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7 underrated Japanese condiments

Whether you know a lot about Japan or not, you probably have heard of condiments like soy sauce, wasabi, miso or teriyaki – you might even use some of these by yourself. However, today I’m not going to tell you about soy sauce or teriyaki: in this post, I’m going to introduce you to some condiments and sauces that are still rather unknown outside of Japan. One sad reason for this is that most of them are unfortunately not widely available outside Japan but I added some links that might help you get them from overseas as well.

Japanese recommend condiments


1. Mentsuyu

Mentsuyu is a ready-made sauce consisting of sugar, soy sauce, mirin and dashi. It has a strong umami flavor. I have tried making tsuyu by myself countless of times but have never managed to get the flavor of the mentsuyu sold in the grocery stories. Ready-made mentsuyu also is very easy to use since you can just pour it in the food without mixing the ingredients yourself – this is probably why this is a must-have in pretty much any Japanese family’s kitchen.

So, what can you use this dark, slightly sweet sauce for? The answer: pretty much anything. You can use it for marinating soft-boiled eggs, add it to noodles or spaghetti, flavor the meat or fish with it… Mentsuyu is also often used when making dishes like oyakodon, bowl of rice topped with chicken and egg. Overall, this sauce is called bannou no choumiryou here – the almighty, all-purpose condiment you can use for anything you can think of. I think I wouldn’t survive without mentsuyu anymore, I use it every single day.

2. Raayu

Simply described, raayu is chili oil. It’s made from chili peppers and vegetable oil. If you’re like me, you might just want to add raayu to everything: noodles, dipping sauces, soups… Anything.

There’s also another version of raayu which is meant to be eaten eat as it is. It’s called taberareru raayu, edible chili oil, and aside from chili oil, it also has ingredients like fried garlic flakes added as well. This “edible raayu” is not nearly as spicy as the oil version and it’s very delicious eaten with rice – or tofu (or meat, or anything). You can buy this deliciously garlicky chili paste on Amazon by clicking the pic on the right – but be careful: you might end up eating the whole jar at once!

3. Japanese mayonnaise

Someone might argue that mayonnaise is the same everywhere but Japanese mayonnaise is actually a bit different from i.e American mayonnaise in both texture and flavor. The most popular mayonnaise in Japan from the brand Kewpie – often treated as the only real mayonnaise in Japan – is made from egg yolks, apple or rice vinegar and soy-based vegetable oil. Japanese mayonnaise doesn’t have egg whites or water added so it has thicker texture than some other mayonnaises.

You probably don’t need much advice on what you can use mayonnaise for but there are some a bit more unusual ways of using it here in Japan. In Japan, people often spread mayonnaise over takoyaki (octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (cabbage omelette), sometimes cover noodles or spaghetti with it, and some apparently even use it for pancakes. There are mayonnaise flavored potato chips and other snacks too.

4. Yuzukoshou

Yuzukoshou comes from the name of Japanese citrus fruit yuzu and Japanese word for pepper (koshou). Normally the word pepper would refer to black pepper but yuzukoshou is originally from Kyushu, the most Southern of Japan’s main islands, and in Kyushu dialect the word koshou is used for chili pepper. Therefore, yuzukoshou is made from yuzu peel, chili peppers and salt. It is a green paste with a strong citrusy taste.
I personally like eating yuzukoshou with oden (winter hot pot dish) or other hot pot dishes. It’s apparently also good as a flavoring of stir fried spinach or a spaghetti dish. It also goes perfectly with chicken!

5. Karashi

Karashi, Japanese mustard
Cute tiny pouches of karashi are often included in the package of natto, fermented soybeans.

Karashi is often called Japanese mustard but unlike Western mustard, it’s made by crushing Brassica juncea seeds and not really adding anything after that. Because of this, karashi has a very spicy taste compared to i.e. Dijon mustard. It might surprise you when you try it the first time.

Karashi often comes in the package of natto (fermented soy beans) but it can, of course, also be bought separately. It can used on almost anything: you can add it to potato salad, eat it with oden (Japanese hot pot dish) or mix it with mayonnaise and eat with fried noodles or french fries. Mixing karashi & mayonnaise combination with tuna is apparently also pretty common and recommended combination but I have no experience of this one myself yet. It can’t be nothing but delicious though.

6. Gomashio

Delicious Japanese gomashio (sesame and salt)
Sesame seed salt. I got addicted to this for months when I first tried it.

The name of this condiment consists of two words: goma, meaning sesame seeds and shio, meaning salt. Basically gomashio means salted black sesame seeds. You will most likely see gomashio around onigiri when you go to a convenience store but you can also use it as it is, spreading it over rice and eating it like that. I also recommend sprinkling it over stir fried vegetables or meat.

Sekihan (Rice and beans)
One example of the usage possibilities for gomashio. It’s amazing with sekihan – slightly sweet rice with red beans!

7. Benishouga

Benishouga, literally translated as magenta ginger is made of thinly sliced ginger immersed in red plum vinegar. It’s often served with katsukaree (rice topped fried pork cutlet with curry) or with other dishes with rice and toppings served in a big bowl. You might have also seen it in yakisoba, fried noodles. Benishouga has a rather peculiar and strong taste which you will probably either hate or love. Me? I love it.

I unfortunately couldn’t find any site where you could order benishouga, so for this peculiar culinary experience you have no choice but to come to Japan. Or maybe you could try making it yourself? You only need ginger, water and plum vinegar + a few hours of time.

Do you have any favorite Japanese condiments you just couldn’t live without? Anything you would love to try?

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