Food Substitutions in Japan

Trying to make non-Japanese food in Japan when the food blogging world is going crazy for Greek
yogurt and Hatch chili peppers can be rough. Here’s a list of substitutions, kitchen hacks, and homemade alternatives to help you bake and cook whatever you like. Don’t forget the Master List of Japan-Friendly Recipes!

Have additions? Leave me a comment!


Applesauce: homemade!
Yes, you can get it at the import store, but it’ll cost you, and if you have preferences about sugar content, added spice, or texture, you may not find what you want. Luckily, if you can cut up apples, you can make your own applesauce quickly and to your taste.

Buttermilk: soured milk or yogurt
For 1 US cup / 236 mL: add 1 TBSP of lemon juice or vinegar (お酢) to a measuring cup and fill the rest of the way with cow’s milk (gyûnyû, 牛乳); 15 mL vinegar : 211 mL milk. For soy milk, use apple-cider vinegar (ringo su, リンゴ酢) in the same proportions. Stir and let stand at room temperature for 10 minutes.

Or, use an equivalent volume of yogurt to the original amount of buttermilk.

Cilantro / coriander (香菜、シャンツァイ、パクチー、コリアンダー)
Fresh cilantro (Brit: “coriander”) is available in some gourmet and import stores, and sometimes even in your local Aeon or depachika. If you can’t get it fresh, the powdered kind is easy to find. It’s not quite the same, but it’s better than nothing.

Greek yogurt: regular yogurt + coffee filter + time
Some grocery stores have a Greek yogurt called カスピ海ヨーグルト (kasupi kai yôguruto); there’s a new brand as of 2014 called Partheno (paruteno, パルテノ) by Morinaga, too.

However, if you secure a coffee filter at the top of a jar, bowl, or container (I liked to use 12 oz glass jars) with a rubber band, etc., you can filter out and dispose of the extra liquids. You’ll need at least 30 minutes (in the fridge, if you can), depending on your yogurt’s consistency. You can also make your own yogurt easily if you’re dissatisfied with the volume, price, or consistency of commercially available yogurts.

Sour cream: yogurt or strained yogurt (see “Greek yogurt”)
I know this is one of those  “healthy living blogger” swaps, and while I wouldn’t serve it on tacos, it’s great for baking. Sour cream is becoming more available in bigger grocery stores, but it’s often in very small containers and is much thicker than American sour cream.

Spicy peppers (jalapeño, chili peppers): red chili peppers/capsicum aka tôgarashi (赤唐辛子).
I used aka tôgarashi in everything from Indian-style curries to salsa. They’re available dried in the produce section near the garlic, herbs, and onions year round, but sometimes you can find them fresh. It’s not quite the same flavor as serrano or jalapeño, but it will add the heat you want to most dishes, particularly ones that go through a blender, when you can’t get it fresh. Do not use shishitô–they aren’t spicy! Other things that work, depending on the recipe: dried cayenne pepper (カイエンペッパー), dried red pepper (レッドペッパー), more curry powder (カレー粉) or garam masala (ガラムマサラ).

Commenter DantheMan adds that you can buy spicy peppers here: and here:

Paneer: homemade!
For vegans, use extra firm tofu (katatôfu, 堅豆腐), which is not packed in water. If you don’t press the paneer, you can use it like ricotta.

Pumpkin purée: squash puree
Adding water to your kabocha purée will give it the consistency of pumpkin puree. Don’t waste your money at the import store.

Pumpkin pie spice: homemade!
And very easy.

Ricotta: see paneer.

Tahini: shiro nerigoma (白練り胡麻)
Tahini is roasted sesame paste, while nerigoma is unroasted sesame paste. Be sure to get the white (白) sesame kind or you’ll end up with grey hummus. Found with the sesame products (dried goods).

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Ed Stamm says:

    Want to make a pumpkin pie but can’t find canned pumpkin? Cut up a kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) and steam it until tender (put something on the bottom of the pot to keep it out of the water). Mash it with a fork. There you go. Finding evaporated milk will be a little harder……

    Frozen pie crust is sold in square or rectangular sheets instead of in pie shapes. They are called “pie sheets” and are in the frozen food section.

    1. Leah says:

      Hi, Ed,
      Thanks for the comments! Depending on the kabocha itself and the cooking method, they tend to be dried than canned pumpkin, which is why I recommend checking the consistency and then adding water. There are some recipes that don’t use evaporated milk, too, so we tended to use those. I only encountered pie crusts at the import store (Kanazawa’s selection isn’t like Nagoya’s or Tokyo’s), but that’s great information for people looking for them!

  2. DantheMan says:

    You can get spicy peppers here: and here: Morinaga now makes a Greek-style yogurt called Partheno, which is not as good as Fage, but it works.

    1. Leah says:

      Thank you for the suggestions! I’ve added them to the body of text.

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