Essential Japanese Cookware and Beyond

There’s a vast array of complicated Japanese cookware, gadgets and tools on the market.  It can be a bit overwhelming.  If you are a beginner like myself, then investing in a few key pieces of equipment is all you need to get you started into the wonderful world of Japanese cooking.

When making this list, I assumed that you are starting with basically zero cooking equipment.  Your kitchen is empty, except for maybe some plates, bowls and utensils to eat with.  Therefore, this list also includes many basic tools to go along with more specialized Japanese cookware.

For each item, I have recommended one or two products that you could buy.  If you have different preferences, or happen to already own something similar, then feel free to skip it.

Try not to get hung up on having every piece of equipment, or the highest-end equipment.  Many great chefs often use makeshift tools or less than optimal equipment when necessary.   In fact, when I first started cooking, I used a knife and cutting board that I bought from the 100 yen shop (i.e. dollar store)!  It was good enough for me at the time.

As your chef skills and experience as progress, you can look to upgrade your equipment.

The Bare Essentials – 12 items

Using these basic tools and equipment, you can make all basic Japanese recipes.  I have tried to keep this list to the absolute bare minimum, based on what I have been able to get by on in the past.  Many are general tools that every kitchen and chef should have regardless of cuisine.

Japanese Kitchen Knife – Gyuto or Santoku

A sharp knife is a chef’s best friend.  You only need one knife to start out with, so I recommend getting either a gyuto (Japanese chef’s knife), or a santoku.  Both are all-purpose knives that can be used for cutting meat, fish, or vegetables.  Professional chefs tend to recommend a gyuto over santoku as it is a bit more versatile, but if you are working in a small area, then a santoku may be better for you.

Recommended gyuto: Tojiro DP Gyutou 21cm ($70)
Recommended santokus:  Tojiro DP Santoku 17cm ($66), Mac Knife Superior Santoku 6.5″ ($75)

For more about knives, check out our articles:  Japanese Knives 101, and the Japanese Knife Buying Guide 

Cutting Board

A good cutting board is a sharp knife’s best friend.  You want a board made out of softer material that won’t damage, or dull your knife’s edge prematurely.  The most recommended materials for cutting boards are hi-soft, end-grain wood, or all-rubber.    Unfortunately, these can get a bit expensive.   For a budget-friendly alternative, just get a soft plastic cutting board.  They are cheap enough that you can simply replace them when they get too scratched up.   Avoid buying boards made of hard materials like bamboo, edge-grain wood, granite, stone, stainless steel, etc.

When buying, make sure you get a size suitable for your workspace.

Recommended products:
Premium option: Korin Hi-Soft Cutting Board – Small ($48)
Budget option: OXO Good Grips Utility Cutting Board ($15)

Frying pan / Skillet – Nonstick and Cast iron or stainless steel

Optimally, you would have two frying pans.  One non-stick pan, and one cast-iron or stainless steel pan.  For beginners, and lazy people like me, I would just get a good non-stick pan to start.  You can make all the basic recipes, and it is much easier to clean and maintain.   Just make sure not to use metal utensils on the pan or you will scratch/ruin the coating.   Only use wood, plastic, or rubber/silicone utensils.  As you advance, you can get a cast iron or stainless steel pan to better sear meats and such.

Nonstick pans come in two main material types: Teflon (PTFE) or ceramic.  The production of teflon is very harmful to the environment, so if you like our planet, you should get a ceramic pan.   Some people also say that cooking with teflon will release chemicals into your food, but that is only true if you heat it to over 500 degrees celsius.

Whatever non-stick material you choose, just remember not to use abrasive cleaning scrubs or metal utensils!

Recommended products:
Almond non-stick ceramic pan 10″ ($35) ,
Biallete Aeternum Fry Pan 10.25″ ($30)

Yukihira Nabe – Small Pot

Nabe (鍋) means pot in Japanese.  Essential for making soups, stews, and noodles.  For Japanese cooking, I would recommend getting a classic Japanese style one-handed pot called yukihira nabe (雪平鍋).   They are usually made of aluminum, are very lightweight and easy to use.   They also usually have spouts on each side for easier pouring.   Make sure to get a size big enough for your needs, or  consider getting a larger two-handed pot if you regularly cook for many people.

Recommended products:
Yoshikawa Yukihira Saucepan – 1.6L ($28)

Pot / Pan Lid 

If your frying pan and pot did not come with a lid, then you’re going to want to get one.  A lid allows you to retain heat and moisture in the pan so that you steam things, and boil things faster.  To save money, you can just buy one universal lid that is big enough to cover multiple pan or pot sizes.   To really save money, you can also just use a very large plate, tin foil, or a larger pan as a lid.

Recommended products:
Glass Lid Universal 6.15″ – 8.1″ ($8),     8.7″-10.2″($12)

Suihanki – Japanese rice cooker 

Rice is an essential ingredient of Japanese cuisine.  In fact, the rice of sushi is often considered more important than the fish.  Therefore, a great rice cooker is a must have tool for Japanese cooking.  Japanese rice cookers can come in a plethora of sizes, materials, and features — built-in timers, fuzzy logic, brown/white/sushi rice options, and more.   They can also be used to cook many things besides rice:  porridges, stews, and even cakes! 

Prices or rice cookers can vary quite drastically.  Fully featured, fancy rice cookers can easily cost a few hundred dollars, while more standard versions will cost anywhere from $30 to $100.

When buying, make sure you get a size large enough for your needs (measured by how many cups of rice it can cook).  Try to look for “Made in Japan” rice cookers for better quality, although most lower priced models available in Western countries will probably be made in China, India, Thailand, etc.

Recommended products:
Super Premium, fully featured option:  Zojirushi Induction Heating Pressure Rice Cooker NP-NVC10 ($365)
Normal option: Tiger JBV-A10U-W 5.5 cup ($70), Panasonic SR-G10FGL 5-cup ($50)
Super cheap option:

Shamoji – Rice paddle and/or Wooden Spatula

If your rice cooker doesn’t come with its own rice paddle or shamoji, it should be your next purchase.  How else are you going to scoop your rice up?  Freshly cooked rice also needs to be mixed to let the last moisture escape and prevent the rice from becoming soggy, without crushing the soft grains.   I recommend getting a wooden/bamboo one so that you can also use it to stir things in your non-stick frying pan/pot.  Plastic versions would melt, and I also just don’t like plastic utensils in general.

Alternatively, you could get a big wooden spatula, which would be more helpful for flipping things when cooking .  Or, if you are not as thrifty as me, just get both — a spatula and shamoji!

Recommended products:
Bamber Wood Rice Paddle ($8.99)
OXO Good Grips Large Wooden Spoon and/or Wooden Turner ($5.99 each)

 

Saibashi – Cooking chopsticks ( 菜箸)

Perhaps the most useful, and simple of Japanese cooking utensils is the saibashi — extra long chopsticks for cooking.  I use these for everything — stir frying, whisking eggs, mixing sauces, flipping ingredients, and serving food.  Saibashi are much longer than your typical dining chopsticks (approx. 1.5 – 2.5 times longer, 30-40cm / 12-16 inches), which allows the chef to cook without getting hands too close to hot pan and splattering oil. Because they are exposed to intense heat, saibashi are unglazed but if you are going to be deep frying food, you can buy saibashi with metal ends and wood handles.  If you are not scared of the heat, you can also use normal sized chopsticks (just make sure they are wood/bamboo).  I recommend to get get at least a couple pairs — one for cooking, and one for serving.  Make sure you get wood/bamboo ones, so you don’t scratch your non-stick pan.

Recommended products: 
Donxote Wooden Cooking Chopsticks 16.5″ – 2 pack  ($6.89)

Spoons

The mighty spoon — much more useful than its cousin, the fork.  Especially for chefs.  When skillfully combined with chopsticks, you almost don’t need any other cooking utensils.  Spoons can be used for tasting, measuring, mixing, saucing, peeling, serving, scooping, flipping and eating.  There are actually many, many different types of spoons, but it’s not necessary for us to get into detail now.  Just get some spoons that you would also want to eat with.  Buy at least a few so you don’t need to constantly be washing the same one.

Recommended products:
Super fancy chef option:  JB Prince Gray Kunz Sauce Spoon ($18)
Regular spoons: Hiware 12-piece Stainless Steel Spoons ($13) – keep a few and give the extra to your friends

Mesh Strainer

You need a strainer for many things.  The most common task would be rinsing and draining liquid from your vegetables.  In terms of Japanese cooking, a stainless steel mesh strainer can also be used for cooking/rinsing noodles,  and quickly scooping other things out of boiling water.  It can also act as a make-shift miso-strainer.  It can also be used to sift flour, coffee and tea.

When looking for a mesh strainer, I like ones that have little hands on the side to latch onto your bowl or pot (see the image above as an example).

Recommended products:
Winco Double Fine Mesh 8-inch strainer – $7.78

U.S. Kitchen Supply Premium strainers 3 piece set – $12

Towels

As many chefs will tell you, “Cleanliness is next to godliness”.

The often overlooked kitchen towel is the key to keeping your kitchen area clean.  Towels can be used for a huge variety of tasks — wiping hands, wiping knives / cutting boards, wiping counter tops, holding hot plates/pans/pots, etc., so get yourself a stack of towels that you can use for everything!

Recommended products:
Liliane Collection Kitchen Dish Towels (13 towels) – $16.99
Huck Towels Blue (50-pack) – $22.99

Cleaning solution / Germ killer

Another necessary addition to keep your kitchen clean and free of germs is a cleaning solution.  You can use whatever fancy brand you like, but an easy and cheap solution is to use isopropyl alcohol (i.e. rubbing alcohol) and water.   Just put it in a spray bottle and use it on your cutting boards and counter tops.  It dries very quickly, so you don’t even need to wipe it if you’re lazy.

Recommended products:
Isopropyl Alcohol 99.5+% – 1 Gallon – $13
Tolco Empty Spray Bottle 8 oz. (Pack of 3) – $5 

Basic Nice-to-Haves and Upgrades

These are some tools that will make your life a lot easier, but are not necessarily essential (according to me).  Often, you can hack together some other basic tools as substitutes.  A few of these tools should probably be essential, but because I am cheap, and have managed to get by without them before, I have listed them here.  I have also listed some upgraded versions of the bare essential items.

Peeler

If you plan on frequently eating carrots, cucumbers, daikon, potatoes, yams, apples, or any other vegetables/fruits that require peeling, then you should get a peeler.  Alternatively, you can just use your knife, or even a spoon.   A peeler will just make everything much faster, easier, and will probably save you from buying bandaids.

Recommended products:
Kuhn Rikon Swiss Peeler ($5 for one, $12 for three)

Stainless-steel Mixing Bowls

A tool found in every professional kitchen, regardless of cuisine, is stainless steel mixing bowls.  Used for making sauces, mixing cakes, beating eggs, soaking foods, cleaning vegetables, and just for holding things while you prep.  You can even eat out of them if you want.  Stainless steel mixing bowls are fairly cheap, and super easy to clean.

There are many fancy mixing bowl options on the market, but they are all unnecessary. Start with two or three different sized bowls, and you’ll be set for a long time.

Of course, you can just use any normal dining bowls as substitutes — it just won’t be as cool.

Recommended products:
Vollrath Stainless Steel Mixing Bowl – Many Sizes available  ($5 – $12)
Finedine 6 piece Mixing Bowl Set ($25)

Tongs

Tongs makes flipping meats / fish on your pan or grill super easy.  Essential if you are going to be grilling or BBQing a lot.  If not, you can just use chopsticks and/or spoons to flip things things in your pan.

Also great for serving salads, or noodles if your chopstick skills aren’t quite there yet.

Recommended products:
Winco Utility Tong with Rubber Tip and Locking Clip (12 inch) – $7

Flipping Spatulas

Having a few different sized spatulas will make your life easier when you start cooking different things that need flipping like pancakes, fried eggs, hamburgers or okonomiyaki.

Choose one made of heat-resistant silicon/nylon material that won’t scratch your non-stick pan.

Recommended products:
OXO Good Grips Nylon Flexible Turner – $7

Otama – Soup ladle

A traditional Japanese ladle is typically much shallower than a Western ladle.  This allows you to scoop more accurately and also skim scum off the tops of soups/stews.   Traditional Japanese versions usually have a wooden handle that will not conduct heat.

If you are going to be making a lot of soups/stews, then a ladle should probably be an essential item.  Otherwise, you can make do pouring straight from the pot, or tediously using normal spoons.

Electric Kettle

An electric kettle is a nice-to-have item that you should definitely upgrade to as soon as you can.  It makes boiling water much faster, and will help save you plenty of time / energy in the long run.   Essential for any dish that requires hot water — noodles, instant ramen, soups, stews, hot water doughs, etc.  Of course, also excellent for making coffee or tea.

Get one made of stainless steel.  Avoid cheap plastic ones that will break easily and often give off a nasty plasticy taste to the water.

Recommended products:
Luxury choice:  Fellow Stagg EKG Pour-Over Kettle – $149
Budget choice:  Hamilton Beach 1L Electric Kettle – $18

Intermediate / Advanced / Specialist

These are some tools and equipment that you may look to purchase as you progress past basic Japanese recipes.  Also, some stuff really unnecessary, but nice to splurge on if that

Amijakushi – Netted / Mesh Ladle


A netted ladle is essential when you start making deep fried foods like tempura, karaage, or katsu.  Also super useful when you need to scoop things out of boiling hot liquids like noodles, dumplings, shabu shabu, etc.  A finer meshed ladle can also be used to skip scum / foam off the top of soups and stews.

Best to get a couple different mesh sizes so you can be prepared for all occasions.

Recommended products:
TEMCHY Fat Skimmer Spoon – $6.99
Hiware Solid Stainless Steel Spider Strainer – $8.99

Otoshibuta – Drop lid

Unlike an ordinary pot lid, an otoshibuta sit inside of the pot, on top of your ingredients to ensure that they stay immersed in the liquid when simmering.  Its weight is it’s most important feature because it has to be able to stay in place without crushing the contents of the pan.  An otoshibuta has three main purposes: prevent your ingredients from moving/breaking apart while simmering, distribute heat evenly, and prevent liquids from evaporating too quickly.

Traditionally made from wood, otoshibuta can also be found in silicone and stainless steel variations.  You can also create your own make-shift otoshibuta out of aluminum foil.

Make sure you choose one that is the right size for your pot / pan.

Recommended products:
Nichi Nichi Dogu Wooden Drop lid – $16.50
Adjustable stainless steel Drop lid – $27.56

Misokoshi – Miso strainer 

Miso is one of the most important ingredients in Japanese cuisine.  Misokoshi is a strainer specifically for making miso soup.  This ladle like tool features a deep meshed basket so that the chef can dip it completely into the broth to strain the miso.  The mesh is sized so that it allows flavourful miso to pass through, while keeping out some of the larger bits of rice.

Many strainers comes with a wooden stick (i.e. pestle) which is used to press/ mix the miso paste through the mesh, into the broth.

If not making miso soup often, a netted ladle or mesh strainer can be used in place of this specialist equipment.

Recommended products:
Kotobuki Misokoshi Set – $17.79

Oroshigane / Oroshiki – Japanese grater 


Oroshigane
or oroshiki is are used for grating wasabi, ginger, garlic or daikon radish into very fine paste.   Unlike Western style graters, where the grated material falls through holes, the grated material stays on top of the oroshigane.   It also features much finer/sharper teeth which makes it perfect for fibrous / stringy roots like wasabi and ginger.

Coarser versions are used for bigger foods like daikon and carrots, while finer versions are designed for wasabi, ginger, etc.

If you ever want to make your own freshly ground wasabi, then this is a must have tool.

Recommended products:
TSUBOE Japanese copper Grater (mini) – $16
Sakai Takumi Ajimasa Handmade OROSHIGANE – $45

Zaru – Bamboo straining basket 

You may already have a strainer/colander/sieve, but if you want to really indulge in Japanese cooking culture, then you need a zaru.  Traditionally made of bamboo, this draining basket is used not only for washing ingredients, but also in the presentation of food.  The most famous dish utilizing a zaru in its presentation is zarusoba.

Some chefs also believe that metal colanders and strainers can taint the flavor of food, so prefer to use zaru for draining.  

Recommended products:
End Bamboo Round Zaru Basket – $25

Scale

A scale is super handy once you start making doughs and baked goods, where the ratio of ingredients is a bit more important.  It is also useful if you are one of those people that love following or creating recipes to exact specs.

Digital scales are quite cheap nowadays, so it won’t break the bank to have one on hand.

Recommended products:
Ozeri ZK14-S Pronto Digital Multifunction Kitchen Scale – $15
MUELLER Digital Kitchen Scale – $12

More Knives!

Once you get into more advanced food preparation, you are going to need the proper knife for the job.  You will discover that there is a specialist Japanese knife for nearly every task — sushi knives, vegetable knives, carving knives, butchering knives, noodle knives, etc.

Check out the Complete Guide to Japanese Knife Types for help.

Makisu – Sushi rolling mat

How do sushi chefs make those beautiful little sushi rolls (i.e. maki sushi), all matching and perfectly formed? They use a makisu or sushi rolling mat. There are two main variations: one with flat slats of bamboo, the other with round sticks. In both cases, the bamboo pieces are joined with cotton thread. The smaller rolls are always made with the mat with the round sticks, larger rolls with the mat with the flat slats. A typical mat measures about 9.5 x 9.5 inches though some chefs like half-sized mats for smaller rolls.

A decent mat can be bought for quite cheap and should give years of service.  Placing a layer of plastic wrap film on top of the rolling surface before use keeps the mat clean and prevents grains of rice getting stuck between the pieces of bamboo.  Nowadays, you will also find many makisu made of plastic materials.

A makisu can also be used for gently squeezing water out of ingredients, or for molding soft foods.

Recommended products:
BambooWorx Sushi Making Kit – 2 mats + 2 paddles – $7
BambooMN Sushi Mat Kit – 4 mats + 2 paddles – $12

 

Suribachi + Surikogi – Japanese mortar and pestle 

The suribachi and surikogi is the Japanese version of the mortar and pestle.  It works with a similar principle, though there are some key differences. 

The interior of the ceramic suribachi mortar has fine ridges that help with the grinding process. The surikogi pestle is always made of wood so that the ridges of the suribachi do not get worn away from the action of the surikogi against the bowl.  The suribachi/surikogi are most commonly used in Japanese cooking for grinding sesame seeds. Of course, they can also be used for grinding various spices, nuts, and making pastes.

Recommended products:
Helen’s Asian Kitchen Suribachi Set – $11 
MTC Kitchen Suribachi – ($10 to $100) + Surikogi ($7 to $94)

Takoyaki Pan

Takoyaki (i.e. Japanese octopus balls) are one of Japan’s most famous street foods.  Originating in Osaka, these gooey, octopus filled balls of batter are also one of my favorite Japanese foods.

If you want to make your own takoyaki, you are going to need a takoyaki pan.  Commercial versions are made of heavy cast iron, while home versions often use lighter weight aluminum.  Home versions can also often be found as standalone electric stoves.

Recommended products:
Iwatani Takoyaki Grill Pan – $23
Electric Takoyaki Maker by StarBlue – $33

Tamagoyakinabe / Tamagoyaki Pan

Tamagoyaki — or Japanese rolled egg/omelette — is another famous dish found all around Japan.  It can be found in sweet or salty variations, and is served in a variety of ways — as a bento side dish, as a breakfast food, as a street vendor snack, on nigiri sushi, and even for dessert.

No matter the case, it is always prepared using a tamagoyakinabe — a small rectangular pan specifically designed to make tamagoyaki.

Professional versions are usually made from copper, while cheaper home models can often be found in non-stick teflon varieties.

Recommended products:
Asahi Tamagoyaki Pan – Professional Model – $79
TeChef – Tamagoyaki Japanese Omelette Pan – $20

Donabe – Earthenware / clay pot


Donabe 
is a traditional clay pot that can be found in nearly all Japanese households.  It can be used to cook a variety of dishes, but is most commonly used for nabemono (i.e. hot pot dishes) such as chankonabe, motsunabe, sukiyaki, and shabu-shabu.  

The thick clay used in a donabe allows it to retain heat very well, so that food inside will remain warm for a long time after removed from heat source.  Excellent for group/family meals…especially in the winter!

A good donabe is hand crafted, and can be quite expensive.  If properly cared for though, it can last you a lifetime.  Donabe come in many different sizes, styles, and designs so you can get one that suits your personal preferences.  Once you progress past beginner cooking, a donabe is must have for Japanese cuisine!

Recommend products
Kotobuki Kyoto Maple 8-1/2-Inch Donabe – $63
Toiro Donabe (various prices)

 

Conclusion

That’s it for now.  I am sure that I have forgotten some things, so will continue to adjust this list over time.  If you think I should add something, please leave a comment, or send an email to  — info at thechefdojo.com

Here is a summary list of everything listed:

  • Bare Essentials (12 items):
    • Japanese kitchen knife – Santoku or Gyutou
    • Cutting board
    • Frying pan / skillet
    • Yukihira Nabe – Small pot
    • Pot / pan lid
    • Suihanki – Japanese rice cooker
    • Shamoji – Rice paddle / wooden spoon/spatula
    • Saibashi – Cooking chopsticks
    • Spoons
    • Mesh strainer / Colander
    • Towels
    • Cleaning Solution/ Germ killer
  • Nice-to-haves and upgrades (6 items):
    • Peeler
    • Stainless steel mixing bowls
    • Tongs
    • Flipping spatulas
    • Otama – Soup ladle
    • Electric Kettle
  • Intermediate / Advanced / Specialist (12 items)
    • Amijakushi – Mesh ladle
    • Otoshibuta – Drop lid
    • Misokoshi – Miso strainer
    • Oroshigane – Japanese grater
    • Zaru – Bamboo straining basket
    • Digital scale
    • More kitchen knives
    • Makisu – Sushi rolling mat
    • Suribachi / Surikogi – Japanese Mortar/Pestle
    • Takoyaki Pan
    • Tamagoyaki Pan
    • Donabe

Happy cooking!

After getting your cookware ready, you may want to check out The Essential Japanese Ingredients.

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