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The Flavour of Japan

In part one of this three part series, Helen Best-Shaw demystifies the Japanese cupboard

Published on September 8th 2011.

The Flavour of Japan

EVERYONE knows about sushi, soy sauce and wasabi, but what are the more common but unusual Japanese condiments? Do you know your shoyu from your tamari or your mirin for your miso? Japanese and Oriental foods are becoming more and more popular and better understood, with lots of Japanese and Oriental restaurants and takeaways popping up in London. 

The first sushi I ever purchased was in Pret a Manger, which nearly blew my head off. Having never had sushi before, I assumed the wasabi was guacamole and spread a large dollop onto my first bite. The pain was immediate, with streaming eyes and nose and a red face, my attempt to be sophisticated and worldly-wise in front of my colleagues was an abject failure, and I learnt a healthy respect for the power of wasabi. Typically Japanese condiments consist of soy based sauces, pickles, fermented products and sea vegetables as well as the powerful wasabi.    

Central to both Japanese (and Chinese cuisine) is the mould koji (Aspergillus oryzae), which was first domesticated at least 2,000 years ago, and is used to ferment a soybean base to produce soy sauces and misos. By the process of saccharification the complex carbohydrates in the beans are broken down to produce sugars and amino acids, especially glutamate, which imparts the savoury umami flavour typical to Japanese ingredients.     

Koji is also used to ferment rice and other grains to make alcoholic drinks such as Shōchū and Sake as well as rice vinegars. Such is the importance of koji to the national cuisine the Brewing Society of Japan named it the “national fungus” in 2006.

Left to right: Mikawa mirin, rice mirin, standard soy sauce, tamariClockwise from top left: Mikawa mirin, rice mirin, standard soy sauce, tamari

Soy Sauce

There are main two types of soy sauce; shoyu, which is made with both soy and wheat and tamari, which is gluten and wheat free, made with only soy beans.    

Traditional artisan brewed shoyus and tamaris will be made by fermenting the whole cooked soy beans (and wheat) with koji for three days and then maturing in decades old cedar wood casks for at least fifteen months before bottling. Over this time the koji and bacteria will break down the protein and carbohydrates in the soy beans into sugars, alcohol and amino acids. The resultant mash is then filtered, pasteurised and bottled.

Cheaper, non-brewed soy sauces are made by heating soy flour with acid to break down the soy protein, then adding flavours, colourings and salt. The difference can clearly been seen and the taste comparison is like comparing a cheap blended whisky to a twenty year old malt.


Mirin, is a sweet sake, or rice wine that has a lower alcohol content and is used in cooking to sweeten and add a depth of flavour. It is one of the main ingredients in teriyaki sauce.  

The Mikawa mirin above is made by fermenting rice with koji for two days, shōchū is then added and the mixture is fermented in large vats for three months. The mirin is then strained and matured in vats for around six to nine months before being bottled. Different types and qualities are available depending on fermentation and maturation times.

Left to right: Brown rice miso, sweet white miso and furikakeLeft to right: Brown rice miso, sweet white miso and furikake

Miso is made from grains, including soya beans, barley, rice, buckwheat that have been boiled or steamed then fermented with Koji. Traditional artisan miso will undergo a long fermentation in cedarwood vats, cheaper miso will be fermented in steel vats in a matter of a few days. Miso is rich in protein, vitamins and minerals. There are many different types from the rich, strong, salty brown rice miso to subtle sweet white miso (pictured above).  

It is an essential part of Japanese cuisine, commonly mixed with dashi soup stock to make miso soup. Additionally it is reported to have amazing health benefits, with some studies reporting its effectiveness against cancer, radiation poisoning, probably due to the antioxidant soy isoflavones found in it.

Follow Helen Best-Shaw on Twitter: @fussfreeflavour

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