All moms have a way of getting kids to eat things, and mine was no different. Growing up, there was always a jar or two of “sprinkles” in the middle of our lazy Susan, ready to be deployed on everything: rice, steamed veggies, fish, anything my mom wanted us to eat. And I loved the sprinkles — they were salty and sweet, a little crunchy, and added a delicious flavor that I couldn’t then name (but can now: umami). They were so effective at getting my brother and me to eat whatever was put in front of us that later I brought a jar with me when I went babysitting, to get those kids to eat their dinners. And their moms would inevitably ask me: “What are those sprinkles you used? I have to get some.”
The sprinkles are furikake (pronounced foo-ree-kah-keh, not “fury cake”), a Japanese seasoning mix that’s usually used for rice, but is delicious on almost anything: shaved vegetable salads, Dimes-ish grain bowls, and (especially) French fries. There are lots of varieties of furikake — some have dried fish flakes or sweet nuggets of dehydrated egg — but all are some variation on a mix of dried seaweed, salt, and sugar. The seaweed doesn’t register as grassy or green; it’s there purely for that savory umami taste, which probably explains why it’s a hit with kids. My family largely stuck with the JFC brand, the most popular version in Asian markets (and even at our local Safeway in the Bay Area). And unlike the brands that come in plastic pouches, JFC’s glass bottle can be plonked right on the dinner table for little (or grown-up) hands to grab and shake onto their food.
A word of warning, though: Knowing the simple magic of furikake might turn you into an insufferable know-it-all. At Bar Goto, I was served a bar snack of celery garnished with tiny flecks of kombu, sesame seeds, and shiso leaves. “Oh, you mean sprinkles,” I replied. “Yeah, I’ve been eating those since I was a kid.”
If you’re interested in diving headfirst into the world of furikake, you can buy an assortment of eight flavors for just over $3 a bottle, too. But it’s not the only condiment Japanese families keep handy — here are all the other things you’ll always find in my mother’s pantry.
Other must-have Japanese condiments
Right next to the furikake on our lazy Susan was La Yu, a spicy, chili-flavored sesame-oil blend that tastes and smells toasty and, like my beloved Lao Gan Ma spicy chili crisp, is a nice alternative to sriracha. I use it on noodles, chicken soup, stir-fries, and anything that needs some kick.
Most Japanese noodle restaurants — especially those that serve wide, doughy udon noodles — will have a bottle of shichimi or nanami togarashi on the table. It’s a blend of spices that includes dried red chilies, Japanese sansho pepper, roasted orange peel, seaweed, sesame seeds, and more (both shichi and nana mean seven in Japanese, so it translates to seven-flavor pepper). Like the La Yu chili oil, this is good on pretty much anything that could use a bit of spice, and (just go with me here) is really delicious sprinkled on top of peanut-buttered toast.
I just picked up my first jar of this citrus-chili condiment from the Sunrise Market in Soho and am excited to use it. A colleague at the Strategist tells me she loves it on scrambled eggs, and I’m thinking I’m going to mix it with rice vinegar and sesame oil to create some sort of vinaigrette for cold noodle salads.
Grub Street writer Hugh Merwin has mentioned this cousin to barbecue sauce before in his roundup of interesting condiments you can find online. Though it traditionally accompanies tonkatsu (a breaded and fried pork or chicken cutlet) or okonomiyaki (a savory pancake full of assorted meats and vegetables), it’s good on pretty much anything you’d put barbecue sauce or ketchup on. It’s more tangy and acidic than either of those, which makes it perfect for cutting through rich, fatty things like hamburgers or fried eggs (or a hamburger topped with a fried egg).
Kewpie mayo is creamier, richer, and more flavorful than regular mayonnaise, thanks to a mix of spices and — yes — MSG. (I’m very much in the “MSG is not harmful” camp, and those who are wary of its supposed side effects should read Jeffrey Steingarten’s excellent 1999 essay, “Why Doesn’t Everybody in China Have a Headache?” in his It Must’ve Been Something I Ate essay collection.) Delicious when used in place of Hellman’s on deviled eggs, in sandwiches, or on hot dogs.
Japanese soup bases and tea
Love Japanese noodle soups, but don’t want to bother gathering all the ingredients (kombu seaweed, dried fish flakes, mirin, sake, and more)? Do what my mom and grandma did and just keep a bottle of this soup base on hand. You dilute it with water according to how you’re eating your noodles (less water for a dipping sauce for cold noodles in the summer; more water to make a soup for hot noodles). Mom and grandma stick to Kikkoman Memmi, but I also like the Shirakiku brand.
And this is what mom and grandma use to make instant dashi stock, without the added soy, mirin, and sake flavors that go into a noodle soup base. Pour this over cooked rice, add some furikake, and you have a cheap and quick ochazuke.
According to my mom, many Japanese families drink this toasted-rice green tea instead of regular green tea (sans rice) because it’s inexpensive — the toasted rice adds a lot of bulk, so you’re paying for fewer leaves. It’s not tea that you’d serve to company (says mom), but it’s what we grew up drinking, and I actually prefer it, since the rice adds a toasty, nutty flavor to balance out the grassiness of the tea leaves.
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