Japanese sauces are very simple sauces, compared to, for instance, the complexity of French sauces.
Any cooking for Japanese sauces is generally just a brief, light simmer on the stove to reduce the liquid, and while a sauce may be an assembly of other sauces, those other sauces are all obtained commercially off the shelf. This compares favourably to classic French sauces, which can often require you to prepare two or three other sauces before starting on the sauce you need to make.
While fish sauces are popular throughout Asia, and fish itself is popular in Japan, most Japanese sauces draw on either grains (rice or wheat) or beans (soy beans in particular) as their foundational elements. One example of a fish sauce is Nitsume Sauce, based on eel.
Sauces are rarely poured on at the table. Instead, at the table, they are used for dipping food into. Dipping sauces include Tentsuyu, ponzu and even a simple, straight-up side dish of soy sauce.
Dressing sauces for salads and vegetables include miso sauce, sesame sauce, sesame seed dressing, and mixed vinegar sauce.
In the kitchen, sauces such as Teriyaki and Yakitori Sauce are used as a marinade or a “brushing while cooking” sauce. Sauces such as Nikiri Sauce are brushed on fish just before serving to the diner.
Japanese marinating sauces actually penetrate fish and meat more effectively than Western marinade sauces, because in Japanese cooking fish and meat are cut into much smaller pieces first.
Basic Ingredients of Japanese Sauces
The eight basic ingredients for Japanese sauces are:
- dashi (a stock made from kombu seaweed and dried flakes of tuna, usually now made from excellent stock powders);
- mirin (rice wine);
- rice vinegar;
- soy sauce;
With these ingredients to hand in the kitchen, a cook can prepare a Japanese sauce in very little time.
An analysis of ten common Japanese sauces shows the range of sauces that are based on those eight ingredients:
- Amazu Sauce: rice vinegar, water, sugar
- Awasezu Sauce: vinegar, soy sauce, sugar
- Miso sauce: miso, sugar, mirin, dashi
- Mixed vinegar sauce: rice wine vinegar, sake, sugar, salt
- Nikiri Sauce: soy sauce, dashi, mirin, sake
- Ponzu Sauce: mirin, tuna flakes, kombu, rice vinegar, yuzu juice (use orange juice instead of yuzu outside of Japan)
- Sesame sauce: sesame paste, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, dashi
- Sesame seed dressing: sesame seeds, soy sauce, dashi, mirin
- Teriyaki Sauce: mirin, soy sauce, sake, sugar
- Yakitori Sauce: sake, soy sauce, mirin, sugar
Japanese sauces can be salty. The salt content of soy sauce and miso is 14 percent to 18 percent. Note that both, along with actual salt itself, are staple ingredients in Japanese sauces. This can be reduced by using low-sodium soy sauces.