Japanese basics: Essential Japanese cooking equipment

Since I posted my article about essential and not-so essential Japanese ingredients, a number of people have asked about the equipment I use for preparing Japanese food. It's taken me a while to get to it, but here it is finally. (You can consider this as a kind of gift guide for anyone who's into Japanese cooking too..'tis the season and all that after all!)

The list of special equipment that I do have besides the things you might find in any European-style or American-style kitchen is not that long, but there are some items that I find are well worth having. Keep in mind that, as usual, I'm speaking from the perspective of someone who doesn't live in Japan. If I lived in Japan chances are I'd have a lot more Japanese cooking-only items, such as a square pan for making atsuyaki tamago (the thick, square slightly sweet omelette often served in sushi restaurants). I also use some substitutes for things that I can use for Japanese cooking methods as well as other cuisines, as you'll see.

My must-have items

  • A good rice cooker. If you make rice, any kind of rice, more than once a week, you will never regret getting a rice cooker. [Update: a detailed look at rice cookers.
  • A wooden rice container, or hangiri. It's tempting to use the "keep warm" feature of your rice cooker, but if you want the best tasting rice don't! Once rice is cooked, you need to fluff it up with a rice paddle, then ideally transfer it to a container that breathes - like a wooden hangiri or ohitsu. Mine is narrower and taller than the one pictured, which is meant for sushi rice, but it serves the same purpose. (Also I haven't been able to find an online source for the tall narrow kind of ohitsu so far...if you know of one please let me know.) If you are making sushi rice you must take the rice out and put it in a hangiri (see my Japanese rice primer).
  • For mixing and scooping rice, you'll need a good rice paddle. Chances are you will get a free one with your rice cooker, otherwise a slightly curved one is handy. (The curved one is really handy for scooping up non-sticky grains, such as basmati rice).
  • A carbon-steel wok. I know that a wok is Chinese in origin, but every Japanese household uses a wok extensively - for stir-frying tasks and for deep-frying too. There are oil-draining racks designed to fit around the perimeter of a wok. If you have an electric or induction range like I do, you must get a wok with a heavy, flat bottom - that stays flat.
  • Several flat bamboo or water-resistant wicker baskets/sieves, or zaru. I haven't seen these offered online (so far) but you can often find them at Asian gift and food stores, and even in some department stores. Woven bamboo ones are the best since they are water-resistant and clean easily. These are used for serving things like cold noodles (soba, or buckwheat, cold udon, thin so-men, and so on). I also have some small ones which I use sometimes to make round-shaped tofu. There is a big difference between serving noodles in a plain old colander vs. on a nice bamboo zaru.
  • A bamboo sushi rolling mat. If you make sushi rolls this is an essential tool. You can also use it for making other rolls (like flavored spinach wrapped in nori).
  • Saibashi - long, uncoated wooden chopsticks, connected together with a piece of string. I have several pairs of these which I find essential for picking things up and turning them, stirring things around, and so on, If you're not used to handling chopsticks you may find a pair of tongs to be easier to manipulate.

    Great substitutes

The following items are ones that are not Japanese, and which might not be used much in Japan, but I've found to be very good for Japanese cooking.

  • A cast-iron stovetop grill pan. In Japan I might use an yakiami for grilling fish and shiitake mushrooms, but here I find a cast iron grill pan to do the job just as well. It also works great on an electric range (for an yakiami you need a gas flame).

  • Enamelled cast-iron pans. There are a lot of Japanese dishes that involve gentle stewing, such as nikujaga (stewed meat and potatoes). There are also nabemono which are big pots of meat or fish and vegetables all cooked together. For these kinds of dishes, in Japan I might use an earthenware pot called a donabe, but here I find the heavy, enamelled cast-iron pots made by Le Creuset to be very useful, since they cook things very evenly. Since they are so pretty to look at I can use them for serving in-pot too. Finally, if you don't want to invest in a rice cooker, a cast-iron pot is the ideal container for cooking rice on the stove top.
  • A sturdy metal strainer is useful for straining the bonito flakes out of your dashi stock and other tasks (the Japanese housewife might do this by adeptly picking it out with her saibashi, see above).
  • A good, heavy frying pan or two. I use three frying pans: a stainless steel one and two non-stick ones.

As you can see the list is not that long. The only other things you need are a couple of good knives. Knives are a whole topic unto themselves, so I'll leave that for another day.

Serving Japanese food

Besides the cooking equipment I have a variety of Japanese bowls and serving dishes I've accumulated over the years. If you're starting out on this road you can get a lot of very nice things from eBay these days. Jlist also carries many traditional and fun authentically-Japanese serving items. If you want to present a minimalist kind of plating though, just serve your Japanese food on plain white plates, and use plain white bowls for rice and soup. Don't forget to use chopsticks though!

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