The Japanese use herbs and spices to elevate their cooking. Learn about the different herbs and spices and how to incorporate them into your dish!
Japanese cuisine is not known for its fiery, robust flavors, boosted by herbs and spices like its neighboring countries. Instead, the Japanese use these flavor enhancers to compliment the dishes, accentuating the other ingredients rather than altering their natural flavors. Thus, these herbs and spices are subtle additions, adding color, aroma, and texture to the presentation.
As early as the eighth century, the Japanese used herbs and spices influenced by Chinese medicine. The philosophy of ishoku dougen (医食同源), “food as medicine,” introduced the idea that a daily balanced diet is indispensable for nourishing oneself against illness and diseases. By consuming foods that also have medicinal properties, you would not need medicine.
You may be able to find these herbs and spices at Asian/Japanese supermarkets or at gourmet stores. Perhaps you can grow them yourself for those blessed with a green thumb! (If you’re a JOC subscriber, you know that Nami grows a few Japanese herbs and citrus trees at home!) If you’re not able to find them, rest assured, I’ve noted a substitution guide.
What Are Herbs & Spices?
Herbs and spices add flavor, fragrance, and color to our meal, but can you tell the difference? To refresh your memory, let’s look at their definitions.
The Herb Society of America defines herbs as “small, seed-bearing plants with fleshy, rather than woody, parts. They are valued for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal and healthful qualities, economic and industrial uses, pesticidal properties, and coloring materials.” While fresh herbs are the best for their aroma and flavor, it is also readily available dried.
Spices are “any dried part of a plant, other than the leaves, used for seasoning and flavoring a recipe, but not used as the main ingredient.” You can find spices whole or ground into powder for easy use. Examples include chili peppers, coriander seeds, turmeric, and star anise.
Let’s explore the different varieties of Japanese herbs commonly used and featured in Washoku (和食, Japanese cuisine).
Other names: Perilla leaf, Japanese basil, Ooba (大葉, “big leaf”), Seiso (青蘇)
Shiso is a herb in the mint family. The ruffled leaves are either green or dark purple. The plant is also cultivated in other parts of East and Southeast Asia. Shiso is said to prevent food poisoning because of its antibacterial qualities, thus often served with raw fish.
As shiso has a refreshing flavor, you can also find it fried in tempura, salad dressing, or on wafu pasta. You may even find shiso-flavored Japanese snacks. You’ll see the green leaves peaking out on a sashimi platter, adding color to the overall presentation. When eaten with a slice of fish, it can serve as a palate cleanser. The young seedpods called Ho-jiso (穂紫蘇) and flower stem Hana hoji-so (花穂紫蘇) serve as a garnish for sashimi. You can pluck the seedpods and add them to the soy sauce for flavor.
Red shiso (赤紫蘇) is pickled with Japanese plums to make umeboshi. It imparts a reddish color to the plums. It’s also the main ingredient in making akajiso juice (赤紫蘇ジュース), a magenta-colored refreshing beverage that’s perfect for cooling down during the summers. It’s also used to make the Kyoto pickle shibazuke.
Read more about shiso here.
Suggested substitutions: Given its unique characteristics, it isn’t easy to find the perfect substitution. Here are some ways to substitute for shiso.
- Basil: The basil plant belongs to the same mint family as shiso, although its taste and aroma differ when fresh. Try tempura with basil.
- Korean perilla: Also belonging to the same family as shiso, Korean perilla does look similar to shiso. However, the leaves are broader and thicker, and the aroma is more intense. While it may be too powerful to eat with sashimi, you could use it as a garnish on pasta, tofu, and rice bowls.
- Shiso rice seasoning: A condiment with dried green or red shiso leaves tossed with salt. You could use it to make shiso pasta for flavor and aroma (but it is salty, so adjust accordingly).
Recipes Using Shiso
Other names: Japanese ginger
Myoga is a flower bud in the ginger family. It has a delightful crunchy texture and has a slightly gingery zesty tang. While it’s associated with the summer season, you can find it year-round in Japan.
Myoga is usually eaten raw, thinly sliced, or julienned. It’s used as a topping for salads, chilled tofu, somen, udon noodles, or mixed into steamed rice. You can also add it to miso soup, pickle it for tsukemono, or deep fry it for tempura.
Read more about myoga here.
- Thinly sliced young ginger: It has a similar zesty flavor to myoga.
- Ginger: Depending on the dish, it may be too strong, so use sparingly.
Recipes Using Myoga
Other names: Japanese parsley
Literally “three leaves,” mitsuba has a thin stalk and trefoil leaves. It resembles flat-leaf parsley and has a crispy texture and a refreshing scent. The flavor is a cross of parsley, celery, sorrel, and cilantro.
Mitsuba serves as a garnish for chawanmushi, oyakodon, ochazuke, etc. You can add it to salads or mix it into tamagoyaki.
Read more about mitsuba here.
- Cilantro, scallions, green onion: Swap with other green herbs to garnish Japanese dishes.
- Arugula and watercress: You could replace mitsuba with chopped arugula or watercress for salad and rice dishes.
Recipes Using Mitsuba
Other names: Japanese horseradish
Probably the most iconic Japanese herb, wasabi burns your nose instead of your tongue. Wasabi is a plant of the Brassicaceae family, which includes cruciferous vegetables. As wasabi grows along stream beds with clean mountain water, fresh wasabi is a luxury. Shimane, Shizuoka, and Nagano prefectures are famous for their high-quality wasabi.
You may be familiar with the green paste that’s served with sushi, sashimi, cold soba, and more. The rhizome looks like a short stubby root, which is finely grated. As wasabi loses its pungency and aroma with time, upscale restaurants often grate a small amount upon order. Most sushi chefs will proudly share where the wasabi came from and refrain from doling out extras to diners.
Besides the root, you can eat other parts of the wasabi. The wasabi leaves and stems are chopped and mixed with sake lees to make wasabi zuke (わさび漬け), which is commonly eaten with rice or kamaboko.
For home consumption, the paste or powdered form is the most accessible. Cheap wasabi is usually a horseradish and green food coloring. There is some tube wasabi with real wasabi, so check the label before buying.
Read about the JOC family’s trip to a wasabi farm and more on wasabi here.
Recipes Using Wasabi
Other names: shoga
Ginger is a rhizome used worldwide, as a spice, flavoring, and in traditional medicine. It’s a herbaceous perennial plant of the ginger family. It’s native to southeast Asia.
In Japanese cuisine, ginger is pickled for beni shoga and gari, serving as a palate cleanser. Sliced ginger is added to cooked fish to remove the fishy smell and is also used grated raw on noodles and chilled tofu. Young ginger called shinshoga (新生姜) becomes available during the spring, with a milder ginger flavor with a hint of floral fragrance.
- Ground ginger: ground ginger is much more potent than fresh, so use a small amount first
- Galanga: another type of rhizome, galanga has a citrusy flavor but depending on the dish, this may not be a good substitute
- Myoga: has a similar zingy bite
Recipes Using Ginger
Other names: Japanese hot mustard
Karashi is a spice consisting of crushed mustard seeds of Brassica juncea and horseradish. The mustard yellow paste has a fiery kick than regular yellow mustard and will make your nose tingle like wasabi. You can find it sold in tubes or in powdered form. It’s used as a condiment for many Japanese dishes such as oden, gyoza, natto, and tonkatsu. It’s also a pickling agent in karashizuke, a karashi and sake lees-based tsukemono.
- English mustard, Chinese hot mustard
Recipes Using Karashi
Shichimi Togarashi (七味唐辛子)
Other names: Japanese seven-spice, nanami togarashi
Shichimi togarashi (literally “seven flavored chili peppers”) is a spice blend featuring dried red chili pepper, sansho pepper, hemp seeds, white and/or black sesame seeds, mandarin orange peel, and nori. It adds a subtle citrusy, nutty, umami complexity, which is sprinkled over udon and soba noodles, gyudon, tonjiru, yakitori, and hot pot. It’s a pantry staple that’s both an all-purpose condiment and finishing seasoning.
There are regional differences in the balance and differences of ingredients, such as the addition of yuzu peel, shiso leaves, poppy seeds, and ground ginger. The three historic shichimi producers are Yagenbori in Asakusa, Tokyo, Shichimiya in Kiyomizu, Kyoto, and Yawata Isogoro in Zenkoji, Nagano.
Recipes Using Shichimi Togarashi
Ichimi Togarashi (一味唐辛子)
Other names: ground red chili pepper
Literally “one flavored chili pepper,” ichimi togarashi is a chili powder made of ground red chili pepper. It’s much more straightforward in the spiciness than shichimi togarashi as it doesn’t have the additional spices and herbs. You can sprinkle ichimi togarashi over noodles, rice bowls, and hot pot dishes like shichimi togarashi.
Recipes Using Ichimi Togarashi
Other names: Japanese pepper
Sansho is a cousin to the Chinese Sichuan peppercorn. The peppercorns come from the Japanese prickly ash. The citrus-peppery flavor gives a pleasant tingly, and lasting sensation on the tongue.
The Japanese sprinkle the dried and ground peppercorns on grilled eel and yakitori. It’s also one of the ingredients for the seven-spice blend shichimi togarashi. The tender young leaves called kinome (木の芽 literally “tree buds”) are garnished on grilled fish, nimono, rice, and soups.
Read more about sansho here.
- Sichuan pepper: Sichuan peppers have a more pronounced numbing effect and taste floral than sansho. However, you can replace it with ground Szechuan pepper.
- Shichimi togarashi: While it contains other spices, store-bought shichimi togarashi may work depending on the dish.
- Lemon pepper blend: While this won’t replicate that tingly residual heat sensation, you could blend ground black pepper and lemon zest.
Recipes Using Sansho
In the next post, let’s look at the different Japanese vegetables you may encounter when cooking Japanese cuisine.