With a culinary history as deep and established aswashoku(traditional Japanese cuisine), certain herbs and spices have been used in Japan for thousands of years. And although there might be a larger variety available today, their uses and applications have remained rather constant.
With Japan’s proximity to the sea and lush greenery, the concepts ofumi no sachi (bounty of the sea) andyama no sachi(bounty of the land or mountains) have had a great impact on the way Japanese people view food and cooking. Herbs and spices are often used as a complement to the main flavors of dishes, accentuating the characteristics of the other ingredients rather than changing their innate flavors.
For that reason, traditional Japanese food is thought to be delicate with a focus on minimal preparations that allow the ingredients to speak for themselves. While that might be true for dishes like sushi and sashimi, and even kaiseki cuisine, one would be hard pressed to say that ramen and okonomiyaki are delicate or lacking in strong flavors.
The use of herbs and spices, such assanshopepper, ginger, garlic, sesame, and clove, has records dating back to the 8th and 9th centuries, with influences from Chinese medicine. There was a belief that what we eat has a direct impact on our bodies.
The following centuries would see the introduction of herbs and spices brought by the Portuguese and the Dutch, and eventually from all over the world. This brought aboutyoshoku, or Japanese-Western style food, likeomurice(rice omelette),spaghetti naporitan(ketchup spaghetti), hayashirice (stew with rice), and a variety of breads, pastries, and fried foods.
Despite this,washokustyle Japanese cuisine mostly maintains the tradition of using herbs and spices to subtly enhance flavors, rather than being main ingredients. Here are some Japanese herbs and spices and some of their uses:
Belonging to the mint family,shiso (Perilla leaf or Japanese basil), is used in a variety of dishes. One popular usage is as a garnish for various meat, fish, soup, and noodle dishes when chiffonaded, but the whole fresh leaf is also eaten in different sushi and sashimi preparations or fried up as tempura.
Akajiso(red shiso) is what givesumeboshi (pickled Japanese plum) its vibrant pink/purple color. It can also be found in rice seasonings while the seeds make up part of the spice combinationshichimi togarashi(seven spice blend available in ourCreative Beginnings: Redefining “Wa” Care Package).
One of the most well-known Japanese herbs,wasabi is probably also one of the most misunderstood. That slightly grainy-looking clump of green stuff you see in most sushi restaurants that lights up your sinuses is not actually wasabi. In most cases it’s just horseradish that’s been dyed green.
You can still find faux wasabi In Japan, but it’s also common to find freshly grated wasabi root in higher-end restaurants, paired with dishes such as sushi, sashimi, and cold soba and udon noodles. Because the flavor dissipates after 15 minutes in open-air, this is thought to be the best and most luxurious way to eat it.
The stems and leaves are also used to make pickles or to season foods.
Used for centuries as a medicinal herb,yomogi (Japanese mugwort), is another popular aromatic herb that finds its way intowagashi, Japanese confections, as well as soups, teas, and rice dishes. Its vivid green color and fresh, spring-like aroma and flavor are unique and unmistakable. Takekusa mochi(sticky rice dessert), for example. Unlike regularmochi (sticky rice),kusa mochiis grass-green in color and usually flecked with green powder from the groundyomogi leaves.
Similar in appearance to flat-leaf parsley,mitsubais a fragrant Japanese herb with a subtle flavor often described as a cross between parsley, celery, and sorrel. It gets its name, literally “three leaves”, from its long, thin stalks and characteristic trefoil leaves.
Mitsuba is used in a variety of dishes, but most notably in the savory steamed egg and seafood dishchawanmushi. It is also added to soups and stews and is usually used raw as a garnish because cooking it can bring out its bitter qualities.
One of the more obscure herbs in Japanese cuisine,kuromoji is derived not from a small herb plant, but rather from a tree in the laurel family, making it a cousin to cinnamon. Thought to possess great health benefits, it has been used as far back as the 16th century Edo period.Kuromoji is often made into a tea and the branches are even crafted into small toothpick-like skewers used when eating traditionalwagashi (Japanese sweets). It has a strong aroma thought to help one relax.
Often confused as being a pepper,sansho is actually made from the seeds of the Japanese prickly ash tree, a member of the citrus family. It has a sharp, citrus taste that like its cousin the Szechuan peppercorn, can leave one’s mouth tingling. It’s another one of the seven spices that makes upshichimi togarashi(available in ourCreative Beginnings: Redefining “Wa” Care Package).
It is most common to findsansho in its grated, powdered form, which is served alongside grilledunagi (eel), and noodle and soup dishes. The young leaves of the plant,kinome, are also used to garnish and flavor vegetable and soup dishes.
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@waruishouten) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food!