Techniques & Tools Knife TechniquesJapanese Knives
Techniques & Tools for the Japanese Kitchen

A well-equipped Western kitchen has almost everything you need for cooking Japanese food. If you find that you like cooking Japanese food regularly, these utensils will make all the difference. They save time, do a better job, and make your life easier.

Knife techniques
Throughout the site, you'll find references to knife techniques that may be unfamiliar to you. It's very important to learn Japanese cutting techniques in order to get the right taste and texture. For instance, just as with Italian food, where the specific shapes of pasta are chosen to match various sauces, the shape of a vegetable is very important to the taste, visual enjoyment and texture of a Japanese recipe. Therefore, I've prepared a separate section for Japanese knife techniques. MORE

Grated daikon is one of life’s marvels. It has a bright, bitter and hot (but not spicy) flavor that lends a kick to grilled and broiled fish, fried tofu, soba dipping sauce, salad dressings, etc. An oroshigane (grater) will work better for this (as well as for ginger) than a Western one, because the resulting texture is fine, but not too fine. Some graters are specially made for certain types of vegetables, such as shark skin graters for fresh wasabi, which grind the hard root into a particularly fine paste. Traditional oroshigane are made of copper clad in tin, with sides that are turned up. Sharp tines are cut into the copper, which are also turned up. I purchased my treasured oroshigane at Aritsugu, where they embossed my name at the top, and will even reset and sharpen the tines when they get dull. I haven’t had to do this yet, because they are still sharp and they work perfectly. Less sharp, and common, are inexpensive aluminum graters. What is nice about these, other than the fact that they are widely available, is that they have a concave well at the bottom that conveniently catches the oroshi and juices. A traditional grater has no such well and must be grated on top of a plate or shallow bowl. Both types work very well and grate to a much finer consistency than Western graters. Be careful with your fingers when using a grater; it’s easy for your hand to slip and there’s no protection.

Many recipes call for ground sesame seeds. While you can purchase ground sesame seeds in ready-made packages, the flavor and freshness is vastly superior when the seeds are freshly ground. What’s more, it is very easy when you have the right tools. The Japanese suribachi (mortar) is a ceramic bowl that is unglazed and scored with ridges. A surikogi (wooden pestle) is then used to grind the seeds (or nuts) to the desired consistency. The grooves make fast work of this process; no more than a few minutes. You can then add the other ingredients for the dressing or sauce directly in the bowl, as my mother does, or transfer the mixture into a separate bowl. There is also a brush specially made to brush the powder from the grooves of the surbachi, if you so desire.

Rolling Sushi
With the popularity of sushi, you can now find bamboo rolling mats quite easily at Japanese markets for reasonable prices. Makisu (sushi rolling mat) are made of bamboo slats that are lined up horizontally and tied with heavy cotton string. Once, when we were on vacation in northern Michigan, we wanted to make maki-sushi, but couldn’t find a mat. We made one ourselves by cutting the sharp ends off bamboo skewers and tying them together with string! Maki-sushi is virtually impossible to make without a mat.

Hashi (chopsticks)
There are several kinds of cooking chopsticks that are handy to have in a Japanese kitchen. Cooking chopsticks are twice as long as regular chopsticks to protect one's hands from the heat. They are usually tied at one end so that they can be hung on the wall, but if you find this inconvenient, you can just remove the string. For frying, special metal chopsticks with wooden handles are available, but I don’t own them because I seldom fry. For serving and food arranging, I have a beautiful pair of metal chopsticks with pointed ends and bone handles. They allow me to precisely position food and are presentable at the table. We have a wide variety of dining chopsticks in our house, but only a few that we really like, and use daily. In fact, even with frequent trips to Japan, we rarely find chopsticks we like. They should be smooth, but not slick (hence, no lacquer), sturdy, easy to care for with a nice weight and warm feel.

Japanese clay is an amazing thing. Clay donabe can withstand a high degree of direct heat, and thus can be set on a burner and used as a cooking pot for nabe. Care must be taken to avoid introducing the donabe to sudden changes in temperature, and this can be done by filling it with liquid before turning the heat on. Donabe are used for one-pot nabe dishes, soup, oden and even for frying. They are attractive enough to be used on a portable range for cooking right at the table.

For simmering delicate food like fish, an otoshi-buta (wooden drop lid) works like a charm. These are made of thick pieces of wood with a handle across the top, and are available in various diameters so they fit inside different sizes of pots and pans. They keep the content of the pot evenly distributed in the simmering liquid, and the open edges allow heat to escape so that the temperature can be kept at a simmer and not a boil. Otoshi-buta should be soaked in water for a few minutes before each use so that the simmering liquid does not soak into the lid, permanently leaving its scent.

If you do not have an otoshi-buta, you can cut a round piece of cooking paper with a vent in the middle. This will somewhat approximate the effect.

Making Soup
Since miso paste is refrigerated and quite thick, it takes a while to dissolve in dashi when making miso soup. Therefore, you must thin the miso in a large soup ladle full of dashi (while it is still partially immersed in the pot), whisking with chopsticks to a smooth consistency first. If you don’t follow this step, it is likely that clumps of miso will remain undissolved. A really handy item is a miso-koshi; a small sieve with a wooden pestle that is made just for this purpose. It works wonderfully and makes quick work of this task, and is a great time saver if you serve miso soup regularly.