How to Adopt the Flavors of Japan

Guests are increasingly adventurous with the help of social media, which is educating and luring guests to establishments that are offering delightful new flavors. These flavors comfort, intrigue, and perhaps confuse a little–all at the same time.

Adopting the flavors of Japan, even when used in non-traditional ways, is a way to offer guests an authentic flavor that satisfies and doesn’t have to add much to existing food costs.

Here’s some ways you can incorporate these flavors into your menu


Umami is Still In

Umami flavors are still exploding, and they are going to continue to surge as guests’ demand for certain food changes.

The increase in diets that exclude animal protein provide enough reason to be ahead of the curve and understand the flavors that guests will be demanding. Flexitarians are looking for a plant-heavy diet, while veganism grows to 6% of U.S. consumers, according to Report Buyer.

This presents an opportunity to stand out and bring some new flavors to the menu. Vegetables work incredibly well with a variety of Japanese, umami-rich ingredients. Products like tamari work well when considering gluten-free options and can provide a perfect substitution for soy sauce.

Koji, the mold responsible for creating the umami-punch in things like miso paste and soy sauce can be used on its own as a seasoning agent and as an agent of change. Koji, a natural probiotic, breaks down the starches in food and transforms what it touches. Koji-rubbed steak, for example, begins to transform into a product that tastes like a dry-aged steak.

Vegetables that are marinated or pickled with some koji can range from an umami-packed bite to a guest wondering what happened to that vegetable– all in a good way.

Flavors from the Sea

Japanese cuisine is drawn largely from the ocean and there are ingredients from the ocean that can be used in non-traditional kitchens.

Katsuobushi, or the more inexpensive version known as bonito flakes, is made from dried, smoked, fermented fish. While there is smoked seafood on the nose, the flavor that bonito flakes bring to dishes is powerful, deep, smoky, and umami-rich. Consider soups, broths, sauces, and dressings when using bonito flakes, as they will dissolve into mixtures making them more delicious in surprising ways. Bonito flakes can be sprinkled on top of dishes, releasing a smoky, delicate sea aroma when they hit hot food. Rice dishes, vegetable dishes, and some salads can benefit from a light sprinkle before they are sent out to guests.

Seaweed is another ingredient that is abundant in the sea that offers a great sustainable, nutritious addition to menus.

This is a tricky ingredient for many guests and should be used carefully in an establishment that isn’t known for Japanese influences. The forms of seaweed are vast and while some are used to flavor broths, like kombu, some can be rehydrated and added sparingly to braised vegetable dishes. The texture will add interest to a dish and depending on the color and style of the seaweed, the looks can be impressive on the plate.

Furikake is a dry seasoning that includes a hearty dose of chopped seaweed and can include other ingredients that range from sesame seeds to egg. Typically used to flavor rice, these mixes offer an extraordinary amount of flavor in very small portions and can be added to cold or hot dishes.

The visual furikake provides is one that is indicative of Japanese cuisine, so top that next Japanese-inspired special with a light sprinkle to finish.

Pass the Mayo

Japanese mayonnaise is especially hot right now and for good reason. The rich egg flavor combined with a bit of MSG delivers a flavor-packed punch that is hard to beat in any application that calls for mayo.

The tremendous surge in poke popularity wouldn’t be the same without Japanese mayo and the dressing should be considered on similar dishes that make sense for the establishment.

Don’t stop at the raw fish appetizer either. This delicious ingredient can produce unparalleled tuna melts or dressings.

Use Sparingly

The ingredients discussed above are powerful and should not be used with a heavy hand, or you run the risk of having a menu that seems disjointed or awkward to guests.

Sneaking traditional Japanese flavors into dishes in a non-Japanese establishment is a bit of a finesse game. Use enough to flavor the dish, but unless it makes sense, don’t go for an all-out traditional Japanese side dish or main.

Used sparingly, Japanese ingredients can make existing dishes from the rest of the world even more delicious and exciting than they were before. They can also help with food waste, as the umami-rich ingredients can be used in making relishes and fermented pickles out of produce trim.

These are ingredients that bring your guests bigger, more memorable flavors and help the bottom line.

By Brian Murphy, Industry Expert