Guide to Japanese Cooking and Recipes Vocabulary

From sushi to ramen to mouth-watering gyoza, Japan has an endless list of delicious foods. This leads many of us back to the kitchen in our own homes wondering how we can recreate those umami flavors. Japanese cooking is not only delicious but once you know what to do, well-balanced, incredibly tasty meals can be whipped up in no time at all. But perhaps the best thing about learning Japanese recipes is taking them back home to share with your family and friends, introducing them to new flavors, and bringing a slice of Japan to their plate.

There are many Japanese culinary classes around Tokyo, but for those that want to study Japanese whilst cooking and have a go on their own, in this article we will cover several common Japanese phrases that appear in recipes here in Japan. We will also include a breakdown of how to read the measurements in Japanese recipes but first, we will dive into the cupboard essentials, what you’ll need to start cooking Japanese dishes on a regular basis. 

essential japanese cooking vocabuary

Japanese Cupboard Essentials

出汁: Dashi, Soup Stock

Dashi forms the base of many broths in Japan including ramen, miso soup, and oden. It’s also an essential element in traditional Japanese cooking, like teishoku. There are three main types of dashi, kombu (seaweed), bonito, and shiitake mushrooms. It is the dashi base that gives Japanese soups their signature umami flavor. Awase dashi, the most common, is made from a combination of bonito flakes and kombu. This dashi is usually what many people are referring to when they say dashi. You can make dashi from scratch but it can also be purchased in a granular form, as a concentrated liquid, or in tea-bag-type pouches for easy use.  

醤油: Shouyu, Soy Sauce 

Next to dashi, soy sauce is used in all kinds of Japanese dishes. 濃口醤油 (koikuchi shouyu) is the most predominant kind, meaning dark soy sauce that is rich in flavor. This tends to be the type most recipes call for, however, there are many different types of soy sauce including those that already have dashi included. Depending on how you plan to use your soy sauce will determine what kind you’ll need but for regular cooking koikuchi shouyu is recommended. If concerned about salt content, look for 減塩醤油 (gen-en shouyu) this is soy sauce with a reduced amount of sodium, on the packaging, it will usually specify by how much but many brands cut salt by up to 50%! 

味醂: Mirin  

Mirin is a type of rice wine, similar to sake but with a slightly lower alcohol content and more sugar. This sugar is not added but actually a natural by-product in the fermentation process. Mirin provides that sweet tang that is common among so many Japanese dishes. With mirin in your cupboard, you’ll open the doors to a variety of dipping sauces, glazes, marinades, broths and much more.  

酒: Sake, Japanese Rice Wine

Sake has a range of uses but is predominantly used to tenderize meat, expel fish odors and deepen the flavor of a dish. When it comes to cooking there is specific sake labeled 料理酒, ryouri sake, which is the kanji for both cooking and sake combined. This sake is far more affordable than the sake sold for drinking and you don’t need good quality sake for cooking, any cooking sake will do! 

味噌: Miso

Miso adds another layer of flavor and does much more than just miso soup. There are three types of miso: red, white and yellow. In cooking, yellow (信州, shinshu) miso is often used as it is the most versatile. Red is more of an acquired taste being quite strong in flavor as it has been fermented the longest and finally, white is the mildest but also the sweetest. It is best to see what your recipe calls for, however, yellow miso will cover a good range of recipes and is generally what “miso” in recipes refers to unless otherwise stated. 

Essential Japanese Indgredient Vocabulary

Ingredients in Japanese
Ingredients in Japanese
ピーマンpiimangreen chilies
メキャベツmekyabetsubean sprouts
小麦粉Komugikowheat flour
ご飯gohancooked rice

Japanese Seasoning has a Specific Order

Japan has mastered the perfect balance between sweet and savory. Kinpira is one example of a dish that is salty yet sweet with earthy undertones that make it an all-time favorite. This balance in flavors is achieved only when food is seasoned in the correct order and is considered part of the ABCs when it comes to Japanese cooking. 

First, it is important to cook the ingredients, allowing the heat to tenderize the food. If the seasoning is added too early then the flavors cannot penetrate as far and they can even prevent tenderization. When adding both sugar and salt to a dish, as many Japanese recipes do, each must be added separately. Sugar always comes first because salt can block sugar and zap away the sweetness. After sugar comes salt, then vinegar, soy sauce and lastly miso. Switching this order around can determine how the flavors interact with each other and can completely change a dish. Soy sauce and miso are often mistakenly thought of as bases but actually, they are both very rich with strong aromas and too much heat can kill the aroma. Also, if added too early they can overshadow the other flavors. So rather than bases, it is best to view them as toppings. 

Check out: Guide to Your Japanese Food Label Vocabulary

japanese cooking vocabulary: kitchen appliances

Measuring Your Ingredients in Japanese

When it comes to reading the ingredients (材料, zairyou) you’ll need to know how much of everything you need so down below we’ve included a conversion table for your reference. Also look out for the kanji 人分, ninbun, in a recipe to find out how many portions the recipe is supposed to serve. 

大さじOosajiTable spoon
小さじKosajiTea spoon
適量Teki-ryouModerate amount
少々Shou shouA little
程度TeidoAbout/ roughly
HonFor stick like objects
KoFor small objects
MaiFor flat thin objects 
KanFor cans 

Essential Phrases for Japanese Cooking 

Reading instructions can be daunting in any language let alone your second language. When it comes to reading the tsukuri kata (作り方), the method, we have a short list to get started. The more you cook, the more you read, and the more comfortable you will begin to feel when it comes to Japanese cooking. And by all means, celebrate the mistakes as they are small wins too!

Check out our article on how to order at a Japanese fast-food restaurant. 

1. 切る, Kiru: to Cut

Kiru, to cut, is perhaps the most useful verb to know when cooking. Just like in English, there are many variations when it comes to cutting, the style, the shape, and so we have listed some of the phrases you are likely to come across.

JapaneseRomajiEnglish explanation
細切りにするHosogiri ni suruThe first kanji comes from the adjective, hosoi which means thin and then you have kiri to cut. 
粗みじん切りSo mijin kirimeans to finely chop or mince. Raw tuna in Japan is often minced and then served on top of a bowl of rice or on sushi. 
輪切りWagirithe first kanji here means ring or circle and together with the verb cut, it means to cut into circular slices. For example, ninjin wo wagiri would be the instructions for cutting a carrot into circular slices.  
Yokowhich means “side” and 縦, tate, which means “upright” can also be found in recipes indicating how to place the ingredient before cutting it although you’ll mostly find the former rather than the latter.  
Habawhich means the width is also regularly written in recipes, usually with a measurement afterward so you know how thick the slices need to be cut. 

Example Sentence:

Keeru wa yoko ni haba san senchi meturu ni kiru
Put the kale on its side and cut it into 3cm wide pieces.  

Tip: If you don’t feel comfortable cutting fish at home, you can sometimes ask an employee to cut it for you at the fish market or even at the supermarket if they have a specific counter. Just ask:

kono sakana o kitte kudasai.
Please cut this fish.

2. 混ぜ合わせる, Maze awaseru: To Mix

For soups, sauces, and on the back of packages like for okonomiyaki and takoyaki, you’ll need to know what to mix and when. Fortunately in the ingredients section what you need to mix is usually already grouped together under letters such as ‘group A’. Maze-awaseru actually stems from the verb to mix, mazeru, but the difference is that maze-award means to mix completely/ thoroughly. 

Example Sentence:

A to B o maze awaseru
Mix A and B together.

3. 火をかける, Hi wo kakeru: To put on the Stove

Literally translated this means to put something over the fire. You may also see 火を引く, hi o hiku, written as an alternative but it has the same meaning. These two phrases can be used whenever something needs to be heated over the stove. Below we have summarized the different levels of heat. Note that only the first kanji changes to suggest the amount of heat required.   

火にかけるTsuyobi ni kakeruPut over high heat
火にかける中火を引くChuubi ni kakeruChuubi wo hikuPut over medium heat
火にかけるYowabi ni kakeruPut over low heat

4. 蒸し煮にする, Mushi ni suru: to Simmer

The first kanji 蒸 means to steam and the second 煮 means to boil, and together they create the verb to simmer. Mushi ni suru can also be written as mushini (蒸煮) for short. 

5. 沸かす, wakasu: to boil

お湯を沸かす, oyu wo wakasu, bring the water to a boil.

6. 蒸す, musu, to steam

Chawan-mushi is the name of a savory dish, the word chawan comes from rice bowl or tea cup and mushi is from the verb to steam. 

7. 炒める, Itameru, to Fry

Itameru is very versatile and can be used to indicate when something needs to be sauteed, cooked as a stir fry or for frying in general. The recipe will usually indicate the level of heat to be used: high, medium or low. 

Pan de yasai o itameru
Pan fry the vegetables. 

8. 焼く, Yaku, to Roast/ Grill/ Bake

Yaku is a verb that covers many things that mean to heat. With context, it is easy to decipher what kind of yaku is being implied as the instruction will usually give the name of the appliance to be used also such as oven, oven toaster, pan, etc. 

200°C に予熱しておいたオーブンで、12〜15分焼く
200°C ni yonetsu shite oita ouben de 12-15 bun yaku
Bake in a preheated oven at 200°C for 15 to 20 minutes. 

Other Essential Verb in Japanese Cooking Vocabulary

凍る FreezeKouruFreeze
解凍 するKaitou suruDefrost

Where to Find Free Recipes in Japan

Just beyond the checkout at supermarkets, there are sometimes little recipes to collect or entire magazines featuring different recipes. Walking around the supermarket too, keep your eyes peeled for any recipes pinned to the wall or next to products, these are usually to advertise a product. Recipes can also be found on the back of the packaging, many sauces give a number of different ways to use them and okonomiyaki packs tend to always have a handy how-to guide. 

Magazines at train stations are worth reading also, if not just to discover what’s going on in your local area, they often feature a recipe or two. And lastly cooking shows are broadcasted weekly by NHK, such as 今日の料理, kyou no ryouri, which is on [NHK Eテレ] every Monday and Tuesday from 9 am. This cooking show has been going since 1957 and has shared over 30,000 recipes since then! This show is 25 minutes long and at the end there is an extra 5 minutes which is exclusively for beginners. 

Lastly, if you are thinking about purchasing a recipe book but want some English guidance to check you are following along correctly, the 英語でつくる和食 (eigo de tsukuru washoku) book by chef Nakajima Sadaharu contains 100 popular recipes and all the recipes are in both English and Japanese. 


That was the Japanese cooking vocabulary list! Learning Japanese cooking and recipe vocabulary is a valuable addition to your Japanese language learning journey. Not only does it allow you to work effectively in the kitchen, but it also enables you to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of Japanese culture and cuisine. Whether you are a beginner or an advanced learner, taking Japanese language courses at Coto Academy can help you improve your language skills and expand your knowledge of Japanese food and cooking. With the guidance of experienced instructors and the support of a friendly learning community, you can achieve your language learning goals!

Start your journey with Coto Academy today and unlock the doors to the Japanese language and culture! If you’re interested in taking part-time private lessons in Tokyo, fill out the form below and book a free course consultation with us!

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