Ingredients in Japan: Sugar and sweeteners

This post is part of a series about the differences in ingredients between Japan and the U.S. When I first arrived in Japan, I had a lot of trouble at times because I wasn’t used to these differences, so hopefully this information is helpful! For the full list of posts in this series, see this page.

Sugar for cooking and sweetening is easy to find in Japan. There are a few main types that I normally see, which are pretty similar to what’s in the U.S., and a few more unusual options.

The biggest difference I see is with white sugar. There are two types – regular white sugar, and granulated. In the U.S., I only ever saw granulated white sugar. The “regular” sugar is cheaper, but it doesn’t flow or pour smoothly like granulated sugar; it forms loose clumps more like what you see with brown sugar. I’ve found that I have to “pack” it in the same way as brown sugar in order to measure properly.

As far as brown sugar, there is a product here called 三温党 (san’ontou) which is processed a little differently, but seems to have basically the same effect as light brown sugar. It has a more complex flavor than white sugar. It’s commonly available, and generally slightly more expensive than white sugar. I never saw any dark brown sugar here for a long time, but recently my store started carrying a sugar from Okinawa called 黒砂糖 (kurozatou), literally ‘black sugar’ which looks similar to dark brown sugar. I haven’t tried using it though. According to Wikipedia, it’s the same as muscovado.

Powdered sugar, on the other hand, is harder to find. Most stores have it, but it’s in very small bags (maybe 1/2 cup to 1 cup) and is rather expensive. Food import stores may have larger bags, but it is still expensive.

As far as liquid sweeteners, honey is easily found in grocery stores. In Japanese it’s called 蜂蜜 (hachimitsu). You can also often find maple syrup, but like powdered sugar, it’s very expensive and found in small containers. There’s another sweetener called kuromitsu (黒蜜) which is very dark brown and is similar to molasses, but thinner in consistency. By the way, if you’re hunting for these liquid sweeteners, I find they are often placed together with the jams and jellies.

Another product is called mizuame (水飴), which is clear and is similar to corn syrup, but it’s made from rice or potatoes. Both kuromitsu and mizuame are used in making sweets and candy. Other, more unusual sweeteners like agave syrup or special honeys can sometimes be found at food import stores. As always, it will be a small, expensive container.

Finally, there’s a type of sweetener you might encounter in cafes called “gum syrup”. The first time I was offered this in a cafe, I didn’t understand the word, even though it’s just the Japanese version of gum syrup (gamu shiroppu) or an abbreviation like gamushiro. Anyway, they’re just little cups of sugar syrup so you can easily mix the sweetener into cold drinks like iced tea/coffee. You can also buy bags of them in the grocery store (kind of like the mini cups of half-and-half they have in the U.S.).

I also noticed at the grocery store that there are some “zero-calorie” sweeteners available, both in liquid and powder form. However, I haven’t closely looked at the ingredients, nor have I tried them.


Beef Rice Bowl (Gyuudon)

One of my favorite dinners, this beef rice bowl comes together quickly and is warm and comforting. I like the sweet and salty flavor. In Japan, a bowl of rice with some kind of topping like meat, seafood, egg, or vegetables is called a donburi, which can also be shortened to don, giving this dish its name: gyuu (beef) + don.

1 cup rice (uncooked)
2 tbsp butter
1/2 onion, sliced thinly
1/3 cup (80mL) sake or rice wine*
3 tbsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp ginger juice
2 tbsp sugar
1/4 tbsp minced garlic
1/2 lb (228g) beef, very thinly sliced
2 eggs (optional)


Start cooking the rice according to your usual method first, then while it’s cooking make the topping.

Melt the butter in a medium frying pan, then add the onion and cook, stirring, until translucent. Add the sake and cook for about 2 minutes to let the alcohol evaporate.

Add the soy sauce, ginger juice, sugar, and garlic and mix well. Finally, add the beef and cook, stirring constantly, until it is just cooked through. It should cook very quickly, in no more than 2-3 minutes.

When the rice is cooked, divide it between two bowls and spoon the beef and onion mixture on top. Serve at once.

(Optionally, you can put a raw egg on top of each bowl and mix it in; it’ll become half-cooked in the hot rice.)

Serves 2.

Homemade Vegetable Bouillon

This isn’t the most attractive recipe I’ve made, but its lack of aesthetic appeal is definitely made up for in convenience and taste. This “bouillon” is more like a paste made of vegetables and salt; it can be kept in the freezer and used anywhere you’d use stock or bouillon, or anytime you need some salt and extra flavor.

3 cloves garlic
2 oz celery (I like to use the leafy ends)
2.5 oz leeks (Japan notes: I use negi, or “long green onion”)
3.5 oz carrots
1/3 oz parsley
2 oz tomato, chopped (canned is okay)
1 oz spinach leaves
2 oz onion
2.5 oz salt

Note on ingredients: I used what I had leftover and what was on sale at the grocery store today. You can vary this up using different green and colored vegetables to get the flavor you like.


Blend all vegetables in a food processor until finely ground. Add salt and mix well.

Store in the freezer; the salt will prevent the paste from freezing through.

To use: I like 1 tsp of bouillon to 1 cup of water, but adjust this to taste.

This recipe makes a good quantity; about 2 cups. That would be 96 tsp, resulting in about 96 cups (= 6 gallons) of stock. Feel free to cut down the amounts to make less.

Tomato-Avocado Grilled Cheese

I made these open-face grilled cheese type sandwiches using some leftovers from last night’s dinner, and they were so delicious! You could top these with all kinds of different things, and do it as a sandwich or open-face – very adaptable.

2 slices of bread or baguette
1 tbsp mayonnaise
a few drops lemon juice
a pinch of basil
2 thin slices of your favorite meltable cheese
1/2 tomato
1/2 avocado
salt and pepper
butter or margarine for cooking


In a small bowl, mix the mayonnaise, lemon juice, and basil. Spread on one side of each slice of bread. Place thin slices of cheese on top.

In a frying pan, melt a small pat of butter or margarine, and place the bread slices (mayo and cheese side up) in the pan. Cook until golden brown on the bread side.

Carefully remove from the pan and top with sliced avocado and tomato. Here’s where you can get creative and put whatever you like on it. I’ve added many different veggies, or sometimes marinated grilled or sauteed chicken. Sprinkle on salt and pepper to taste. Leave the sandwiches open-face or put them together to be more traditional.

Serves 1.