I have only included fairly common Asian ingredients—those that I use all the time in my own cooking inspired by Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Korean techniques. (Personally, I leave Indian cooking to the professionals—visiting my favorite Indian restaurant as frequently as possible—so I do not include Indian ingredients here.) Most of the ingredients below can be found in your supermarket in the Asian section or in the health or natural food section. A few may require a specific Asian market (which I think is a great expedition on its own—and a subject of a future post) or could be ordered online.
Sauces and Seasonings
Many of these condiments are equally at home on the table for diners to add to their own dishes as they are in the kitchen. In some cultures (such as traditional Japanese and Chinese cooking), it is or was considered an insult to the cook to add additional seasoning, but in others (such as many regions of Vietnamese cooking), a startling array of condiments is traditionally served with the meal.
Chili-garlic sauce: One of the staples of my Asian flavors repertoire. It is just what it sounds like—a sauce made with chilies and garlic. It can be used to add flavor and heat to soups, noodles, and stir fries, and can also be served at the table as a condiment. It is now available in many mainstream supermarkets.
Gomasio: A shakeable seasoning consisting of sesame seeds, salt, and seaweed, popular as a condiment on Japanese food, but commonly found in health food sections since it adds flavor without any oil. Plus, seaweed is very good for you. (See kombu entry under vegetables.)
Sesame oil: Found in the Asian section of most supermarkets. In ours, organic sesame oil is also in the natural foods section. Sometimes it says toasted sesame oil, but it appears to be the same thing. If you use it infrequently, you can preserve its flavor longer in your fridge.
Sriracha hot sauce: So popular recently, that I spotted it on the shelf of my dinky local supermarket which caters not to Asian shoppers or foodies, but to more woodsy folks. Once you try it, you too may wonder how you ever lived without it. Similar to chili garlic sauce (and made by the same company), Sriracha is made with chilies and garlic, but is smooth and squirted onto food rather than spooned. (You will want to shake it before each use.) Even with similar ingredients, it has a different taste. It is sometimes known as rooster sauce because of the rooster on the label. Like chili garlic sauce, it can be added during cooking or placed on the table, and it can be used in almost anything Asian and probably many non-Asian dishes that could use a kick.
Soy sauce, tamari, and shoyu: Many natural food stores/sections now carry tamari and shoyu, which are similar to soy sauce, but tend to use the more traditional methods of production. (What is labeled as soy sauce is often rather salty and is not as subtle or interesting as shoyu or tamari. It will work fine, though.) Shoyu, a traditional Japanese flavoring, is supposedly mellower and intended to harmonize flavors, while tamari, which originated as a flavorful byproduct of miso production, is supposed to have a stronger flavor. Sometimes these two terms are, unfortunately, used interchangeably, so it may be difficult to tell which you are using. My advice—experiment with both. If I only have one around the house, I use whichever that is. In my recipes I will often write soy sauce, but I mean you can use shoyu or tamari or soy sauce. Let your personal taste be your guide!
If there’s one rule I try to abide in cooking, it’s don’t overcook vegetables in Asian cooking. Sure, raw broccoli in your stir-fry is not ideal, but it’s better than limp, mushy florets. Err on the side of undercooking your veggies. Here is how I’ve learned to make sure each ingredient cooks the right amount of time: I cut up all the veggies (including garlic and ginger) and place each one in a separate vessel, like I’m some kind of professional chef on tv (As it turns out, there’s a good reason to do this). Then I line up the containers in the order they need to be cooked with the ones that need the most time closest to the wok or soup pot. Sure, it creates a bigger Kitchsplosion of dirty containers. Try it anyway. You’ll thank me later.
Baby corn: I’ve only ever found these guys in a can. I think they’re pretty much always optional, but they’re so fun. And yes, for the uninitiated, you eat the whole thing. As with all canned Asian veggies, rinse thoroughly to get rid of canny flavor.
Bok choy, or pak choi: Or however your market wants to spell it. We are extremely fortunate to have Certified Naturally Grown baby bok choy at our farmer’s market. There are many varieties of bok choy, and I find they can more or less be used interchangeably. I usually like to cut them up into half moons and separate the leafier part from the stalkier part. The stalks go in earlier in the cooking; the leaves towards the end with more fragile vegetable matter like green onion tops.
Kombu or wakame: Two kinds of seaweed. I buy them dried at my health food store and use them interchangeably in my dashi stock. Either will also work in a traditional miso soup. You’ll use just a small part of the package per soup vat, but it seems to keep forever. It gives the flavor of the sea without adding fish, so it’s perfect for vegans. Seaweed is also packed with nutrients, so it’s probably not a bad idea for us all to add it to our diets. It comes highly recommended by dieticians and also sea turtles.
Mung bean sprouts: These are the thick white sprouts people think of when they think of bean sprouts in Asian cuisine and can usually be found bagged in the fresh section of your supermarket. Don’t buy canned which taste so much like the can that it is better to omit bean sprouts than to use them. I spent about a half an hour rinsing canned bean sprouts once and they still tasted too metallic to add to my food. These should always be added to the very end of cooking because they cook so quickly. When they’re particularly fresh and tasty (bright white and unslimy in the bag) they’re great raw on top of many dishes or soups or as a condiment, especially with Vietnamese dishes.
Sugar snap peas, and snow peas: Both kinds of peas are served right in their pods. Sugar snap peas which can be juicy and sweet as candy are great raw or barely cooked. One minute in the wok or soup will do it! Overcooked sugar snap peas can be mushy, wrinkly, and generally sad shadows of their former selves. Snow peas are great very lightly cooked too, but can stand a few more minutes than sugar snaps.
Mushrooms and Other Fungi
Mushrooms and their fungi cousins add a hearty, earthy, sort of meat-like flavor (umami), texture, and some protein to vegetarian dishes. If all you have in your house are white button mushrooms, go ahead and use them. It’s worth experimenting with these more exotic mushroom, though, which add more flavor, texture, and interesting shapes.
Dried Black Mushrooms: These intensely flavorful mushrooms are great for making a veggie dashi stock. Rehydrated (boil for about 15 minutes or soak for 20 or so minutes in previously boiled water) they work in so many different Asian dishes from soups, to noodle dishes to stir-fries. You can substitute fresh shitake mushrooms (which are probably easier to find) in most of these dishes but not for making dashi. If they don’t have dried black mushrooms in the Asian section of your supermarket, you may need to go to an Asian market, but it’s worth it. You won’t be sorry that they’re hiding in your cabinet when you want to make dashi again, or another Asian dish.
Straw Mushrooms: In this part of the U.S., anyway, it’s hard to find straw mushrooms outside of a can except in Asian markets. Canned work. They’ve got enough flavor and texture to survive the indignities of canning. Rinse them well in a strainer, lots of continuous water, to get as much can flavor out. I love straw mushrooms in stir-fries. Nothing else has the same funky springy texture.
Tree-Ear Fungus: Honest, it’s edible. It generally comes dried, and after soaking back to life it increases enormously in volume. Very earthy taste, and an almost noodley texture. Not usually needed, but essential for Chinese hot and sour soup. It adds a note that just can’t be replicated, I think.
I’ll admit it. I’m a noodle-phile. I would probably eat a noodle soup every lunch, if someone else were preparing it fresh for me every day. And if spicy peanut noodles weren’t so full of calories, I’d probably make that once a week. Sigh. We can find certain Asian noodles at our local supermarket or health food store, though the best noodles are at the Asian market.
Chinese Egg Noodles: I love these, fresh and fat, to make spicy peanut noodles (recipe coming soon). You can substitute regular semolina linguine and it will taste just as good, but the texture of chewy fat noodles, and the way they drink up the sauce, is a whole different sensation. In a pinch I’ll use dried linguine. Otherwise, the fresh egg noodles in the refrigerated section of our supermarket, next to the tofu blocks and wonton wrappers, work very nicely for peanut noodles and are perfect for lomein. On an excursion to the Asian market, however, I’ll find the fresh thick egg noodles and whip up a huge batch of peanut noodles which are always the hit of a party.
Udon Noodles: these are the big white Japanese noodles made out of wheat. We can find both round and flat kinds at our supermarket (natural foods section). I use the round ones (which hold their chewy texture better) for soups and the flat (which hold flavor better) for noodle stir-fries. The wonderfully toothy, absurdly thick noodles I love served in my favorite Asian restaurants can sometimes be found refrigerated at Asian markets. If you’re there, pick some up, run home, and make yourself soup.
Soba Noodles: Japanese buckwheat noodles. These can be whole grain and thus are more healthy and flavorful and temperamental. They are usually square and thinner and more brown and I’ve only found them dried as opposed to fresh. We once bought a package that broke instantly into shards when it hit boiling water (though, still tasted good). Experiment with different brands. Soba noodles are particularly good in delicately-sauced cold dishes, but can also be used in hot dishes and soup.
Miso Paste: Without going into the detail needed to pay homage to this wonderful traditional, tasty, and healthful foodstuff, I’ll give a brief overview. Miso is a traditional fermented soybean product from China and Japan, whose color and taste can vary from light to deep, rich and earthy. Some miso is made from just soybeans, starter culture, and salt, while others include fermented grains as well. The varieties—colors, tastes and textures—depend on the ingredients and the process used to create the miso. Each miso will turn out distinctly and add different dimensions to your recipes, but whatever kind you have access to will be tasty. Miso paste is filled with nutrients including protein, vitamins, and minerals as well as the healthful products of fermentation. It is best not to heat miso too much, so add it at the end of any cooking. It can be used to add an earthy, tangy, and sort of meaty flavor to many sauces, soups and other recipes. (One New York Times food writer suggested adding miso to make vegetarian French Onion Soup. Personally, I think my recipe was amazing without it, but still, food for thought.) I like to mix miso paste with a little warm water so it dissolves better in the soup or sauce.
Soy sauce (see seasonings)
Tofu or Bean Curd: I know you know what tofu is. I just wanted to mention that it is the same thing as bean curd (in case you see that in a recipe or on a menu) and to let you know that the pale blubbery material we get in most supermarkets will work in soups and stir fries, but tastes (and feels) nothing like fresh tofu. Some Asian restaurants make their own tofu, and some farms make “artisan tofu” which is available in some health food stores, but unfortunately we can’t get it here. Lots of people like to deep fry tofu, which I think is a silly way to make something previously healthy full of unnecessary fat. (In an Asian restaurant, request your tofu “steamed” or “soft”). If you want your tofu to stand up to stir frying, buy extra firm, slice it length-wise, and press out the water into paper towels between two cutting boards using some object for a little extra weight. Then you can flavor it up by soaking your cubed tofu in a little soy sauce, little bit of sesame oil, and diluted with water.