Ingredients in Japan: Dairy Products

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.

Dairy is not used in traditional Japanese cooking, but these days, many different cuisines are popular in Japan, and all kinds of dairy products are easy to get here. For this post, I’ll talk about milk, cream, yogurt, cheese, and ice cream. There’s a quick note about dairy substitutes toward the end.

Milk is commonly sold at supermarkets, convenience stores, and drugstores. Most milk seems to be whole milk, but you can also get low-fat milk. Milk seems expensive to me here; in my area it ranges from about 150-200 yen per liter (that would be US$1.50-$2 per quart, or $6-8 per gallon). Low-fat milk is a little cheaper. There is also a higher-fat “luxury milk” available which is more expensive.

I’ll mention buttermilk here because it’s used in many American recipes, but I have not seen it sold in Japan. Depending on the recipe, you could use yogurt thinned out with milk, or use this “recipe” to make a buttermilk substitute: For 1 cup buttermilk, put about 1 tbsp lemon juice or vinegar in a measuring cup, then add milk until it reaches 1 cup (240mL). Let sit at room temperature for about 10 minutes before using.

Trying to buy heavy or whipping cream in the store was a little puzzling to me at first, because it’s labeled differently from the American style. Heavy creams are labeled by percentage of butterfat. I usually see 35% or 48% cream, and recently there has been 42% cream at some places. All of these will whip and can be used as whipping cream. It’s a little expensive and is sold in 100mL or 200mL cartons. It’s usually called 生クリーム, nama kuriimu, literally ‘raw cream’. There’s also something called “pantry cream,” which has a lower fat content, and will NOT whip. (Also be careful not to confuse this cream with the cheaper ホイップ, hoippu which is a vegetable product that can be whipped and used like ‘non-dairy topping’ in America.)

Yogurt is extremely popular in Japan and there are many types available. There are non-fat, low-fat, and full-fat, plain and sweetened varieties, as well as many types with fruit added. Quite recently, Greek yogurt has become available here. It goes by two names: カスピ海ヨーグルト, kasupi-kai youguruto, literally ‘Caspian sea yogurt’, or ギリシャヨーグルト, girisha youguruto, ‘Greece yogurt’. Another very popular product is called ‘drinkable yogurt,’ which is just what it sounds like, and usually found in the refrigerated beverage section.

Ice Cream
Ice cream is popular, but mostly sold as individual pieces on sticks, or in small cartons. Ice cream in large tubs as we often see it in the U.S. is very uncommon. In shops, soft serve is very popular, although it’s called ソフトクリーム, sofuto kuriimu, ‘soft cream’. There are literally hundreds of common and unusual flavors available, often changing by season.

This is the one that makes us cry! Cheese is not as popular in Japan as America, so there are few varieties available, and they tend to be expensive, small, and not as tasty (in our humble opinions) as what we had in America. The most common cheese sold in stores is called ‘pizza cheese’ or ‘mix cheese’, which is a mixture of white, meltable cheeses that you can use on pizza or similar. Parmesan cheese (powdered) is also usually available in stores, as is sliced ‘processed cheese’. Other types can be found here and there, but you’ll have to look around to see what different stores carry. If you really want a certain type of cheese, your best bets are ordering online, or going to Costco.

See my older post on butter and fats.

Dairy Substitutes
I’d like to write more about this at some point, but just as a quick reference: Soymilk (豆乳, tounyuu) is extremely popular and widely available in “plain” as well as many, many flavors. There are basically two “plain” types, which are called 調整 (chousei, ‘adjusted’) and 無調整 (muchousei, ‘unadjusted’) – when I did a little searching I found that the ‘adjusted’ variety has a little salt and sugar added and the pH is adjusted; all of this is done to make it taste a little better or more “drinkable”. I don’t drink soymilk plain; I only use it for cooking and smoothies, so I always buy the ‘unadjusted’ variety. These two plain flavors are found in both small (200mL) and large (1000mL) sizes. The other flavors, which range from coffee to strawberry to mango, along with seasonal or limited-time flavors including cherry-blossom, cola, and grape, are usually found only in the small size. I have seen soy yogurt once in a while as well, but have never tried it.

The other dairy substitute that has become popular recently is almond milk. I’ve seen two brands sold in various stores. There are a couple of flavors that have come out – I’ve seen plain, unsweetened, chocolate, coffee, and banana – but the plain one is easiest to find. I had only seen the small 200mL size being sold (for about 100-120 yen, about $1 US) until last week, when I saw the 1000mL size for the first time in the supermarket, which was a little more cost-efficient at 358 yen (about $3 US). Both brands taste fine, though they seem to contain a lot of sugar.


Ingredients in Japan: Butter and Fats

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.

When I first came to Japan, I was horrified at the price of butter. Butter is sold in blocks of 200g (almost 1/2 lb), 100g (about 1/4 lb), and also in small packs of individually wrapped “pats” of butter. The best value is always the larger blocks, but in the past 2.5 years I’ve seen the price for 200g range from about 375 to 500 yen. In U.S. dollars this works out to $8.50 to $11 a pound. Therefore, I have not done a lot of cooking with butter in Japan! I usually use margarine (more on this below), or mix butter and margarine.

A bit more on butter: it is sold in salted or unsalted types. Unsalted is always more expensive for some reason, and is not always available. Some “fancy” butters are also available. For example, I have recently been seeing something that I think is “cultured butter”, which has a more tangy yogurt-like taste. In Japan, Hokkaidou (the northernmost island) is famous for high-quality dairy, so most butter sold in my area seems to be produced there. Another important note on butter is that Japan regularly experiences “butter shortages”, and supermarkets often limit the amount of butter that each customer can buy, or run out of butter and have no supply for a day or two.

A good option for spreading on toast, etc., is “butter spread“, which is a soft product made from soy, corn, etc., with “butter flavor”. This is cheaper than dairy butter. There are many, many varieties of butter spread sold everywhere. There are even a few flavored ones, with garlic or something like that.

Cake margarine (unsalted)

Cake margarine (unsalted)

Margarine is also available in stick form. I discovered something called ケーキ用マーガリン (keeki-you maagarin) or “margarine for cakes”. This can be used in baking, and is what I have used the majority of the time. I’m used to it now, and it’s not bad at all. Of course, butter will taste better, but if you plan to do a lot of baking, it is a good choice (unless you have a large budget for groceries). One important difference is that the margarine stays softer than butter even when cold. This means that it’s easier to mix into doughs, but also that if you chill a cookie dough, it will NOT get as hard as a cookie dough made with butter. This means that roll-out cookies are going to be softer and more difficult to work with. You can add a little extra flour to help make up for it, or chill the dough in the freezer instead of fridge to get it colder.

IMG_7800Vegetable shortening is not as common in Japan as in the U.S., and more expensive as well. However, if you look around you can definitely find it (usually with the baking supplies or cake-decorating stuff). The most common brands are about the same price as butter (around $10/lb), but I found one brand that is sold at about half that price in grocery stores, and you can also buy a larger tub (about 500g, a little over a pound) at import stores at a similar price.

Oils I usually keep around: olive, sesame, canola.

Oils I usually keep around: olive, sesame, canola.

Several oils are commonly sold in stores: canola oil, vegetable oil (called サラダオイル, sarada oiru or salad oil in Japan), olive oil (both light and extra virgin), and sesame oil, or ごま油 (gomaabura). Vegetable/canola oils are sold in large jugs for pretty cheap prices, usually about 300 yen per liter (around $3 a quart). Olive oil is more expensive, of course, but not excessive – prices are similar to what I saw in the U.S., if memory serves. I’m Italian, so I always have extra virgin olive oil in the house, but when my bottle starts getting low I start looking around for a sale or a good price, and can usually find a decent deal. Sesame oil is more expensive than canola oil, but probably cheaper than in the U.S. It is often located in the Chinese food aisle.

Other oils can be found, but not in the regular grocery store. If you check out fancy grocery stores or import stores, you can find many different oils, ranging from avocado oil to walnut oil. As expected, they are small bottles for high prices, and availability varies depending on the store. My advice on these would be to plan ahead and either buy online or hunt around at different import stores to make sure you can find them – don’t plan on making a recipe using one of these oils assuming you can get it easily.

Ingredients in Japan: Meat

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.

In general, there is less variety of meat available in Japan. The three main types are chicken, pork, and beef, of which beef is the most expensive. Horse meat is also available in some places. Most beef and pork is sold in packs already sliced thinly, which is really convenient for Japanese / Asian cooking. You can get some larger pieces of meat, especially pork (loin, shoulder, belly, pork chops, etc).

Chicken, or 鶏 (tori) is generally sold as boneless breast or thigh meat. The breast meat is sold as chicken tenders (ささみ, sasami) or the whole breast (ムネ, mune), which is cheaper. Chicken drumsticks and wings are also available. Occasionally you can find a cut-up whole chicken. I’ve heard that you can request a whole chicken from the supermarket’s meat department, but haven’t tried that myself.

chicken label

Pork, or 豚 (buta), is a very popular meat in Japan, and is sold in many different cuts. The domestic pork has more fat and more flavor than imported meat. Some commonly seen cuts are pork chops, pork tenderloin (called ヒレ, hire), thigh (モモ, momo), belly (ばら, bara). I can sometimes find pork shoulder or spare ribs.

Beef, or 牛 (gyuu), is the most expensive of the commonly-seen meat. You can find imported American or Australian beef, or domestic beef. The domestic product is the most expensive (and high quality). Japanese beef is usually very finely marbled with fat and is used for dishes such as sukiyaki. You can find both thinly-sliced beef and steaks, domestic and imported of each type, but there isn’t a lot of variety in the cuts. I sometimes see “blocks” of beef thigh.

As far as ground meat, most stores carry ground chicken, pork, beef, and pork/beef mixture. If a recipe calls for ground beef, I usually use the mixed meat because it has a beefy flavor, but is much cheaper.

beef,pork labelOrgan meat is also available, including liver, tongue, heart, skin, tendon, etc.

Other meats are probably available, but I don’t generally see them. Once in a while I’ve seen lamb. Some are available frozen at Costco and other import stores (e.g. turkey).

Bacon” is sold at grocery stores, but is significantly different from American-style bacon. Sausages of various types are sold as well. Cold cuts are not popular, except for ham. We have also seen salami and pastrami occasionally.

Some other prepared meats are available for slightly higher prices, including pre-marinated, pre-cut, or pre-made but uncooked hamburgers and meatballs.

Meat prices are higher than what I saw in the U.S., and are labeled per 100g. As I mentioned, chicken will generally be cheapest, followed by pork, and then beef. However, there are often several different types of meat which vary in price depending on their quality and whether they are domestic (usually more expensive) or imported (often from the United States or Australia). A final thing to be aware of is that laws in Japan about food storage tend to be more stringent than in the U.S., so supermarkets often discount meat at the end of the day, and it’s easy to find meat 30% or 50% off.

Ingredients in Japan: Fruits & Vegetables

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.

fruitCurrently in season (November – December): persimmons and mikan.

Most fruits and vegetables go by their English names written in katakana: for example, avocado is called アボカド (abokado), so it’s easy to ask for or recognize them. In other cases, I have included the Japanese name.

There are so many fruits and vegetables that this page is kind of overwhelming. Also, I still sometimes come across fruits or vegetables that I’ve never seen before in Japan, so if you’re wondering about something that you don’t see here, leave a comment and I’ll let you know!

apple: common all year, ranges in price from cheap to expensive. In season in fall and winter. Japanese: りんご, ringo.
apricot: uncommon but available in summer; also sold dried
avocado: common all year round
banana: common and cheap year-round
berries: expensive and seasonal; strawberries and blueberries are available in summer. Strawberries are sold in December because they are popular at Christmas. Other berries are rare or unavailable.
cherries: available in spring and summer. Usually two varieties: American, which are called チェリー, cherii, and Japanese, which are 桜ん坊, sakuranbou.
citrus: There are many types of Japanese citrus, most of which are not found in other countries. Many are seasonal and sold in winter. Some common types are mikan (similar to clementines), yuzu, kinkan (kumquats), dekopon, kabosu, and sudachi. See this article for more.
figs: available in summer. Japanese: いちじく, ichijiku.
grapefruit: often available, especially in winter
grapes: seasonal; available in fall and winter. Many varieties are sold, but most of them have seeds and thick, hard-to-digest skin, so they must be peeled. Japanese: ぶどう, budou.
kiwi: usually available
lemon: always available; price varies
lime: quite rare, but can be found at certain supermarkets
mango: seasonal
melon: several types available, such as watermelon, cantaloupe, and winter melon, especially in fall and winter, but expensive
nectarine/peach: available in summer, generally expensive. Japanese: 桃, momo.
orange: Western-style oranges are sold, but native Japanese citrus are more common (see above).
pear: Western pears are sometimes available. “Asian pear”, called nashi in Japanese, is quite different, but is available in summer.
persimmon: seasonal and cheap in October-November. Japanese: 柿, kaki.
pineapple: usually available; price varies
plum: available in summer; Western type is called プラム, puramu, while the Japanese variety is called 梅, ume.
pomegranate: occasionally available (though expensive) in fall/winter. Japanese: ざくろ, zakuro.
quince: common in fall. Japanese: かりん, karin.

Other fruits are sometimes available seasonally. I have seen dragonfruit, akebi, and loquats (Japanese: biwa).

artichoke: have not seen
asparagus: available year-round; price varies
bamboo: bamboo shoots (takenoko) are sometimes available; menma is a kind of fermented bamboo used as a ramen topping.
beet: have not seen
bell pepper: usually available. Japanese: パプリカ, papurika.
bitter melon: usually available. Japanese: ゴーヤ, gouya.
bok choy: usually available. Japanese: ちんげんさい, chingensai.
broccoli: available year-round but price varies a lot depending on the season
brussels sprouts: available seasonally in winter. Japanese: 芽キャベツ, mekyabetsu.
cabbage: always available and usually cheap. Both Western cabbage and Napa cabbage (Japanese: 白菜, hakusai) are sold.
carrot: available year-round. Japanese: にんじん, ninjin.
cauliflower: sometimes available; always expensive and often not good quality
chili pepper: hot peppers (tougarashi) are sometimes available fresh, but more commonly dried. The most common kind of pepper is shishito, which are usually sweet, but occasionally hot.
corn: fresh corn is available for a time in the summer, but even at the cheapest it is expensive (rarely under 100 yen / about $1 per ear). Japanese: とうもろこし, toumorokoshi.
cucumber: available year-round; cheap in summer
eggplant: usually available. Japanese variety is smaller than Western. Japanese: なす, nasu.
fennel: have not seen
garlic: always available. Japanese: にんにく, ninniku.
ginger: fresh roots are always available and cheap; myouga, a related vegetable, is also common.
green beans: sometimes available; more expensive than in the U.S. Also available frozen. Japanese: いんげん, ingen.
greens: many varieties are sold, but many are unique to Japan or Asia. Spinach is always available (Japanese: ほうれん草, hourensou), as are arugula (rukora) and a few types of lettuce. Mixed salad greens are also sold. Common Japanese greens include 春菊, shungiku (chrysanthemum leaves), mizuna (used in nabe or salad), komatsuna (similar to spinach), mitsuba (similar to parsley), nanohana (similar to broccoli rabe), and nira (garlic chives).
leek family: Long green onions, or naganegi, are common and available year-round, as are the smaller konegi (green onions). There are several similar varieties, such as rakkyou (Chinese scallions), which are often pickled.
okra: sometimes available
onion: available year-round. Variations (red onion, shallots) are hit-and-miss, but are sometimes sold. Japanese: 玉ねぎ, tamanegi.
peas: snow peas are usually available. Green peas are not common. I have seen bagged frozen green peas at only one place.
potato: available year-round. Japanese: じゃがいも, jagaimo.
radish: small red radishes are sometimes available. Giant white radish, or daikon, is always available.
rhubarb: have not seen
root vegetables: Besides daikon, renkon (lotus root) and gobou (burdock root) are always available, as are taro, yamaimo and nagaimo (types of tubers).
rutabaga: have not seen
soybeans: available fresh seasonally; always available frozen. Japanese: 枝豆, edamame.
sprouts: daikon sprouts (kaiware), mung bean sprouts (moyashi), soybean sprouts (toumyou), and broccoli sprouts are common year-round. I have sometimes seen alfalfa sprouts as well.
squash: the most common type is kabocha, similar in taste to butternut squash. Zucchini is sometimes available in summer.
sweet potato: Japanese sweet potato is quite different from Western sweet potato. It is yellow inside with purple skin, and both sweeter and more starchy.
tomato: Usually available, but expensive in winter. Cheap and more widely available in summer.
turnip: sometimes available (white and red varieties). Japanese: かぶ, kabu.

There are many other specialty vegetables that are available for short times during the year, for example, romanesco, fuki (butterbur), and yurine (lily root).

Frozen fruits & veggies
Unfortunately not nearly as popular as in the U.S., probably because of lack of freezer space. You can usually find broccoli, corn, kabocha, spinach, and green beans. For fruit, I see blueberries most often, but sometimes strawberries and mango.

Dried fruit
Commonly available: apricots, figs, mango, persimmons, pineapple, prunes, raisins, and tomatoes. Others are sold at import stores or specialty shops.

Ingredients in Japan: Nuts

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.

Nuts are definitely available in Japan, but not in as wide a variety as we found in the U.S. The most common are almonds and peanuts, but others that are easy to find include walnuts, cashews, macadamia nuts, and pistachios. There are a few “nuts” that are also commonly found, such as chestnuts, pine nuts, and ginkgo nuts.

Other nuts (hazelnuts, pecans, Brazil nuts) are difficult to find. Most Japanese people that I asked had never heard of pecans, and even when I showed them one, they couldn’t distinguish them from walnuts.

Despite being generally available, nuts are, like many baking ingredients in Japan, sold in small packages for high prices. If you like to cook with or snack on nuts, the best way is to buy them online or at places like Costco. As a comparison, if you look at the picture above, you can see a small bag of pistachios (30g / 1 oz) I bought at my local supermarket, next to the bag of almonds I bought at Costco (3 lb / 1.36 kg).

As far as usage, nuts seem to be seen as a snack food. They are sold in small bags for snacking, or used in candy.

Ingredients in Japan: Herbs and Spices

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.

When I moved to Japan, I packed up my remaining herbs and spices and put them in a box of stuff which I shipped to Japan. While this was helpful at the beginning, it was not necessary. I’ve heard people say that they “can’t” get certain herbs or spices in Japan, but I have not found this to be the case. I’ve never had trouble finding any dried herb or spice.

I found that they key was, just like in the U.S., it all depends on the store (and perhaps the area of the country). I live in a big city with many options for supermarkets, but not all of them have the same variety of herbs and spices. There are two larger, more expensive, “fancier” supermarkets in the area where I’ve found pretty much anything from white pepper to kaffir lime powder to tarragon. However, in my nearby supermarket, there are maybe 15 basic herbs and spices – cinnamon, ground black pepper, basil, etc.

If you need a certain herb or spice and your local store doesn’t carry it, you have several options. One is to check at a larger or more expensive grocery store (if you’re out in the country, try checking the nearest large city); another is to look for an import store (especially good for more unusual things like galangal or Indian spices). If your spices fall under a certain cuisine, you might be able to find a store that specializes (for example, I passed by a Vietnamese grocery once), or if you’re really stuck you could try going to a restaurant of the cuisine and ask the staff where they get their ingredients! These methods are going to be different for each person depending where you live. Finally, you can always buy online, where you can really find anything you want (though you’ll need to plan ahead for delivery time).

One issue with herbs and spices is the price. Japanese cooking doesn’t use a lot of herbs and spices, and so the bottles tend to be quite small. Therefore, the bottles are inexpensive, but also used up quickly. A solution to this is to look for a restaurant supply store. I came across one in Tokyo, but haven’t searched elsewhere. They sell large containers of herbs and spices for reasonable prices. Also, Costco sells a limited number of herbs and spices (like cinnamon, pepper, garlic powder, Italian seasoning) in large containers.

Fresh herbs can be more difficult to find, depending what you want. Basil and parsley are easily available fresh in supermarkets and also pretty much anywhere that sells plants. Some more expensive stores sell other fresh herbs (I’ve seen rosemary, mint, thyme, and cilantro), and some plant places sell these herbs as well. I’ve decided to stick with dried herbs, except basil and parsley, which I grow myself, so I’m not so well-versed on the subject.

One final note regarding names of herbs and spices in Japanese: about 95% of the time, the word in Japanese is just borrowed from English and written in katakana (e.g. cinnamon = シナモン, shinamon), so if you can read katakana it should be pretty simple to find (or ask for) what you want. If you can’t read katakana, get on that!

Ingredients in Japan: Baking powder, baking soda, and yeast

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.

Baking powder, baking soda, and yeast have been pretty much the same for me as they were in America, but at first I just had a little trouble finding these common baking chemicals in Japan. I knew that they must be available, but I wasn’t sure where to look or what they would be called.

First, baking powder. This was pretty easy for me to find because in Japanese, they just use the English name: ベーキングパウダー (beikingu paudaa), and in the brand they sell around here, it’s written in English letters as well on the can. (By the way, the can stumped me at first, since I had never used any product in that kind of container before – you have to use a butter knife or the end of another utensil to pop open the lid.) When I checked a dictionary, another word for baking powder was listed, 膨らし粉 (fukurashi-ko), but I have never seen it used in recipes or on the package.

baking powderBaking soda was a little harder. In contrast to baking powder, which was clearly marked with the English and katakana word, I always find it in the store as 重曹 (juusou), though the dictionary has that word along with the English word ベーキングソーダ (beikingu souda), and I’ve seen both terms in recipes.

baking soda Finally, yeast. This is the only brand sold in my local supermarket, though they have different packaging options. I like to buy my yeast in one big package (you can see it labeled on this box as 50g x 1袋), but they also have options of several smaller packages inside the box. Here again, we have the English word ドライイースト (dorai iisuto) for dry yeast. This box is the instant type (not required to activate in warm water before using), so it’s labeled 予備発酵不要 (yobi hakkou fuyou); it’s also marked as 顆粒 (karyuu), or granule-type. And finally, it mentions: ホームベーカリーにも使えます, or “can also be used in bread machines”.

yeastOnce I figured out what these things were and where to find them (usually with the other baking or cake-decorating supplies in the supermarket), I’ve had no trouble using them exactly the same way I did in America.