slicked green onion, cold and hot noodles each have their own spices.