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.

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Broccoli Crunch Salad

broccoli crunch again2This is a variation on the vegetarian broccoli salad I first saw here. Using simpler ingredients is fine. The most difficult part for me (in Japan) is the almond butter, as I have to make it myself. However, with a good food processor it’s simple. I’ll post instructions soon, but in the meantime, it’s easy to find them online.

Ingredients
1 clove garlic
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup almond butter
3 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp honey
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 head broccoli
1 medium-sized apple
1/4 small red onion
1/3 cup candied nuts (Pecans, walnuts, or almonds: to candy nuts, first chop roughly, then put in a dry frying pan with a few spoonfuls of sugar. Heat and stir until sugar melts and coats nuts. Pour out onto aluminum foil and let cool completely.)

Instructions

Crush the garlic clove with the side of a knife. Chop well, then crush the pieces again. Repeat two or three times until garlic becomes a paste. Mix with the other dressing ingredients: salt, almond butter, lemon juice, honey, and olive oil, and set aside.

Cut broccoli into bite-size pieces. Blanch in boiling water for 60 seconds, then drain.

Cut apple into small bite-size pieces, and slice red onion thinly. Combine broccoli, apple, onion, and candied nuts.

When ready to serve, mix with the dressing. If the dressing is too thick, add a little water. (However, I always find that the water absorbed by the broccoli will thin out the dressing, so adding water makes it too thin.)

Cranberry Almond Biscotti

biscottiThese were the first biscotti I learned to make. Since then I’ve adapted this recipe to make several other flavors, so feel free to experiment! For bakers in Japan, these cookies are terrific because they use oil instead of butter.

Ingredients
2 tbsp olive oil
6 tbsp sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp almond extract
1 egg
1 cup flour
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/3 cup almonds, chopped (50g or 1.75 oz)
1/4 cup dried cranberries, chopped

Instructions

Mix olive oil, sugar, vanilla, and almond extract in a bowl. Add egg and mix well. Add flour, salt, and baking powder and mix until combined. Batter may be thick. Add almonds and cranberries and mix until evenly spread through the batter.

Spread batter onto a baking sheet in a log shape, about 30cm / 12 in long and 12cm / 5 in wide. Bake at 150 C (300 F) for 35 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let cool for about 10 minutes. Slice diagonally with a sharp knife. You can make them as thin or thick as you like, but if they are too thin they tend to break in half, so be careful.

Lay the sliced biscotti on their sides, and bake again at 130 C (275 F) for 10 to 15 minutes until dry.

Traditionally, biscotti are eaten dipped into tea, coffee, cocoa, or wine, but they are also delicious on their own.

As I mentioned, you can make almost unlimited flavors of biscotti. Here are some of the combinations I have tried myself (but I have lots of other ideas, so be creative!). I think it’s best to have some kind of nut for the crunch, and I usually use dried fruit. You can add a citrus flavor with fresh orange or lemon zest. Some people also put chocolate in the batter or dip the bottom of the finished biscotti in chocolate, but I haven’t tried it.

– almond
– almond/cranberry
– almond/orange
– blueberry/lemon/lavender/walnut
– pistachio/cranberry
– banana walnut

Bruschetta

BruschettaBruschetta is one of my favorite summertime foods! I don’t have a precise recipe for the topping, but here are some guidelines.

Ingredients
1 baguette
extra virgin olive oil
several cloves garlic
about 1 cup cherry tomatoes
10 leaves fresh basil (or to taste)
fresh mozzarella cheese, cut in small cubes (In Japan, I usually use shredded cheese.)
salt and pepper
Other possible add-ins: fresh oregano, finely minced red onion, balsamic vinegar

Instructions

Chop up the cherry tomatoes. Chop 1-2 cloves garlic very finely and add them to the tomatoes. Mix in the cubed (or shredded) cheese. Cut the basil (and/or oregano) leaves in very fine strips and mix in. Add finely minced red onion if desired. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil, and some salt and pepper. Mix well and taste. Adjust seasonings, and let sit for as long as possible.

When ready to serve, cut some garlic cloves in half, and rub them all over the crust of the baguette. Cut the baguette in diagonal slices about 1/2″ to 1″ thick. Place the slices on a baking sheet and drizzle olive oil over the tops. Toast in the oven until golden brown.

Top each slice of bread with a spoonful of tomato topping.

Don’t forget that if the topping sits on the bread for long, it’ll get soggy! I like to serve the toast on the side, and the topping in a bowl and let everyone serve themselves.