Adzuki beans are red mung beans. They are often used in sweet preparations in Japan, cooked with sugar and either left whole or ground into a paste that is used in various desserts. Classically paired with sticky glutinous rice, adzuki is a great filling inside Mochi, as a coating for Ohagi (kind of a reverse Mochi where the un-pounded rice is on the inside), or in Sekihan, a Japanese version of red beans and rice.
It’s also great when used as a topping for cold desserts like ice cream or shaved ices, as a filling for cakes, or even sandwiched between pound cake or other soft breads. It has a mild earthy flavor and a thin skin with a creamy texture. Look for dried beans that are not shriveled and buy them from a store that has good turn over in product to ensure you are getting fresh beans. You can also buy them prepared, in cans, where they have been cooked in sweet syrup.
Rarely seen in American supermarkets, bitter melon can usually be found in Asian markets year round. It has many health benefits, including regulating blood sugar. Related to zucchini, it can be prepared in much the same way, but has a sharp and well, bitter, flavor. When selecting some, look for the smaller ones that are light green instead of red or orange. The green ones are firmer and unripe, and the ones most often used in cooking.
Typically bitter melon is first seeded, sliced, salted, and parboiled before using, to tame some of the bitterness. It is used in stir fries, steamed dishes, and even steeped as a tea. Bitter melon has traditionally been used in Chinese cuisine but has been adopted by other Asian cuisines that are interested in the health benefits.
5 Spice powder has its roots in Chinese medicine. The five spices represent the Chinese elements: water, wood, fire, earth and metal. The blend of spices traditionally used are cinnamon, Szechuan pepper, cloves, star anise, and fennel seeds; however, this may differ depending on the manufacturer. The combination has both sweet and savory notes, with a very gentle heat. It is used throughout China as a dry rub for meat, particularly pork and duck. It can also add an interesting twist to baked goods, and can be used as a substitute for pumpkin pie spice. The Spice Way makes a nice one, and you can find it here.
Try it in my Char Sui Pork.
This is an umbrella term for Chinese sausage. There are many different varieties and producers, but generally they are made of pork and pork fat, and are cured so they are ready to eat; but most of the time they are mixed into other dishes such as fried rice, noodles, or salads as opposed to eating out of hand. They are quite firm and have a distinctive smoky sweetness.
If you have any leftover after using them in a recipe, try adding sliced up coins to some veggies in a stir fry, scrambled eggs, or as a hot filling for a sandwich.
Try it in Asian Coconut Curry Noodles
Coconut aminos are a good option for anyone avoiding soy. While not an exact replica of soy sauce, it does add a similar salty depth. It also makes a good substitute for fish sauce, and can be used to to make recipes vegan.
Try using coconut aminos to veganize my Lemongrass Tofu Rice Salad.
Coconut milk is made from pressing grated coconut. It is used in dishes, savory and sweet, throughout Asia. I look for ones with the shortest ingredient list. The fullest fat version is coconut cream, which adds a velvety richness to curries and beverages. Coconut milk has a bit less fat, but still adds luxurious creaminess and authentic flavor. There is also a reduced fat coconut milk available if you are looking to cut calories and fat, but like skim milk you will notice very little flavor and minimal richness.
Canned coconut milk, meant for cooking, is not the same as the coconut milk in the refrigerated dairy section. That beverage is meant as a milk alternative for drinking, and does not have the same flavor and consistency as canned coconut milk. I recommend Thai brands like Chaokoh or Mae Ploy.
Any leftover coconut milk can be stored in the fridge for a week or you can freeze it as well.
Try it in Curry Sweet Potato Soup.
Instant dashi powder is a bit like bouillon cubes, a way to turn water into a deeply flavored stock in minutes. Most powders have MSG in them, which many people avoid. However, studies have shown that it is perfectly safe. In fact, it is naturally occurring in many foods, including mushrooms and cheese.
Nevertheless, you can also find dashi powders without the MSG. Dashi Powder is available either made from fish or from kelp, which is vegetarian. Dashi powder can be used to make sauces and soups quickly, if you don’t have the time or inclination to make a kombu or katsuobushi stock from scratch. Dashi (Japanese stock) is a building block for much of Japanese cuisine and this powder can be used to get a quick jump on preparation.
I highly recommend having it on hand as it has a long shelf life, doesn’t take much space, and will make cooking Japanese and Korean food so much faster and simpler, particularly for those pesky week night meals when you just gotta eat now.
These tiny little shrimp, many no bigger than a thumbnail, add big flavor to lots of Southeast Asian dishes. They are salty and fish funky, and can be used whole or ground. I prefer buying them directly from a market so I can make sure they look fresh. I find it’s best to keep the packages in the freezer and take out a little as needed.
The shrimp are boiled and then dried, making them ready to eat. They are best used as an accent to bring a little chewy texture and briny flavor to a dish. They are great in Thai green papaya salads, in stir fries, and in Japanese mixed rice dishes.
Known as Douchi, these black beans are actually soy beans. They are very popular throughout China. They can be pureed into sauces, or thrown into stir-fries. The beans are fermented in salt, and packed with umami. As they are both dried and salted, they last forever in the fridge without spoiling.
They provide many vegetarian foods with the kind of salty funky flavor you find in shrimp paste or fish sauce. Like fish sauce, you might be shocked at the strong smell, but you will love it in the finished dish. Fermented black beans are available at Asian grocers and can also be found online.
I use them in the dipping sauce for my Vegetarian Spring Rolls.
This condiment made of tiny fish, like krill or anchovy, and fermented with salt is like liquid gold. The longer it ferments, the stronger it is. The dishes of Asia would not be the same without it. It has a very pungent aroma and adds an amazing funky, salty flavor to everything from kimchi to nuoc cham, the famous Vietnamese dipping sauce. I use it anywhere I want a blast of salty umami flavor.
You cannot get the same authentic flavor in your food without fish sauce. I agree, the smell is like feet (there I said it); but don’t be scared. When used in foods, it brings a robust, rich flavor to which you will become addicted and come to crave. I typically buy the Thai Squid brand (which has the least stinky smell and will not overwhelm first time users), Red Boat or Vietnamese Three Crabs brand. If you are vegetarian, I would recommend either using soy sauce, coconut aminos, or a combination of the two.
Fried shallots are used throughout South East Asia. They are a garnish for countless dishes, and add texture and toasty oniony flavor. You could certainly make your own, but that’s a lot of slicing and frying. Since we use them in our restaurants to top poké, add crunch to sushi rolls, garnish stir fried vegetables, etc, I have come to rely on packaged fried shallots. All of the yummy crispy crunch, none of the splattering oil.
Once you start using them, you will be surprised at how well they work with other non-Asian foods. They are an excellent all purpose flavoring and topping for soups, salads, and even casseroles. I like the ones from Maesri.
Galangal is like a spicier, citrusy cousin of ginger. Often used in Thai salads and soups, it adds an earthy spiciness to foods. Use it as you would ginger-peeled and then crushed, sliced, or minced (it is too hard to be grated). You can substitute young ginger for it but the flavor profile is a little different.
The texture of galangal is a little tough and slightly woody. This texture is welcomed when minced and mixed in to add heartiness to a dish. Otherwise it is left in big pieces that can be fished out at the end of cooking.
Try it in Laotian Chicken Larb Wraps.
Gochujang is a fermented Korean red chile paste made from red chilies, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans, and salt that’s like a marriage between hoisin and chile sauce. It’s a little sweet, a little smoky, and a little spicy. Gochujan is used in multiple ways in Korean foods as a condiment to a rice bowl, as part of a sauce or glaze, or mixed in to give a boost to stews. It adds a deep complex flavor.
To give a kick to your everyday meals, try adding a tablespoon or two to some of your favorite foods. You can add it to marinades, dipping sauces, and even use it in place of ketchup.
Try it in Korean Style Bean Sprouts.
Thick and sweet, Hoisin sauce is used in a variety of ways. It is made from soybeans, spices, garlic and other seasonings. It’s used in sauces, as a glaze for meat, or added to stir fries.
Many times it is used as a condiment at meals. If you’ve ever had Peking duck, Mushu Pork, or Pho, you’ve tasted hoisin. It has a rich sweet taste that is delicious on it’s own and great when added to other sauces.
Try it in my Char Sui BBQ Pork.
This is a super convenient product to create authentic Japanese curries. It is a condensed roux, containing butter, flour, and spices. It thickens and flavors curries at the same time. Japanese curry is more gently spiced than other curries, and has a thick gravy. There are several brands to choose from and lots of different flavor combinations within brands. My favorite is the House Foods Java brand, which comes in hot and medium hot.
Japanese curry is one of the most common one pot meals for busy families. It’s essentially a thick stew that is most often served over rice but sometimes over Udon noodles. Like a stew, there is usually a protein and a couple of essential vegetables to round out the meal. Easy to make and a crowd pleaser, you need to taste it if you’ve never had it.
Try it in Japanese Beef Curry.
Also known as makrut lime leaves, these leaves add an incredibly fragrant citrus aroma to dishes. They can be purchased fresh, frozen or dried. I prefer the fresh (where you can then freeze the extra) or frozen. I don’t think the dried ones are worth the purchase- it’s better to substitute some fresh lime zest.
To use the leaves chopped or shredded, wash them first and then strip the hard center stem; You can do this either with a small knife, drawing it down either side of the stem, or by folding the leaf in half and then pulling the stem down, like a string bean. Then, either roll the leaves up and cut into thin shreds or stack the pieces up and chop into fine pieces.
Try them in Laotian Chicken Larb Wraps.
These dried bonito flakes are a Japanese staple. Made from smoked bonito, they add a jolt of umami flavor to almost anything. They are the basis of dashi fish broth and are often used as a condiment on top of foods. We use the large shavings for broths and sauces (in making ponzu or sushi vinegar) and the smaller shavings as garnishes.
Kimchi, a staple of Korean food culture, has been enjoying a surging popularity in the States, and for good reason! This spicy condiment, made from fermenting vegetables, garlic, and Korean chile pepper, adds a spicy and deliciously funky flavor to a multitude of dishes, and has lots of great health benefits as well. It’s rich in probiotics and other nutrients.
We make it in-house at our restaurants, but there are several good commercial ones available. It is usually sold in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. However, the best place to buy kimchi is at a Korean grocery store because you will be getting the freshest and most authentic flavor. If you don’t love spicy foods, get one labelled mild. Although fish sauce and salted shrimp are often used to make kimchi, you can also find ones that are vegetarian.
Kombu, also known as Dasima in Korean, is a dried kelp used throughout Asia. It adds a salty, oceany flavor, and is a favorite of vegans for bringing a slight seafood flavor to vegan dishes. It is also an excellent source of healthy trace minerals. It’s used to add depth to stews, to make a broth as a foundation of miso soup, or braised and used as an ingredient in dishes. It is sold in small pieces, cut sections, or long sheets. My particular favorite is a type I can only find in Japan; it’s the base of the plant and has a triangular shape and a wonderful rich flavor (it’s on the left hand side).
If you’re using Kombu to make broth, do not rinse off the powdery white substance on the surface. It is not mold, but Mannitol, a glutamine, which contributes to the umami flavor of Kombu. Once you’ve used the Kombu to make stock, do not throw out the used kelp. Instead, chop it up and use it for a simple stir fry with a little soy sauce, sesame oil, and hot chile flakes. You can also store it in the freezer and then put it into Japanese style stews like Oden.
Essential for making kimchis, Korean pepper flakes, or gochugaru, add great color and depth with smoky, slightly sweet heat. Sometimes they are labeled powder, but in fact if you look through the window of the bag, you will notice the coarse flakes. They are available both mild and spicy but even the mild has some heat.
So if you are making kimchi, which uses cups of chile flakes, I recommend you use the mild one because you need a large quantity of chile flakes to give your kimchi that beautiful red color. Look for the brightest red color (not a dull brownish red) to indicate a fresh bag. You can find it in Asian markets that sell Korean products. Do not buy the finely ground red chile powder by mistake, which is mainly used to make gochujang paste.
Throughout Thailand and Vietnam, lemongrass is used to impart a strong citrusy, herbal flavor without the tartness associated with citrus juice. Only the bottom bulb is used, after removing the tough fibrous outer layers. It is common for the grassy tops to be on the dry side, but you don’t want them to be super brown and withered.
You can find lemongrass stalks at some grocery stores like Whole Foods, or most Asian grocery stores, but I also like to buy it already minced. It’s sold frozen, in a tub or package and it is ready to use. I defrost it just a touch in the microwave, like 10 seconds, scoop out the amount I want and add it to dishes, using it as an aromatic like you would garlic and ginger. When I’m done, I put the tub back in the freezer.
Try it in Lemongrass Tofu Rice Salad
A key ingredient in Japanese cooking, miso’s uses go far beyond miso soup. Made from soybeans fermented with salt, koji (a fungus called aspergillus oryzae), wheat, rice, or barley, it adds a blast of savory flavor to countless dishes. White miso is more mild, while darker or red miso is robust. You can also find other specialty misos which have special flavorings like seaweed.
Miso has the consistency of a nut butter. I like to add a dollop to almost anything that could use a pop of salty richness. Its velvety texture transforms pan juices into an instant sauce. From sauces to marinades and even baking, miso is an indispensable ingredient. While most misos use soybeans as the main ingredient, I did find one made from chickpeas.
Mirin is a sweet rice cooking wine. The sweetness is a natural byproduct of the fermentation process, but commercial ones usually have added sugar as well. It is used as a base for Japanese teriyaki recipes and sukiyaki and adds a subtle and mild sweetness to marinades and sauces.
Mirin is kind of the secret ingredient in making Japanese food sing. Since Japanese cuisine uses very few spices, chiles, or strong flavors, mirin highlights the delicate flavors of seasonal and fresh ingredients by contributing subtle sweetness, some body, and light aroma.
Try it in Korean Style Bean Sprouts.
When a recipe calls for a neutral oil, I mean an oil that doesn’t add a distinct flavor of its own. Olive oil is great, but sometimes the flavor of olives overpowers more delicate flavors in a dish. When I want a neutral oil to really let my ingredients shine, I reach for sunflower, avocado, or vegetable oil.
Try it in Korean Style Bean Sprouts.
Send noodz! Asians love noodles. But who doesn’t? Our love has sparked a dizzying variety of noodles, of all shapes and sizes, with plenty of gluten free options, and many don’t even require boiling on the stove. Here are some of my faves that I always have in my Funky Asian Pantry for fast meals everyone loves:
Famous in Pad Thai, Pho, and Chow Fun, rice noodles are consumed throughout Asia and are available fresh, frozen, and dried. They can also come in a variety of sizes from long fresh sheets (hand cut for chow fun stir-fried noodles) to thin rice vermicelli. They are gluten free so they are an excellent choice for anyone with gluten sensitivities or celiac. They have a really fast cooking time, usually just 1-3 minutes in boiling water or some can just be softened in a bowl of boiling water. Make sure to read the package instructions as different thicknesses have different cooking times and nobody wants soggy, clumpy noodles.
These Japanese wheat noodles are thick and delightfully chewy, often used in stir fries, stews, or served in soup. They can be found either dried, frozen, or in vacuum sealed packages which are shelf stable. They can be served hot or cold.
Yes we all survived on instant ramen in college, but there’s a whole other world of ramen noodles that don’t come in styrofoam cups. Generally thinner than udon noodles, wheat ramen noodles are sold fresh or frozen and should be quickly boiled and then served hot in a long-simmered bone broth.
Made from ground buckwheat (a seed rich in nutrients) and wheat flour, soba is a nutty traditional Japanese noodle. They are sold dried in bundled packages and can be served either hot or cold.
Unlike Ramen, which came to Japan via China, Soba is a wholly Japanese product and the very clean subtle taste and the spare garnishes that typically accompany it exude a Japanese aesthetic. It is most often served in a simple Dashi broth with different toppings such as tempura or served cold as in Zaru Soba, which is served with a soy dipping sauce and topped with scallions.
Also known as bean thread or glass noodles, mung bean noodles are usually soaked in warm water and briefly boiled and then added to soups, stir fries, or salads. The thin noodles are often used as an accent or garnish since it doesn’t weigh down a dish. However, they also come in a wide variety of thicknesses.
Sweet Potato Noodles (called Dangmyeon in Korean) are made from the starch of sweet potatoes. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite noodle, but these would definitely be near the top of the list. Known by most people as the noodle in Japchae (a Korean stir fried noodle dish), these noodles have a lot going for them. They are gluten free, have a very neutral flavor that absorbs sauces beautifully, and are traditionally used in soups and stir fry dishes. They have a bouncy chewy texture that is delicious. Usually the noodles are soaked in water until pliant and then used.
If you are a sushi lover, you already know nori as the seaweed sheets used to hold sushi rolls together. It can also be toasted and cut into chips for a healthy snack, or used as a topping for a rice bowl. When chopped and mixed with sesame seeds and flavorings, it makes furikake, the renowned Japanese seasoning blend.
Look for a dark green color either in full sheets or half sheets. Korean nori is typically toasted and seasoned with sesame oil and salt and then packaged, often in small boxes. It’s the perfect snack or condiment for rice.
Made from, as the name suggests, oysters boiled down with other flavors like soy sauce and garlic. It is thick, salty and sweet, and used in a lot of Chinese dishes. It’s great added to barbeque sauces and marinades or to thicken and flavor a stew. If you can’t take the smell of fish sauce, oyster sauce may surprise you with the lack of fishiness. It’s a good baby step purchase for those who may be wary. Plus oyster sauce is incredibly versatile. A tablespoon makes every stir fry better.
Oyster Sauce is readily available at most grocery stores and you can now find gluten free oyster sauce at some asian markets. I like Lee Kum Kee premium brand best. If you are vegetarian, I suggest Lee Kum Kee’s Vegetarian Stir Fry Sauce. However, it is a little saltier than oyster sauce, so I would decrease the amount used. There is a vegetarian oyster sauce made from mushrooms but I find it difficult to find and I think the vegetarian stir fry sauce is more versatile without the heavy flavor of mushrooms.
Panko breadcrumbs hail from Japan, and are used in iconic fried dishes like tonkatsu. They absorb less oil than regular breadcrumbs, making fried foods that are crispier. Plus the light airy texture is incredibly appetizing and attractive. They are unseasoned, so you control the salt and spices. You can use it pretty much anywhere breadcrumbs are called for, like topping macaroni and cheese, or breading chicken.
Ponzu is a tangy soy based sauce that traditionally is made with yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit. It’s easy to make and lasts a long time in the fridge. But it’s available commercially as well. You can serve it with sashimi, use it as a dipping sauce for hot pots, or as a dressing for salads. I like the widely available Kikkoman ponzu.
The most widely consumed staple food in the world, rice is economical, filling, and incredibly versatile. There are so many different varieties and colors. It’s worth it to buy a couple of different types to add variety and see what you like best. Although rice is available year round, some brands (particularly higher end Japanese ones) will let you know when there is a new crop. A great time saver is making twice what you need. Leftover rice in the fridge or freezer is a star player on a busy weeknight, helping you effortlessly round out a meal, or transforming into the perfect crispy fried rice entrée.
Let me show you how to make the perfect rice.
Rice paper is a Vietnamese staple used primarily for spring rolls. They are very thin and delicate, and make beautiful, transparent rolls. They don’t need to be cooked, only softened in warm water to make pliable, and they can be wrapped around an endless variety of fillings. They are made by drying a starchy rice paste on bamboo. The beautiful pattern on the rice paper sheets are the imprints left from the bamboo. Sometimes you will even see a fine strand of imbedded bamboo!
These sheets can be used for both soft rolls that are served cold with fresh vegetables and also for fried rolls with a hot filling. Both are incredibly satisfying.
Try rice paper in Vegetarian Spring Rolls.
Toasted, ground rice adds both nutty flavor and a crunchy texture. It’s used a lot in both Thai and Loatian cuisine. It is easy and inexpensive to make your own; but if you prefer, you can also buy rice powder.
See how it tastes in my Laotian Chicken Larb Wraps.
Japanese rice vinegar is mild and adds a pleasant tang. I use it in marinades and sauces. There is a seasoned and unseasoned version. I keep both because it’s handy to have and I’m a condiment hoarder but having the unseasoned one is key.
Because rice vinegar does not have a strong flavor, it is easy to use in many different applications. It blends well with other flavors and is particularly good when you don’t want anything too pungent. Use it in all kinds of non-asian recipes from salad dressings to marinades.
Sake is frequently used in Japanese cooking like wine is used in other countries. Use it when you want a drier, less sweet flavor profile. Just like when cooking with wine, you don’t want to use the most expensive one you can find. There are plenty of inexpensive sakes that work beautifully for cooking.
Sake is often called rice wine; however, it is actually not a wine because the process of making sake does not have yeasts converting sugar to alcohol. Instead, starch in the rice is converted to alcohol by fermentation. If anything, the process is more similar to beer. The process starts by polishing rice to a desired rate where the amount of rice left after polishing determines what grade of sake is created. The more you polish, the lighter and finer the taste. Polishing removes the outer layers of the grain with contains an abundance of vitamins, fats, and proteins. Reducing proteins is important because fermentation breaks down the protein into amino acids which can taste bitter.
Once the rice is polished, it is soaked in water, steamed, and mixed with a fungus called koji which will grow on the steamed rice. Koji helps convert the starch to alcohol when it is fermented with a yeast starter in tanks. The fermentation takes approximately two weeks and then after 25 to 30 days, the sake is filtered. Typical alcohol content for sake is 16-19%.
For cooking purposes, we recommend an inexpensive and robust junmai. This is considered entry-level sake and it is perfect for cooking and casual drinking. If you would like to experiment with sakes, try a ginjo sake for a fruity and floral style or splurge for a daiginjo, which will really showcase the brewer’s finesse and dedication.
This rice wine is used in virtually every Chinese sauce you eat in restaurants. If you’ve wondered why the Chinese food you’ve had at restaurants just has so much more oomph than the ones you’ve cooked yourself, this may be one of the reasons. Shaoxing wine is mild and a bit sweet and enhances the flavor of food with a light, savory nuttiness. Like all wines, there are different degrees of complexity and elegance, but we encourage you to look for something affordable that gets the job done. Since I don’t read Chinese, and all of the red bottles look the same, I typically go with a bottle that is priced somewhere in the middle.
Most Shaoxing wines you find in the market will have added salt, which I always thought strange. Then I realized that this was so it could be sold as a “food” item. Don’t worry if you only see bottles with added salt. It’s pretty much the norm and it’s not enough salt to affect the flavor or make your dish salty. However, this grade of wine is definitely for cooking and not slurping. If you cannot find Shaoxing wine, please do not substitute the “cooking wine” they sell at Asian markets. Like “cooking wine” in American stores, it’s not worth the money you’ll spend. Instead, try some dry sherry in a pinch.
I like this one.
This 7 spice blend is from Japan. Basically a Japanese version of Everything Bagel Spice, use it to punch up flavor in everything from meat rubs to popcorn. We sprinkle it on noodles, tempura, and stir-fries. Made from red chile pepper, roasted orange peel, yellow and black sesame seeds, Japanese pepper, seaweed, and ginger, it adds flavor, texture, and color. It’s not really spicy; instead, the different elements add an interesting and flavorful punch to subtle Japanese foods.
I like this togarashi.
Shiitake mushrooms are native to East Asia, and used throughout the region. They are deeply flavored and meaty. You can find them both fresh at many supermarkets or dried in packages at the asian grocery store. The dried mushrooms have a stronger, more pronounced flavor. You can substitute dried mushrooms for the fresh ones in a pinch, but use less, and know that it will definitely taste strongly of mushrooms. A better choice would be to use baby portobellos (cremini) or some other fresh mushroom if you can’t find shiitakes.
To use dried shiitakes, rehydrate them in warm water for 30 mins., making sure they are submerged (I usually put a smaller plate on top of them to keep them from bobbing up) , and squeeze out some of the excess water when softened. Then remove and discard the hard woody stem (unless you are making stock) before continuing. Both fresh and dried stems should be discarded as they are usually very hard and fibrous.
You can also use the soaking liquid too to boast the mushroom flavor in a soup, braise, or rice. You can either strain it first or do it the simple way which is to carefully pour off the liquid, making sure you stop before getting to the sediment at the bottom.
Try shiitake mushrooms in my Wild Mushroom Salad.
Soy sauce is traditionally made from both fermented soybeans and wheat and is originally from China. What was once considered so exotic when I was a kid is now available at any grocery store and is widely used in non Asian dishes to give a burst of salty savoriness. Soy sauce can be the inexpensive bottle we are all familiar with, but there are also artisanal imported brands, many of them aged for years.
There are many kinds of soy sauce from different countries so the choices can be a little overwhelming. As a rule, I think the most authentic dishes start with authentic ingredients. So if you were making a Chinese braise, the best results would come from using a dark Chinese soy sauce. And I wouldn’t consider eating sashimi using a Thai sweet soy sauce. Nevertheless, realistically speaking, every pantry has limited space and even I, a condiment hoarder, keep only two soy sauces in my own.
Japanese Soy Sauces
Since I typically make more Japanese and Korean dishes on a regular basis, I keep Japanese soy sauce on hand. I find the flavor subtle so it’s more versatile for my needs. Sometimes, if I’m making a light colored dressing or soup where seeing the bright color of the ingredients is important, I reach for Usukuchi, which is light colored soy sauce. It is only light colored but has the same flavor (and sodium) as regular soy sauce. I prefer Yamasa and Kikkoman for Japanese soy sauces, which are readily available.
Chinese Soy Sauce
If you find that Chinese foods are more your jam, then I would steer you to those brands. Chinese soy sauces can be broken down into two main categories: light soy sauce and thick soy sauce.
Chinese light soy sauce is the one that you would reach for if a recipe just said soy sauce. It’s an all purpose soy sauce that works for most foods. Do not confuse light soy sauce to mean light salt; those soy sauces which will be marked as “low sodium”. To add even more confusion, Chinese light soy is not labeled light. It’s usually just labeled soy sauce. However Dark soy sauce is always labeled dark, so use process of elimination if you’re unsure.
Chinese dark soy sauce is a rich, thick soy sauce and is typically used when you want a darker, mahogany colored dish with a rich pronounced flavor. It is often used in Chinese cooking, such as braises and noodles, where you want to see that dark color and want the added thickness to coat the food. Within the dark soy category, there is mushroom soy sauce which has an earthy, mushroomy flavor that marries well with heavier foods.
Dark soy sauce has a specialized use as it is too dark to use for salad dressings when you’re trying to highlight beautiful colors and it overpowers in many light dipping sauces. If you are interested in Chinese soy sauces, I would recommend either Lee Kum Kee or Pearl River Bridge, which are well known and widely available.
Specialty Soy Sauces
There are many other soy sauces from other Asian countries including a sweet soy sauce also called kecap manis, which is often used in South East Asian food and has a thick syrupy consistency. Many of these specialty soy sauces are specific to a countries cuisine, so be sure you are purchasing the correct one as they cannot be used interchangeably.
If you are looking for a gluten free option, there are several options from different brands including Kikkoman and Lee Kum Kee.
Try it in Korean Style Bean Sprouts
Star anise is a dried spice from an evergreen tree native to Vietnam and China. Star Anise gives Pho its smoky licorice flavor. It is also one of the spices in Chinese 5 Spice, and can be used in both sweet and savory dishes, as well as in tea blends. When purchasing, look for whole pieces that aren’t too broken.
Try it in my Vietnamese Beef Pho.
Sometimes called tamarind pulp or paste, Tamarind concentrate is made from the sticky fruit of the tamarind pod. It is both sweet and sour. If you cannot find tamarind concentrate but you have access to the dried fruit, you can make your own pulp. Crack open the pods and discard the shells. Put the sticky seeds in a bowl and cover with some hot water. Once the water is cool, then you need to use your hands to manually massage the softened fruit off of the seeds. Then blend the fruit with some of the soaking water until it’s the consistency of apple sauce. Freeze whatever you don’t use.
You can try to substitute tamarind concentrate with a mixture of brown sugar and lemon juice, or some dried apricots hydrated in warm water and pureed, but it won’t have the same depth and complexity.
Try it in my Sinigang Shrimp Soup.
Thai basil has smaller leaves than Italian basil with a purplish stem and it has a spicier anise flavor. Unlike Italian basil, which is typically added at the last second to preserve the color and flavor, Thai basil is more sturdy and can withstand the heat from a wok or curry so it is often added halfway through cooking. You can use Italian basil as a substitute, but I would use a bit more and add it off the heat for the strongest flavor.
A super convenient and economical option to making your own curry pastes which require many ingredients. Thai curry pastes can be used in marinades, sauces, and soups, in addition to being a base for curries. Different pastes have different spice blends and can range from spicy and citrusy to earthy and rich.
My favorite brand is Maesri , which is by far the best in terms of complexity, balance, and intensity. You can find the paste in little cans at Asian groceries. Any leftovers from an open can can be stored in the freezer.
Use in Curry Sweet Potato Soup.
Toasted sesame oil has a rich, nutty flavor and a delicious aroma. It is used most frequently in Korean, Japanese, and Chinese cuisine. You literally cannot cook authentic Korean food without it. It is generally used as a finishing oil even though it is pretty resilient to heat. A splash is great in cold noodles dishes, as an enhancer for sauces, or drizzled over grilled meats.
Sesame oil can be pretty pricey and it stays fresh for a long time so try to get the largest size you feel comfortable buying. We get it by the case in large tins and I usually refill my bottles from home. I prefer a Japanese sesame oil like Kadoya because of the intensity.
Try it in Korean Style Bean Sprouts
Tofu has long since shed its reputation as a hippie health nut food. Endlessly versatile, it is an inexpensive source of protein. Properly prepared, it is also delicious. There are several different kinds available. I use silken or soft tofu in Korean stews, as a quick side dish, in miso soup, and to thicken dressings. I use medium firm tofu for hot pots and stews, and firm is usually reserved for stir-fries and braises. I also like the convenience of pre-fried tofu cutlets which are so handy when you want a little extra texture but not the hassle with frying your own.
Many different kinds of tofu can be found in nearly all grocery stores. Unopened containers of tofu stay fresh for a long time. Make sure you cover any unfinished tofu with fresh water (so it is submerged) before refrigerating and be sure to use it within a couple of days.
Wakame is another kind of seaweed often used in soups and salads. It has a light sea like flavor and a soft, slightly squishy texture. Like all seaweeds, it is highly nutritious, low in calories, high in fiber, and is a great source of vitamins and minerals, including a compound called fucoxanthin which has shown to help burn fatty tissue. Consumption has been linked to decreased blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, and reduced blood sugar.
Wakame is sold dried in packages. There is no need to cook wakame. You can rehydrate a small amount in cool water. It will quickly unfurl. Drain and use.