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Japanese Spices: The Complete List of 13 Traditional Flavors

japnese spices - wasabi farmers

Japanese cuisine is among the richest, and most fragrant cuisines in the world. It’s no surprise that Japan boasts more Michelin starred restaurants than any other country in the world. (Yes, including France! The birthplace of Michelin.)

The rich flavors, or ‘umami’ of Japanese food culture thrives on combining very fresh, local, seasonal ingredients with unique Japanese spices and seasonings to create incredible, unique tastes and aromas.

Due to its uniqueness and richness, traditional Japanese cuisine is now part of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

Japanese Flavor Origins and Influences

Japanese food culture has been influenced by many other cultures. Most notably China, but also Western countries like Portugal, Netherlands, and France, among others. 

Tempura, for example, was adopted from the Portuguese’s batter frying technique. However, Japan has adopted and refined these influences to create its own unique cuisines, cooking techniques, and eating habits. 

What are the most used Japanese spices?

Let’s take a look at some of the unique Japanese spices used in Japanese cooking, as well as seasonal blends, herbs, and oils. You’ll quickly realize that those amazing Japanese flavors come from more than just the spices alone.

1. Wasabi

Arguably the most famous Japanese condiment, and also the most unique. Wasabi is a green paste that is very hot and pungent and is thought to have antimicrobial properties when eaten with raw fish.

  • Type: Japanese spice
  • Taste: hot and numbing, but the heat quickly fades off. Although it has a strong heat, it is delicate enough not to hide the flavor of raw fish. In fact, the heat of wasabi can further highlight the fish’s flavor rather than overwhelms it. Similar in taste to hot mustard in Western foods.
  • Aroma: highly pungent, the heat is meant to stimulate the nose more than the tongue as it penetrates your sinuses, but the heat is relatively short-lasting.
  • Appearance: green, relatively thick paste
  • Use: has antimicrobial properties that can keep food (especially raw foods) from spoiling, used to highlight the taste of raw fishes. 
  • Origin: horseradish native only to Japan (Eutrema japonicum or Wasabia japonica)
  • Regions: Izu peninsula, Azumino, various other mountain river valleys in Japan.
  • Dishes: sushi, sashimi, soba noodles, cooked fish dishes

2. Ponzu

Ponzu is a citrus-based, mainly sour sauce that is very common in Japanese cuisine.

  • Type: Japanese sauce/seasoning blend
  • Taste: citrus-based with a sour and tart taste and a relatively strong vinaigrette, tangy taste. Rich with hints of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter all at once.
  • Aroma: pungent and sour aroma with a hint of floral sweetness
  • Appearance: brown and watery, similar to Japanese/Chinese soy sauce. 
  • Use: as a source of su or vinegar as a part of core Japanese cuisine flavors: Sa (sugar), Shi (salt), Su (vinegar), Se (soy sauce), and So (miso)
  • Origin: original sauce from Japan, but the name ponzu was adopted from the Dutch word pons (meaning punch as in beverage made from fruit juices)
  • Regions: everywhere in Japan
  • Dishes: Tataki (lightly grilled meat or fish), shabu-shabu, sashimi, Takoyaki (in Kansai)
  • Ingredients: juice of one or more of the following Japanese citrus fruits: lemon, kabosu, daidai, sudachi, yuzu; mirin, katsuobushi (tuna flakes), rice vinegar, and seaweed. 

3. Shichimi Togarashi

Also called Nanairo Togarashi, is a very important seasoning blend in Japanese cuisine that consists of seven different spices. Shichimi Togarashi literally means seven-flavor chili pepper, while Nanairo means seven-color. 

  • Type: Japanese seasoning blend
  • Taste: mild to strong heat depending on the blend, but also hints of saltiness, citrus flavor, and umami.
  • Aroma: heat from the chili pepper as the dominant aroma, but also citrusy smell
  • Appearance: powder with orange (from the chili pepper) as the dominant color, but hints of the other colors (brown, white, black, green, red)
  • Use: adds spiciness and overall richness in flavor for soups and also fried dishes.
  • Origin: dates back to the 17th century, and believed to be invented by herb dealers in Edo (now Tokyo)
  • Regions: everywhere in Japan
  • Dishes: mostly used in soups including ramen soups, but also on gyudon and rice products (rice crackers, agemochi, etc. )
  • Ingredients: while there are some variations, the typical seven Japanese spices included are seaweed, yuzu seeds, hemp seeds, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, rapeseeds, ground ginger, orange peel, and red chili pepper.

4. Katsuobushi

Another famous Japanese condiment that is paper thin and semi-transparent is commonly used on Takoyaki. Katsuobushi is made of fermented skipjack tuna flakes. The deliberate fermentation is done by Aspergillus glaucus to reduce moisture.

  • Type: animal-based 
  • Taste: distinct, rich umami due to the fermentation, salty
  • Aroma: a bit fishy, but relatively weak aroma
  • Appearance: thin, brownish, and transparent paper-like shavings
  • Use: together with kombu (dried kelp), is used to make dashi, a Japanese broth that forms as the basis of many Japanese soups. Stuffing for rice balls or garnish for rice dishes, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and various other dishes
  • Origin: believed to come from Tosa (now Kochi prefecture) in the mid-1600s 
  • Regions: everywhere in Japan
  • Dishes: soups, onigiri, bento, tofu, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, etc. 

5. Yuzu Kosho 

Yuzu Kosho is essentially a mixture of yuzu’s peel, salt, and chili pepper or chiles, and is one of the most unique Japanese seasoning blends especially in the Kyushu region.

  • Type: Japanese seasoning blend
  • Taste: a balanced mixture of spiciness (from chiles/chili pepper), sourness, and acidity
  • Aroma: strong and pungent citrusy smell with hints of heat
  • Appearance: yellow paste, can be bought pre-made in a jar or tube 
  • Use: mainly used in nabemono (Japanese hot-pot dish), 
  • Origin: believed to come from Hita, Oita prefecture, and Soeda, Fukuoka prefecture
  • Regions: especially in Kyushu
  • Dishes: nabemono, various soups, sashimi, tempura, and grilled dishes
  • Ingredient: chili peppers (can be replaced by chiles), yuzu peel, and salt which are fermented

6. Aonori

Aonori, or dried seaweed flakes, are also a staple in Japanese cuisine to produce the signature, earthy flavor in many Japanese dishes.

  • Type: Japanese spice
  • Taste: distinct saltiness and umami
  • Aroma: distinct, slightly fishy aroma
  • Appearance: powdered or dried green seaweed flakes
  • Use: to add flavor in soups, tempura, and also as a garnish in its dried form for many Japanese dishes
  • Origins: nori was believed to be used as food in Japan from ancient times
  • Regions: everywhere in Japan
  • Dishes: yakisoba (fried noodles), okonomiyaki, soups, tempura, takoyaki, isobe age, Miso

7. Sansho Pepper

A unique pepper seasoning from Japan, and unlike the western black pepper, Sansho has a rather citrus-like, tangy flavor. One of the most versatile Japanese spices that can go with almost any Japanese dishes. 

Very common in standard Japanese cooking, and can be combined with various other spices, sauces, and seasoning blends. 

  • Type: Japanese spice
  • Taste: tangy/citrusy with numbing heat, similar to Sichuan peppercorn
  • Aroma: distinct, slightly tangy aroma with hints of peppery heat
  • Appearance: green seedpods, similar to black pepper but light green in color
  • Use: very versatile, but is commonly used in adding flavor to sushi, soups, various Japanese noodle dishes, and more. Sansho leaves are often used as a garnish
  • Origin: Zanthoxylum piperitum grows everywhere in Japan and Korea
  • Regions: everywhere in Japan, can grow anywhere between Hokkaido and Kyushu, but most commonly in Wakayama prefecture
  • Dishes: any Japanese dishes with meat, including unagi, various sushi, Yakitori, Oyakodon, and more. 

8. Furikake

Furikake is an umbrella term used for various Japanese dry seasoning blends that are sprinkled on top of cooked rice, fish, and vegetable dishes. Typically consist of dried fish, sesame seeds, sugar, salt, and aonori. Not only furikake is used to enrich the flavor of the dish, but also to add crispness to the texture. 

  • Type: Japanese seasoning blend
  • Taste: depends on the blend, but often have a slight seafood (fish) flavor and can be slightly spicy
  • Aroma: depends on the blend, but typically slightly fishy
  • Appearance: typically flaky and brightly colored to make a dish more attractive
  • Use: to add flavor in various dishes but also as a garnish
  • Origin: believed to be developed during the Taisho period (1912-1926) by a pharmacist in Kumamoto prefecture to address calcium deficits in Japan by adding dried fish-rich in calcium-on top of various dishes.
  • Regions: everywhere in Japan
  • Dishes: on top of rice dishes, fish dishes, vegetables, onigiri.
  • Ingredients: almost always has dried fish, and typically consists of a mixture of seaweed, sugar, salt, and seaweed (nori or aonori)

9. Rayu 

Rayu is the Japanese variety of Chinese chili oil, and while there are many variations of Rayu, the most common type is clear, chili-infused sesame oil topped with chopped chili pepper. You may see Rayu in most ramen shops, but can be used to add spiciness to most Japanese dishes, especially rice and noodle-based dishes.

  • Type: Japanese seasoning blend, oil
  • Taste: mainly spicy with a slight sourness, but would depend on the ingredients used
  • Aroma: strong heat aroma from the chili pepper, but would also include aroma from other ingredients
  • Appearance: red, orange oil with chili pepper on top
  • Use: as a sauce or condiment in various dishes, especially soups, ramens, and many other rice-based and noodle-based dishes. An important ingredient in Chuka (Japanese-style Chinese cuisines)
  • Origin: a modification of Chinese chili oil which was brought to Japan in ancient times
  • Regions: everywhere in Japan
  • Dishes: on various Chuka (Japanese-modified Chinese) dishes, ramen dishes, tofu dishes, noodles, rice-based dishes
  • Ingredients: mainly sesame oil, but can use any type of vegetable oil, mixed with various spices, onion, ginger, and garlic.

10. Umeboshi Paste

Ume is a type of Japanese plum that is common in Japan, and Umeboshi is translated literally as dried ume that is also salted to preserve it. Umeboshi in paste form is often used as a healthy condiment to add saltiness and umami with hints of tanginess. Works well on various Japanese dishes, especially vegetable dishes and also as Sushi pairing.

  • Type: Japanese spice
  • Taste: salty and citrusy
  • Aroma: fresh with a soft tangy aroma
  • Appearance: red, slightly textured paste
  • Use: as a sauce or condiment in various dishes, can be used to add a tangy touch to various Japanese dishes
  • Origin: pickled Ume has been really popular in various areas in Japan since ancient feudal Japan, umeboshi was esteemed by samurai to combat fatigue
  • Regions: everywhere in Japan, especially in Wakayama
  • Dishes: Sushi, various rice-based and vegetable-based dishes

11. Miso 

A very famous ingredient unique to Japanese cuisine, as the So of Japanese food culture’s Sa (sugar), Shi (salt), Su (vinegar), Se (soy sauce), and So (miso). Miso is created by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji (Aspergillus oryzae fungi). Miso is a thick paste that is used in soups and also as a sauce in various Japanese dishes. 

  • Type: Japanese condiment
  • Taste: mainly salty, might vary depending on the ingredient used
  • Aroma: earthy and savory aroma, but might vary depending on the ingredient
  • Appearance: light brown or dark brown paste
  • Use: as a sauce or condiment in various dishes, can be used to add a tangy touch to various Japanese dishes
  • Origin: the origin of Miso is not completely clear, but gained popularity during the Kamakura period (1192-1333) 
  • Regions: everywhere in Japan
  • Dishes: misoshiru (miso soup), various fish and chicken dishes (as a marinade), yakimochi
  • Ingredients: soybeans, fermented with salt and koji, might also include other ingredients like barley, brown rice, hemp seed, buckwheat, and others. 

12. Mirin

A very important condiment in Japanese cuisine, it is a type of rice wine with lower alcohol content. It is used to add a unique sweetness to various dishes due to its high sugar content and can be used to make various important sauces in Japanese cuisines, including the Sushi Su (Sushi rice vinaigrette) found in most sushi shops and the famous Teriyaki sauce.

  • Type: Japanese condiment
  • Taste: distinct, mild sweetness, slightly bitter aftertaste
  • Aroma: fresh, distinct aroma with a slight hint of alcohol content
  • Appearance: white, slightly yellow liquid
  • Use: eliminate fishy smell in fish dishes and gameness in various meat. Might be used to add sweetness instead of soy sauce. As a sauce for sushi and also to make various other sauces
  • Origin: as with sake, mirin as a type of rice wine has been around in Japan since ancient times
  • Regions: everywhere in Japan
  • Dishes: various teriyaki dishes, sushi, broiled or grilled fished dishes, various meat dishes

13. Karashi

Karashi is the Japanese version of hot, yellow mustard, which is much hotter than the western counterpart. Besides its spiciness, another unique thing about Karashi is that no vinegar is used to make it, so there is no sour aftertaste. Karashi is made from the crushed seeds of brown mustard and can be found in powder and paste form. 

  • Type: Japanese seasoning, condiment
  • Taste: hot and numbing spiciness, not as intense as wasabi but more lasting spiciness
  • Aroma: strong and pungent with a slight hint of sourness
  • Appearance: brown-yellowish paste or powder (mix the powder with warm water to turn it into a paste)
  • Use: as a sauce, can be mixed with mayonnaise, and also often served with tonkatsu, natto, and other dishes
  • Origin: believed to have originated in the Nara period around 710 to 794
  • Regions: everywhere in Japan
  • Dishes: Tonkatsu, natto, shumai, oden, and various others

In addition to these unique Japanese flavors you will also see some Japanese recipes also use some of the more standard spices and seasonings. As you start to get familiar with Japanese food you will learn which flavors you prefer. There’s a lot to explore!

Chef Deno

Follow my journey as I explore food culture around the world - easily from the comfort of your own home. Proud of your food scene? I travel often and we can plan to meet up so you can share the food culture in your town.

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