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The Sa-Shi-Su-Se-So of Japanese Cuisine


The basic flavors of traditional Japanese cuisine begin with dashi stock, a simple broth made from dried kombu (edible kelp) and katsuobushi (dried bonito) shavings.


The arrangement of sugar, salt, soy vinegar, soy sauce, and miso with or without this dashi is what make up the fundamental flavors of the cuisine. The order in which these ingredients are used is crucial.

Sugar and salt are added first, vinegar in between, and soy sauce and miso added last.The order is remembered with the sounds from the “s” row in the Japanese phonetic alphabet sa-shi-su-se-so: sa for satoh (sugar), shi for shio (salt), su for su (vinegar), se for shoyu (soy sauce), and so for miso (fermented bean paste). Sugar comes first because it takes time to seep into the ingredients. It is used not only for sweetening but to make meat and fish tender.


Shi, which is often mistaken for soy sauce, is important not only for flavoring but to pull moisture from vegetables and get rid of the smell in fish. Having vinegar come after salt becomes important for pickled vegetables because the vinegar will not seep in if there is too moisture in the vegetables. Soy sauce and miso come last because both are fermented foods and are most susceptible to being affected by heat.


If you are adding sake for additional flavoring, it goes in before sugar, and if also mirin, a type of rice wine similar to sake, is needed it will be added last after miso. Most sauces use at least three ingredients as opposed to all and there are regional variations to their use.

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