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Japanese Kanji Helpful at Restaurants and Supermarkets (Seasonings Edition)

Different words and writing systems can be a challenge when traveling abroad. Even among countries that use Chinese characters ("kanji" in Japan), the characters can have completely different meanings. So this articles introduces useful Japanese kanji to remember when going out to eat or selecting souvenirs in Japan.

醤油 (Shoyu: Soy Sauce)

Shoyu is a basic ingredient in Japanese cooking and has distinctive umami (Japanese savory flavor), aroma, and saltiness. It is made by adding salted water to koji* made from soybeans and wheat, letting it ferment over time, and wringing out the liquid. There are many different types of shoyu, of which the following are some examples:

減塩醤油 (Gen-en Shoyu: Low-salt Soy Sauce)
Shoyu with at least 20% less salt content than regular shoyu.

牡蠣醤油 (Kaki Shoyu: Oyster Shoyu)
A blend of shoyu with the nutrients and essence of oysters.

*Koji is made by cooking soybeans, wheat, rice, etc. and inoculating it with a fermentation culture. It is used to brew sake (Japanese alcohol), shoyu, mirin (details to follow), etc.

味噌 (Miso)

Miso is another traditional seasoning that is indispensable to Japan's food culture. It is made by steaming ingredients such as soybeans, rice and wheat, and fermenting with salt and koji. Its flavor is a complex mixture of sweetness, saltiness, umami, acidity, bitterness and tartness, with a wide range depending on the type.

白味噌 (Shiro Miso)
A sweet miso with a light color made with a high percentage of rice koji.

赤味噌 (Aka Miso)
A salty miso with a reddish color. It is fermented for a long period and is distinguished by deep flavors. In Aichi Prefecture, it refers to Mame Miso (*refer to the section on Hatcho Miso).

八丁味噌 (Hatcho Miso)
A Mame Miso that originates in Okazaki City in Aichi Prefecture. Mame Miso is miso that is made just with soybeans, salt, and water and is distinguished by rich umami flavors, bitterness, and tartness.

信州味噌 (Shinshu Miso)
A type of miso that accounts for more than 40% of all miso produced in Japan. It has a light color, is high in salt, and has a slightly sharp aroma.

塩 (Shio: Salt)

Salt is a seasoning indispensable to any cuisine. It can generally be categorized into "天然塩 (tenen-en)" (natural salt) that is high in minerals and umami and "精製塩 (seisei-en)" (refined salt) that has been refined. It is often simply labeled as "塩 (shio)" (salt). Refined salt is usually sold in Japan as "食塩 (shoku-en)" (literally "eating salt") or "食卓塩 (shokutaku-en)" (table salt).

味醂/みりん (Mirin)

A uniquely Japanese sake sweetener made by converting steamed mochi rice to sugar with rice koji and shochu (Japanese alcohol). It is a sweet seasoning added to glaze food and as a flavor-enhancing ingredient, and is just as crucial to Japanese cooking as shoyu and miso.

砂糖 (Sato: Sugar)

Sugar is made from sugar cane or sugar beets. There is a wide variety of sugar depending on the production method and color, including some that are unique to Japan.

上白糖 (Jouhakuto: Caster Sugar)
A sweet and moist white sugar made by eliminating impurities and minerals.

三温糖 (Sanonto)
A uniquely Japanese sugar made by caramelizing the liquid left after making caster sugar through multiple heatings. It is characterized by its sweetness and rich flavors and has a light brown color.

黒砂糖(Kurozato)/黒糖 (Kokuto)
A uniquely Japanese brown sugar made by cooking the liquid squeezed out of sugar cane. The minerals are kept in, and it is distinguished by a unique aroma and deep flavors.

酢 (Su: Vinegar)

Vinegars are the most common acidic seasoning. There are many different types.

米酢 (Kome-su: Rice Vinegar)
The main ingredient is rice. It is characterized by a mild taste with the sweetness, umami and flavors of rice.

穀物酢 (Kokumotsu-su: Grain Vinegar)
A vinegar made by blending ingredients such as wheat, sake lees, and corn. It has a light and crisp flavor.

Other items with the 酢 ("su" or "zu") suffix
◆果実酢 (Kajitsu-su): Vinegar flavored by marinating fruit in it
◆ポン酢 (Ponzu): A mixture of citrus juice and vinegar. It often refers to "ponzu shoyu", which is a combination of ponzu and shoyu.

胡麻/ごま (Goma: Sesame Seed)

Goma (sesame seeds) are enjoyed around the world and are used widely in Japan. Goma in Japan can generally be categorized into three types.

黒胡麻 (Kuro Goma: Black Sesame Seed)
Black sesame seed. Characterized by a stronger aroma and deeper flavors compared to white sesame seeds.

白胡麻 (Shiro Goma: White Sesame Seed)
White sesame seed. It has mild flavors and has a higher oil content than kuro goma. It is the most popular type of sesame seeds that is produced around the world.

金胡麻 (Kin Goma)
Rare golden sesame seeds. It has the highest oil content of the three types of sesame seeds and has deep flavors. It is also characterized by a wonderful aroma.

すり胡麻 (Suri Goma)
Roasted sesame seeds that have been ground in a mortar. It is more aromatic because the outer shell has been broken.

唐辛子/鷹の爪 (Togarashi/Takanotsume: Chili Pepper)

Togarashi is eaten as a spice and also as a vegetable. There is a wide variety, ranging from ones that are very spicy to ones that are sweet. The type called "takanotsume (falcon's talon)" is extremely spicy and aromatic. In Japan, it is commonly used as a condiment for noodles and to add flavor to pickles.

七味 (Shichimi)

Short for 七味唐辛子 (shichimi togarashi: seven flavor togarashi), a combination of seven different condiments and spices. Togarashi is the main ingredient, and spices such as sansho (strong Japanese pepper), chinpi (dried citrus peel), hemp seeds, poppy seeds, shiso (Perilla frutescens var. crispa) seeds, and sesame seeds are often blended together. The spice made just with togarashi is called 一味 (ichimi: one flavor) and the mixture made with yuzu is called 柚子七味 (yuzu shichimi).

重曹 (Jyuso: Baking Soda)

Sodium bicarbonate. It is used as baking powder in food. There are types that are for medicinal or industrial use, so be careful when purchasing.

The above are Japanese seasonings with particularly difficult kanji to help with ordering at restaurants and purchasing food items. Please use this article as a guide next time you are food shopping in Japan!

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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