From sushi rice to stews, sauces, pickles, and marinades, sugar is a fundamental ingredient in Japanese cooking. Many Japanese recipes call for some amount of sugar, may it be a pinch or even a few teaspoons. This isn’t because Japanese diners prefer their food sweet, but because Japanese cooks have long known the power that sugar has in bringing balance to a dish and making it more filling and satisfying.
A Brief History of Sugar in Japan
Sugarcane has been cultivated and processed into cane sugars for centuries in southern Japan, and many unique varieties of sugar have developed over the centuries to complement the different styles of cooking.
With time, Japanese cooks refined the skills and knowledge of how to use these sugars to maximize flavor while minimizing the amount of added ingredients. This has translated to less added sugars, salts, and fats while maintaining the richness and savoriness that sugar adds to a dish, making for more satiating and therefore healthier food.
Types of Japanese Sugar
Most of the sugars used in Japanese cuisine are considered “soft sugars,” which blend quickly and help ingredients retain their moisture without damaging the more delicate textures of certain vegetables and seafood. There is also a place for rock sugars and powdered sugars in Japanese cuisine, however, where they play their own roles in specific dishes.
Different types of Japanese sugars
Jōhakutō is a refined white sugar slightly finer than dry granulated sugar, but slightly coarser than caster sugar. It was created during the Meiji era (1868-1912) and is an all-purpose sugar in the Japanese kitchen. Jōhakutō also has added glucose and fructose, making it sweeter and moister than dry granulated sugar.
Produced using the same process as jōhakutō, sanontō is similar to a light brown sugar and is often used in simmered, meatier, or richer dishes. Unlike Western light brown sugar, sanantō doesn’t contain molasses, but rather gets its light brown color from being heated at three times the temperature (or sanon) of jōhakutō.This results in a softer sweetness with mild, buttery caramel notes.
Created in the middle of the Edo period (1608-1868) wasanbon is a cream-colored dry sugar with a slightly floral flavor and powdery texture. It is a highly artisanal, hand-crafter sugar that comes at a cost, and as such was historically reserved for the aristocracy and samurai classes. That high price remains to this day where it is exclusively made in Kagawa and Tokushima prefectures. Now it is mostly used in high-end Japanese restaurants and to make traditional Japanese sweets, wagashi.
Japan’s oldest sugar, kokutō, also known as kuro-zatō or black sugar, is a very dark, moist sugar with earthy, licorice tones and a deep, complex sweetness. It originates in the southernmost islands of Okinawa and is the strongest tasting of any Japanese sugar. It is also packed with vitamins and minerals due to how it is made. Although methods vary, the basic process involves boiling down sugarcane juice until it crystalizes into slabs, which are broken down in various ways.
Unlike the other soft sugars, zarame-tō is a coarse, dry sugar that can be either white or light brown. Unlike a more traditional coarse sugar like turbinado, zarame-tō is a variation of jōhokutō or sanontō depending on the color. It is used more as a brining or basting sugar, finding a place in slow simmered stews and braised meaty dishes, while also making an appearance as a sweet, crunchy topping forsenbei rice crackers.
Translated simply as “cane sugar,” kibizatō is a minimally processed, raw cane sugar that some more health-conscious cooks may substitute in place of jōhakutō as it maintains more nutrients than refined white sugar.
Tensaitō is one of the more interesting sugars unique to Japan as it is made from a sugar beet called tensai and is produced in the northern prefecture of Hokkaidō rather than sugarcane from southern prefectures.
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.