As discussed in a previous series of articles, there exists a strong principle of fives in Japanese cuisine. There are the five flavors, gomi, five colors, goshiki, five senses, gokan, and five methods, goho.
Essential to the foundation of these principles are the five ingredients that serve as the building blocks of washoku,or Japanese cuisine. They’re easily remembered by the five syllables: sa, shi, su, se, so. These translate to sugar (satō), salt (shio), vinegar (su), soy sauce (shōyu/seuyu), and miso (well… miso.)
Not only is this an easy way to remember the five ingredients, it’s also the order in which you add them in Japanese cooking. While every recipe doesn’t necessarily call for all the ingredients, the concept behind the order is to create a well-balanced flavor in a dish by being aware of the ways each effects the cooking process.
Order is Everything in the Kitchen
Starting us off is sugar. The sweetness from the sugar helps to create a foundation upon which to build other flavors, particularly important in the umami-rich dishes ofwashoku. When salt is added to a dish, ingredients lose their moisture, which makes it more difficult for them to absorb the sweetness of the sugar, so make sure you don’t switch their order. Likewise, if a recipe calls for sake, add that in the beginning as well. This gives the alcohol time to evaporate and the sweetness time to blend in.
Second into the pan is salt. Salt strengthens the flavors of other ingredients and balances out the sweetness added from the sugar. It also has the ability to deeply penetrate into other ingredients, helping to remove strong smells and excess moisture.
Coming in third, vinegar is the perfect follow-up to salt. It adds a bit of acidity to a dish, while also preventing the ingredients from absorbing too much salt. The timing needs to be right though, as vinegar won’t add much flavor if the other ingredients still have too much moisture.
Se (Soy Sauce) andSo (Miso)
Rounding out the five, both in flavor and in order, are soy sauce and miso. These final two ingredients need to be added at the end to protect their flavor and aroma. Heat can affect these two, diluting the depth and richness they add to a dish. Similarly, mirin should also be added last for the very same reason.
Knowing how to use these five ingredients not only prepares you to cook better Japanese cuisine, but to become a better cook in general. You might even experiment to see how the order of the ingredients changes the outcome of a dish. Who knows, you might find an order that better suits your own tastes!
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!