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 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.
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.