A Beginner’s Guide to Must-Have Japanese Sauces
There are a large variety of unique sauces used in Japanese cuisine, for use in cooking hot dishes such as mirin and soy sauce, to condiments and dipping sauces like Japanese mayonnaise. In this article we’ll introduce some of Japan’s most popular sauces that are essential when creating authentic Japanese dishes including:
- Soy sauce: common all-purpose fermented cooking sauce, made from soybeans, wheat, salt, and water
- Tonkatsu sauce: accompaniment to tonkatsu (deep-fried breaded pork cutlet), similar to Worcestershire sauce
- Japanese mayo: popular everyday sauce made from egg yolk and used in sandwiches, salads, as well as toppings and dipping sauce
- Gyoza sauce: dipping sauce for Japanese dumplings
- Yakisoba sauce: cooking sauce for Japanese stir-fried noodles
- Mirin: fermented sweet rice wine used to create sauces, glazes, and seasonings
- Okonomiyaki sauce: sauce used for okonomiyaki savory pancake dish
- Wasabi sauce: hot and spicy condiment often served with sashimi
- Mentsuyu Soba sauce: dipping sauce or soup base served with hot and cold soba noodle dishes
- Karashi: kind of Japanese mustard popular when served with dishes such as oden and natto
- Japanese rice vinegar: essential ingredient in Japanese cuisine made from fermented rice
- Ponzu: citrus based marinade and dipping sauce, popular with sushi
- Takoyaki sauce: thick and smooth Worcestershire style sauce served with deep-fried octopus balls
- Kushikatsu sauce: sweet dipping sauce for skewered foods covered in crispy breadcrumbs
Soy sauce, known as shoyu in Japanese, originated in Japan during the 1500s and is used for both cooking and as a dipping or side sauce. It is made from soybeans, wheat, salt, and water which are fermented and brewed in a process that takes around six months from start to finish.
Depending on the dish that you are preparing, different kinds of soy sauce bring out different flavors, and there are five taste elements in soy sauce including saltiness, sweetness, acidity, bitterness, and umami.
There are several types of Japanese soy sauce variations to choose from. Around 80% of soy sauce produced in Japan is what we would think of as regular soy sauce, known as koikuchi in Japanese. Popular soy sauce brands like Kikkoman produce a koikuchi all-purpose soy sauce which can be added to many Japanese dishes.
Tamari is the other main type of Japanese soy sauce, which is produced mainly in the Chubu region in Central Japan. Tamari is thicker than regular soy sauce, has a denser flavor, and is often served with sashimi as it is less salty. Unlike regular soy sauce, tamari usually does not contain wheat, making it a good gluten-free alternative.
Similar in style and taste to Worcestershire sauce, tonkatsu sauce is an accompaniment to tonkatsu, a Japanese dish consisting of a deep-fried breaded pork cutlet, usually served with raw cabbage and side dishes such as white rice and miso soup. It is a Japanese meal influenced by Western cuisine, whose roots can be traced back in Japan to the Meiji period (1867-1911), when eating meat began to become popular. Today tonkatsu remains a popular and affordable dish, found on lunch menus throughout Japan and at speciality tonkatsu restaurants.
Tonkatsu sauce first emerged in Japan after World War II, when Japanese chefs adapted Worcester sauce by adding vegetables and fruit to the sauce’s recipe, creating a thick and rich flavor. The ingredients of tonkatsu sauce include vegetables and fruits such as tomatoes and apples, vinegar, and a mix of spices such as cinnamon, red pepper, ginger, and thyme.
Popular Japanese tonkatsu sauce brands include Bull-Dog Sauce, who have been manufacturing tonkatsu sauce since 1951, and Kikkoman, known best for their soy sauce products, who also produce a tonkatsu sauce made from apples.
Japanese mayo made by the Kewpie corporation is probably one of Japan’s most recognized sauces and is the manufacturer’s flagship product, which has been loved by consumers since 1925. It’s commonly used in sandwiches, on salads, with sushi, and as toppings on Japanese dishes like okonomiyaki or served as a side sauce with karaage (fried chicken).
Originally inspired by American mayonnaise in the 1920s, Kewpie’s mayo was different because it contained twice as much egg yolk as imported mayonnaise to create a high-quality product. Kewpie mayonnaise does not contain any chemical preservatives, is low in salt, and comes packaged in an easy-to-use squeezy bottle. In Japan you can find many variations of Kewpie mayo products including low-calorie and even egg-free versions.
Unlike American mayonnaise, Japanese mayo is made only using the egg yolk instead of the entire egg and is slightly more yellow in color. A different kind of vinegar is also used to make the mayonnaise, with Japanese mayo using rice vinegar instead of distilled vinegar. These differences in ingredients help to create a creamier and sweeter Japanese mayo compared to its Western counterparts.
Gyoza sauce refers to a dipping sauce served with gyoza, Japanese style dumplings which usually contain ground meat (such as pork) and vegetables. Gyoza sauce is usually served with yaki gyoza, which are pan fried in water to create a delicious crispy base on the dumplings.
Gyoza dipping sauce is usually made from soy sauce and vinegar, with a small amount of chili oil added to it. One of Japan’s most popular brands of gyoza sauce is manufactured by Mizkan, a Japanese company based in Aichi Prefecture founded during the 1800s. Mizkan’s gyoza sauce is made from soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, and a mix of spices. Mizkan’s Ajipon Soy Sauce is also an excellent dipping sauce served with juicy gyoza and has more of a citrusy taste.
Yakisoba sauce is used to create a balance of sweet and savory flavors in yakisoba, stir-fried noodles containing meat and vegetables. Adding yakisoba sauce to the stir fry helps to create an authentic Japanese umami taste to the dish.
Japanese yakisoba evolved in Japan from Chinese chow mein and began to become popular in the 1950s. Originally yakisoba was seasoned with soy sauce, but because the cabbage included in the recipe made the noodle dish quite watery, yakisoba sauce was developed instead. Yakisoba is a popular street food found at Japanese festivals and is also sold as a ready-made dish in supermarkets and convenience stores.
Popular yakisoba sauce brands include products by Kikkoman and Otafuku. Otafuku’s yakisoba sauce has a rich sweet flavor thanks to the inclusion of vegetables such as garlic and onion, whilst Kikkoman’s sauce contains tomatoes, apple, and carrots.
Mirin is a type of fermented rice wine that is commonly used in Japanese cooking, known for its low alcohol content and subtle sweetness. You can use mirin to make sauces or glazes with soy sauce, sugar, and rice vinegar.
There are several variations of mirin available to buy, including hon-mirin, aji-mirin, and mirin-fu. Hon-mirin is made from glutinous rice, koji, and shochu, and contains the strongest alcohol content at around 14%. It has no sugar or salt added and is usually more expensive than other types of mirin because it is a premium product. Try using hon-mirin if you are throwing a dinner party and want to impress your guests by creating a high-quality sauce, glaze, or sushi rice.
Aji-mirin or mirin-type condiment as it is also known, has a lower alcohol content (around 8%) than hon-mirin and is a less expensive product. It usually contains an added sweetener, unlike hon-mirin whose sweetness comes from the natural fermentation process.
Mirin-fu is also known as mirin-like condiment and usually contains less than 1% alcohol and salt. It is usually the cheapest kind of mirin you can buy and mimics the taste of hon-mirin using ingredients such as vinegar, corn syrup, rice seasoning and other acidic flavorings.
When you are using mirin in cooking, there are a few things to keep in mind. Firstly, you should only use mirin if the dish will be cooked for over an hour at high heat since mirin has a lower alcohol content than wine or sherry, which will evaporate if the dish isn't cooked long enough.
Secondly, because mirin has sugar in it it will give your dish some sweetness, so be careful to use sparingly so it does not become overly sweet. Finally, mirin is stored differently depending on the type you buy so be sure to check the instructions. For example, hon-mirin should be kept in a cool, dry place but mirin-fu should be refrigerated.
Okonomiyaki sauce is one of the essential ingredients in creating okonomiyaki, a Japanese dish which is usually described as a savory pancake. Okonomiyaki batter is made from flour, egg, and cabbage, and from there you can add whatever ingredients you like. Pork, vegetables, cheese, and seafood are all popular fillings, before the okonomiyaki is topped off with okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, bonito flakes, and aonori seaweed. Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki also includes a layer of yakisoba noodles.
Okonomiyaki sauce is a Worcestershire-type sauce, like the sauce used for dishes like tonkatsu or takoyaki. Ingredients typically include fruits and vegetables, spices, soy sauce, sugar, and vinegar. Otafuku is one of the leading manufacturers of okonomiyaki sauce in Japan and have been making it since 1952. The company is based in Hiroshima, and if you are ever visiting Japan, you can visit their factory and take part in an okonomiyaki cooking class!
Wasabi is a popular Japanese condiment often referred to as ‘Japanese horseradish’. It is usually served with sushi, but there are many other uses for wasabi sauce that will give a kick to your Japanese dishes. For example, food manufacturer Kikkoman produces a ready-made wasabi sauce that can be added to everyday foods like sandwiches, in salad dressings, or served with meats like steak and burgers.
Kewpie also produce a wasabi dressing that can be used on salads or as a dipping sauce, and other forms of wasabi can be found in supermarkets such as wasabi paste for use with sashimi, as well as wasabi powder and wasabi salt.
Mentsuyu Soba sauce
Soba noodles are made from buckwheat flour and can be served as a hot or cold dish. During the summertime, soba noodles are often served as a cold dish accompanied by a dipping sauce called mentsuyu or tsuyu, which is usually made from dashi, soy sauce, and mirin. For hot soba dishes, the sauce can be used as a soup base and simply mixed with hot water to create a stock.
You can try making your own tsuyu sauce or simply buy a ready-made version to save time. Examples of popular sauces by Japanese food manufacturers include Mizkan’s Oigatsuo Tsuyu Sauce Japanese Soup Base, which is flavored with ingredients such as shiitake mushrooms and seaweed to create an extra umami taste. Yamaki also sell a popular tsuyu sauce made with two kinds of bonito flakes to give a balanced flavor.
Karashi is a kind of hot and spicy Japanese mustard and popular condiment served with dishes such as oden, tonkatsu, and natto. Like wasabi, karashi is usually sold as a pre-made powder or paste and is readily available to purchase in Japanese supermarkets. Karashi is different in flavor to most western style mustards and tends to taste spicier and slightly more bitter.
In powder form karashi is mixed with water to create the paste to your desired strength and taste. Karashi can also be combined with other ingredients to create other condiments such as karashi mayonnaise or with vinegar and miso to make karashi sumiso, a sweet and spicy sauce that goes well with seafood and vegetables.
Japanese rice vinegar
Japanese rice vinegar is made with fermented rice and is milder and more mellow in taste than western style malt or white wine vinegars. Rice vinegar is an essential ingredient in Japanese cooking, used in everything from salad dressings to pickles, marinades, sauces, and simmered dishes. When cooking with rice vinegar, it is important to use it in moderation. If too much rice vinegar is added for a dish, the flavor will become too strong.
Rice vinegar is found in all Japanese supermarkets and is said to provide several health benefits such as improving digestive health, fighting lactic acid to ward off fatigue, and improving heart health.
Ponzu is a thin citrus-based sauce with a tangy and slightly sour flavor that can be used in many ways, from dipping sauces to marinades. It is made from soy sauce and rice vinegar. Ponzu sauce was originally made from the sweet-and-sour brine from pickled sudachi lime peels but can also be made from other kinds of fruit peels like yuzu or lemon. The taste really depends on the type of fruit used in the brine. In Japan, ponzu sauce is served with many foods whilst in America, it is mostly served with sushi.
Ponzu is great for adding flavor to any dish, it can be used as a marinade for meat and fish, and you can use it as a dipping sauce.
Takoyaki is a deep-fried ball-shaped Japanese snack, made from wheat flour, eggs, and containing diced octopus or other seafood. Takoyaki were originally sold at street stalls in Osaka, and nowadays they are a popular street food throughout Japan. Takoyaki is typically served with takoyaki sauce, Japanese mayo, aonori seaweed, and bonito flakes.
Takoyaki sauce is a dark and rich salty Worcestershire-type sauce made from soy sauce, vegetables, fruits, and spices. One of the leading Takoyaki sauces is made by food manufacturer Otafuku, whose sauce can be added directly on the takoyaki. This smooth and glossy Takoyaki sauce has been thickened so it doesn’t drip!
Kushikatsu or kushiage, are deep-fried skewered foods that are popular in Japanese cuisine. They are said to have originated in Osaka, and unlike other Japanese skewered foods, kushikatsu skewers contain just one ingredient. A popular street food or food to share with others in a communal setting, kushikatsu consists of meat or vegetables that have been deep-fried and covered with golden, crispy panko breadcrumbs.
Kushikatsu is always served with a sauce for dipping the skewers in, with popular skewers including meat like beef, pork, and chicken, and vegetables such as eggplant, bamboo shoots, lotus root, and mushrooms. Kushikatsu sauce is similar to other Japanese Worcestershire style sauces and has a sweet mellow taste.