Answering some Japanese food questions

I have sadly neglected this site, and also the email and comments received. All I can say is bad on me. Anyway, I have received several emails about Japanese food, and I'd like to answer them here in the hopes that it can help more then one person at a time.

Q. How do I make tonkatsu sauce?

As I wrote in my tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) article, I don't make my own tonkatsu sauce - I use "Bulldog" brand tonkatsu or chu-noh (medium-thick) sauce. There are other brands of these sauces too like Kagome. The fact of the matter is, most Japanese restaurants use commercial sauces too (hey, most burger places use prepared mustard and ketchup!), unless they specialize in tonkatsu. If you can't find Bulldog brand sauce at your local Japanese or Asian grocers and you are in North America, A1 steak sauce is a quite acceptable substitute, though it's rather more "tangy" than Bulldog brand. You can try toning A1 down a bit by adding some sugar, or mixing it with some ketchup. The base flavor of tonkatsu sauce is Worcestershire sauce plus various ingredients (onions, spices, fruit such as apple, etc.)

Q. How do I make that ginger salad dressing that is served in Japanese restaurants?

First of all, that ginger-salad dressing that vaguely resembles...well, let's not go there, but it doesn't look too appetizing does it? Despite its widespread use in many American Japanese restaurants, it is definitely not Japanese. I have not researched this in depth so I may be totally wrong, but I suspect that it was invented at Benihana. I hate the stuff, so I never touch it (if a side salad comes covered in it I leave the salad alone) so I can't really tell you how to make it.

That's not to say that Japanese people do not put dressing on their salads. Actually, Japanese dressing manufacturers have perfected the art of the low or non-oil salad dressing. Usually it's a tasty mixture of various herbs and spices such as shiso, ginger, sesame seeds, umeboshi (pickled plums), and such in a water base. Give them a try if you encounter them at an Asian or Japanese grocers. I'll try to post some homemade Japanese style non/low oil dressings soon.

Q. Are there any good online sources of Japanese food?

[Edited in 2007:] I can now recommend the following:

  • For Europe: Japan Centre. A bit pricey perhaps, but courteous and speedy service.
  • For the U.S.: Try on - there are several food merchants on there now, including the Northwest chain Uwajimaya. Also try KOA Mart (a Korean grocery that carries many Japanese items).
  • Worldwide, non-perishable food like candy and dried foods only: J-List (aff. link) which also has a big selection of non-food 'wacky' items.

Q. Can I make miso soup in batches and freeze it, like I do with other soups?

Most European/American soups improve with age as it were, up to a point, but not all. For instance watercress soup can taste quite dreadful if you leave it for too long - it loses that fresh flavor. Miso soup is at its best when freshly made, because the delicate flavor of miso dissipates quite fast.

What you can do is to make the dashi stock in batches and freeze them. Keep in mind however that it only takes 15-20 minutes, minus the time it takes to soak the kombu seaweed for a while (you can just dump it in a pot a bit before) to make the dashi, and from there to miso soup is only the time you need to cook through whatever you put in. If you put in fresh sliced mushrooms, or tofu cubes, or tender greens, that's only a couple of minutes. So I've never found it worthwhile to freeze dashi myself.

Q. I've seen red and yellow (brown? white?) bean paste at an Asian grocery store, and I don't know which is the right one to use.

The best thing to do is to ask the store people which one is right for miso soup. If you are shopping at a general Asian grocery store, be sure the bean paste you are getting is Japanese miso, because other Asian cuisines also have their bean pastes - which taste quite different. Some commonly seen Japanese brands include Hanamaruki, Takeya and Maruman. Some U.S. companies (with Japanese names) also make miso, like Yamashirushi (I've only ever seen those in California though).

Q. Are ramen noodles a healthy snack?

I'm not sure why, but 3 people asked me this. The answer is, absolutely not! In Japan instant ramen noodles are regarded on the same level as potato chips or nachos in terms of bad-foodness. Most of the badness comes from the soup, which is high in sodium and often has quite a lot of fat too (some kinds even come with an extra pack of sesame oil, or, gasp, lard!) The noodles are made from highly refined white flour. In olden times, the noodles were deep fried to dehydrate them, though nowadays most brands are air-dried. Still, instant ramen is defintely Bad For You. (Of course, I love potato chips too.... :) )

I'm sure I've forgotten some other questions...if you have any please leave a comment and I'll try to respond in a more timely manner!

Filed under:  japanese ingredients answering questions

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I was so delighted to find your site! As a sushi chef, people ask me these types of questions all the time. It's interesting to see how others respond to these seemingly universal questions...

Tonkatsu sauce, as well as that sauce they use in yakisoba, are the great mysteries of Japanese cuisine. I have two Japanese-language sauce cookbooks. Neither of these sauces is included -- unless you include the tonkatsu sauce recipes that use Bulldog as an "ingredient" and then add other stuff to it.

Is Japanese cuisine becoming Chineseified? By that, I mean a cuisine that can only be made using processed, package, commercial ingredients, such as all those Chinese pastes you need to make the food, like tobanjan.

Another example: curry roux. Who was the last Japanese person who made curry from scratch? It must have been decades ago.

Gasp! Ramen is bad for you! That was quite a shock for me since I love instant ramen. I should remember that next time I reach for a pack.

My husband makes a venison dish. It is venison medallions with bacon, onions, red wine and an ingredient called..."Orient Chef" is the brand name, and it is called brown Gravy Sauce. 5 0z jar

This sauce makes the dish!! It is the best, we have tried others becaused we can't find it in our stores here anymore. Do you know where we can we find it?

Teri, I'm afraid I'm not familiar with that brand... sorry.

Brown gravy sauce doesn't sound too Japanese actually...

Mark: there are tons of pre-packaged foods and food mixes etc. in Japan, but I think a lot of people do still make some things from scratch... judging by the popularity of make-from-scratch type cookbooks and cookbook authors / TV chefs (or who knows, like in many other countries, they just read about it? :P)

Trixi: yes I's sad but true (and I love instant ramen too!)

I've ordered from this site, ANA Super ( their selection is very good and the customer service very helpful. The one major drawback is that the delivery charge is quite steep-- they tend to use Federal Express, at least in the States (presumably to keep the food fresh on delivery). But I've suggested this site to a friend in a remote part of New England who cannot readily purchase Japanese food.

I love Japanese style curries but, as mark said above, they all seem to be made from prepackaged roux. do you know how to make it from scratch?

Traci, I'll be sure to post a recipe for from-scratch Japanese style curry soon!

@sushi bars the toro looks different. what's the difference between otoro and chutoro? which is top cut

Constancia, I have an article about tuna here:
About tuna for sushi

Basically there is no 'top cut' per se, though otoro is the most expensive. But some people don't like otoro because it's very fatty. Even though akami is cheapest, I like it a lot because it's clean-tasting. So it's whatever you prefer!

Mark Bittman's new book "The Best Recipes in the World" has a tonkatsu sauce recipe. I haven't tried it yet. He touts it as "far better than the bottled stuff."

The recipe uses Dijon mustard, soy sauce, mirin OR honey, and rice or other mild vinegar, in roughly equal quanties (a little lighter on the vinegar). This sounds about right to me, and very stripped down and simple, as is Mark Bittman's rule: try making things with a minimum number of ingredients first, and add to that only things that actually contribute to the taste.

Stephen, I will have to try that recipe out. I'm not too sure about the Dijon mustard though... though I guess the vinegariness could work...

The best home made tonkatsu sauce I have had in recent years is at a restaurant called Katsuhama, in New York, a tonkatsu speciality place (ah I love NY...). Theirs definitely has a fruity undertone, which makes me think they are adding some grated apple to it, or something. Adding grated apple to a savory sauce is not unheard of in Japanese cooking (a commercial curry paste called Vermon Curry has always advertised that they put honey and apple in their sauce). The Katsuhama sauce is is not too sweet and is rather complex. They do also have pots of plain mustard on the tables too, if I remember correctly.

I have to confess though, one reason I haven't really been motivated to try to create a tonkatsu sauce is sort of like why I've never been too pushed to do homemade ketchup... I love the Bulldog kind. (Heinz does it for me in the ketchup department too...) :P

I am looking for a recipe for Hibachi Noodles like they serve at Benihana's and other Japanese Steakhouses. Does anyone have a recipe for this dish, I have exhausted the internet trying to find one. Thanks.

Terri, what you're refering to is yakisoba (Japanese fried noodles). Search using that term and you'll be sure to find a good recipe in no time.

Does anyone know a good tasting brand of teriyaki sauce?

As much as I love trying out new ingredients, I have the need to pare down and keep my pantry (and fridge) uncluttered. If I have to choose between getting Tonkatsu sauce or Worcester Sauce which one should I go for? What is more versatile? I'm thinking of the Bulldog brand and what I have in mind is making yakisoba, tonkatsu...
Tetsudate moraitain!

You could use either, or 'chuunou' sauce (medium-thick sauce) - they all taste quite similar. Tonkatsu sauce is the thickest I think, and can be a bit sweeter. Any of them can be used as a flavoring sauce. (Japanese "worcester" sauce is much thicker than traditional Worcestershire sauce, but that too could be used as a flavoring sauce).

Here is a question for you. What are those large ramen bowls called that you see in yatai's, or noodle houses? I found this : , but i am looking for the ones that are more tapered. Plus, I want to know their real name!

That one does not look like a ramen bowl to me - it's made of wood it says (so I guess it's supposed to resemble lacquerware), and from the dimensions it looks like a large miso bowl or maybe one meant for udon and the like. Ramen bowls are always ceramic (except for those at the cheapest places, where they're plastic made to look like ceramic!) A ramen bowl is just called a 'ramen donburi' (donburi is the generic name for a large bowl you eat out of). The one in the pic is smaller so it would be a '(o)wan'.

OH, I thought donburi referred to the mish mash of egg, meat and rice. Thanks

Donburi can also mean rice topped with something - e.g. gyuudon, oyakodon, una(gi)don, etc. It's called 'don(buri)' since it's mostly served in one.

Not to be a pain with asking questions and what not, but I am unable to find any places online that really sell these ramen donburi bowls. Without looking yourself, are there any places off the top of your head that may carry them?

Thanks for remaining awesome

Not online, but one place to look would be a Chinese restaurant supply store or kitchenware store...remember that ramen originated in China. They usually have bowls of the right dimensions. Though any kind of large, neutral bowl would work too...I use large plain white bowls that I think I got at Ikea (though I have a couple of 'real' donburi from Japan, I don't have enough for a crowd!)

Otherwise, ebay is often a good place to find Japanese kitchenware things. Though personally I like to look at things like bowls in person before buying them because they have to 'feel' right before I want to commit to them.

hope that helps a bit..!

Hi, can i use the tonkatsu sauce for okonomiyaki?

Thank u, looking forward to ur reply!

They are similar but not the same - tonkatsu sauce is a bit more tangy,okonomiyaki sauce is a bit sweet.

You can use tonkatsu sauce for okonomiyaki though, and add a bit of mayonnaise (yes, that is is traditional).

you can also try Fujiya, it's an supermarket for Asian food (especially Japanese). They're located in Vancouver, but also do online.

There's also T&T Supermarket which also specialize in Asian foods, but not sure they would actually have the Japanese ingredients you're looking for.