Japanese commonly used sugars
What type of sugar do you use when you make Japanese dishes?
If you don’t use proper sugar to cook a Japanese dish, the taste would be a little different. I’m going to show you what type of sugars we commonly use for Japanese cuisine. Some of them may be common in your country as well. If they’re not available in your area, I hope you figure out a substitution from this article.
As you know, sugar is made by crushing the stalks of the sugarcane plant and extracting the juice.
The process of sugar production is like the picture below.
Harvested sugar cane is not suitable for transportation. As the sugar cane begins to sprout again it loses its potency. Therefore the juice extracted from sugar cane needs to be transformed into raw sugar immediately after the harvest using the following process.
Filter out the impurities from the juice and boil it down. Sugar crystals are made by this process. A machine called a centrifuge is used to gather the crystals(raw sugar).
Raw sugar is suitable for transportation and storage, then each type of sugar is made in a factory.
To make refined sugar, the raw sugar is melted again and the residual impurities are thoroughly removed. A colorless and transparent liquid is made using this process. It’s called sucrose. It’s said that it is the purest form of sweetness among substances.
All refined sugar products are made from sucrose. Refined sugar neither has a strong smell nor color. It can be used for a variety of dishes and doesn’t ruin the flavor and color of other ingredients.
The sugar crystal made out of the sucrose is granulated sugar. This is the most commonly used sugar in the world. Its sweetness is pure and light. So granulated sugar is good for making desserts or adding it to drinks such as coffee and tea. However, a richer flavored sweetness is more preferable for Japanese cooking, especially when you make a simmered dish.
上白糖 (jyohakuto) is a unique sugar rarely used outside of Japan. It’s usually called 砂糖 (sato), which means sugar. When you see the word 砂糖 (sato) or sugar in Japanese recipes, most of the time it means this jyohakuto.
Both granulated sugar and jyohakuto are made by the same process. However, while granulated sugar consists of almost 100% sucrose, glucose and fructose have been added to the jyohakuto. It is sweeter and moister than granulated sugar. It’s more preferable to use for Japanese dishes and widely used for many dishes.
Sanonto is also a unique sugar to Japan like jyohakuto. It looks very similar to light brown sugar, but the process of making each sugar is different.
While light brown sugar contains molasses (a residual dark-brown colored syrup which results from refining sugar), sanonto doesn’t.
Sanonto is made using the same process as Johakuto, the only difference is sanonto is heated for a longer period of time.
The sugar is caramelized during this process. This is why it has a light brown color. Also, the caramel makes this sugar sweeter and richer than jyohakuto. Sanonto is often used for simmered and thick flavored dishes.
Although “中ザラ糖”(chuuzarato) is written on the package, I think “Zarame” is more commonly used when speaking about this sugar. I’m not sure if you have the exact same sugar in your country, but I’m guessing you may have a clear version of it. The components of the sugar are completely the same as granulated sugar. The difference between them is only the size of the crystals. For the most part, this type of sugar is used all over the world for things like cotton candy and western-style desserts as far as I know.
In Japan’s unique way, it’s also used for covering some types of 煎餅(senbei)/rice crackers.
I’ve never used the clear version of zarame at home, but sometimes I use brown zarame for cooking. Zarame is naturally a clear sugar made from sucrose like all other refined sugars, but here in Japan, it’s more common to find a clear brownish zarame in the cupboard of people’s homes.
The color comes from a special process where caramel is added. It makes the flavor of simmered food richer, and the sweet taste gradually soaks into the ingredients.
Rock sugar and Powered sugar
I believe these sugars are available in many counties. Although they look different, the components are the same as granulated sugar. So they are almost 100% sucrose as well. Rock sugar is the big crystal and powdered sugar is literally fine powdered sucrose.
Powdered sugar is usually used for making western desserts.
Rock sugar is often used for making fruit liquor or thick flavored sauce such as そばつゆ(soba tsuyu) which is a soy sauce based dipping sauce for soba/buckwheat noodles.
Unrefined sugar is made from molasses and still has impurities. It has a distinctive smell and the sugar juice gives it a brownish color. Unrefined sugar has a lot of nutrients from the sugar cane. So it’s popular among health-conscious people.
The color of 黒糖(kokuto) is obviously brown, but the meaning of this kanji 黒糖 is “black sugar”. This is only made in Okinawa prefecture (No.47 on the map).
Kokuto is an unrefined and non-centrifugal sugar that is made by boiling down molasses. It’s moister than others and has a strong unique smell.
Kokuto is often used for making 黒蜜 (kuromitsu) which means “ black syrup”. The syrup doesn’t only go well with traditional Japanese desserts, but it’s also nice to add the flavor to milk or vanilla ice cream.
Kokuto has a lot of nutrients such as calcium and magnesium from sugar cane. So it’s very popular as healthy sugar. Some people eat rocked kokuto like candy.
きび砂糖 (kibizato) means “cane sugar”. It’s lightly refined but still has enough nutrients from sugar cane. So kibizato is popular among health-conscious people and often used as substitutions for jyohakuto.
This sugar is not common for home cooking, but I’d like to introduce it because wasanbon is traditional Japanese sugar and I consider it the most elegant.
Wasanbon is made from a special sugar cane called 竹糖 (chikuto). It’s thinner than usual cane, and it’s only cultivated in the Shikoku region (the blue area on the map).
Wasanbon is made by the manual work of craftsmen through a very time-consuming process.
However, in this way, the sugar can’t be completely refined as if it was done by a machine. As a result, wasanbon has a complex and delicate flavor. It still has a unique smell from sugar cane like kokuto, but it’s very subtle. The sweetness is kind of mild, and the texture is just like powder sugar, so it easily melts in your mouth.
Wasanbon is a very popular ingredient for making Japanese confections.
It’s also used for other desserts both Japanese and western style.
てんさい糖 (tensaito) is made from a sugar beet called “tensai“. The beet is cultivated in Hokkaido (No.1 on the map).
In cold regions, sugar beet is more commonly used for making sugar. This is because sugar cane can only grow in warm areas. Tensaito has a lot of nutrients. It also contains an oligosaccharide. It’s said that this sugar is good for people who often have stomach trouble.
Although tensaito is unrefined, it doesn’t have a strong smell compared to unrefined sugars made from sugar cane.
So it’s easy to use, but you might think that the sweetness is not enough for you.
Thank you so much for reading my article. I hope to see you again soon!
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