In many ways, there is not a lot of difference between your “everyday” pantry and your “Asian” pantry.
Many of the ingredients that I find essential in everyday Asian cooking are items that I also use in dishes that originate from many different cultures. These ingredients add umami, spice, and deep resonant flavors that allow you to create satisfying, comforting meals with minimal effort.
Here are the essentials in my Asian pantry:
Chili Sauces, Oils and Crisps
A trip to the Asian grocer will reveal countless varieties of chili sauces and oils, with each country or region in Asia offering their own unique variety. Sriracha is a great all-round chili sauce with a healthy kick of garlic. I also love Lee Kum Kee Chiu Chow Chilli Oil and chili crisps from Lao Gan Ma and Fly By Jing.
Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
These are an essential pantry staple, a foundation ingredient in Chinese cooking. They can be used in stews, braises, broths, dumplings and more.
To rehydrate, simply soak in hot water for 20–30 minutes, though you can leave them for longer to get them really plump if you have the time. And remember, don’t throw that rehydrating water away—keep it for stock or for flavoring the finished dish (just make sure you strain it to remove any sediment).
Fermented Black Beans
Fermented black beans (dou chi) add incredible flavor to stir-fries and salad dressings. For vegans especially, fermented black beans are an umami bomb, delivering an intense, delicious flavor. At home, store them in an airtight jar in your pantry and they will last for months.
If you can’t locate fermented black beans, commercial black bean sauce is a worthy substitute (though it does have a lot more additives).
Gochugaru is ground Korean chile with a texture that is part flake, part powder. It imparts a gentle heat, with a hint of sweetness, smokiness, and fruitiness. It is used in kimchi but also in soups, stews and chile oil.
Gochujang is a vibrant red spicy paste that is also salty and a little sweet. Made with chile, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans and salt, it has a thick, sticky texture, and is commonly used in marinades and sauces, and to add flavor to rice, soups and broths.
I love using gochujang (diluted with olive oil or yogurt) as a spice rub for vegetables, or as a condiment with roasted vegetables, fried eggs and rice.
Kimchi is a Korean staple of salted and fermented vegetables—usually napa cabbage or radish—seasoned with gochugaru, ginger and scallion.
It is such a versatile item to have in your fridge—I use it in fried rice, tacos, sandwiches, noodles, in practically everything. It is also good for you—kimchi is fermented, so it contains “healthy bacteria” called lactobacillus, which aids digestion, according to an article published by Harvard Medical School.
Miso is an essential source of salty, earthy and funky flavor. Made of soybeans and koji (a mold that’s also used to make sake), there are many varieties of miso that differ depending on how long they have been left to ferment—the longer the fermentation, the darker and more complex in flavor miso becomes.
In regular supermarkets you will usually find two different varieties: white (shiro) miso is mellow in flavor and is good choice for everyday use, while red (aka) miso has a much more intense taste. There are also varieties of miso made with chickpeas, barley and brown rice.
This sweet rice wine is a staple in Japanese cooking, used to make marinades, teriyaki sauce or to finish Japanese soups, including miso soup. For me, it is also essential for Asian-inspired salad dressings. Mirin is similar to sake but has less alcohol and a higher sugar content. Mirin is often referred to as “sweetened sake.”
Rice vinegar (sometimes labelled rice wine vinegar) is an essential ingredient in Asian salad dressings. It is less acidic than white vinegar and has a mild, delicate flavor with just a hint of sweetness. Seasoned rice vinegar has small amounts of sugar and salt added, perfect for sushi rice or salad dressings.
A drop of sesame oil makes just about every dish better, imparting an umami-rich deliciousness. Regular, untoasted sesame oil is made from raw seeds and is generally considered better for cooking; toasted sesame oil has a richer, more intense flavor and is often used in the final stages of cooking or when serving.
Sesame seeds add an earthy nuttiness to dishes. White seeds have a more delicate flavor, while black sesame seeds have a stronger aroma, which works really well in desserts. The seeds are available either toasted or untoasted.
Shaoxing Rice Wine
Shaoxing rice wine is fermented from glutinous rice and does contain some wheat, so it is not gluten free. I love to use shaoxing rice wine to add a rich, aromatic quality to marinades or sauces. If you don’t have any, substitute with dry sherry or simply omit.
Soy Sauce, Tamari, Liquid Aminos, and Coconut Aminos
I use soy sauce, tamari, liquid aminos and coconut aminos interchangeably. Tamari, liquid aminos and coconut aminos are all gluten free which makes them great alternatives for those with wheat intolerances. Traditional soy sauce contains wheat and is slightly saltier and darker in color.
Abridged excerpt reprinted with permission from “To Asia with Love,” by Hetty McKinnon. Copyright © 2021. Published by Prestel Verlag, a member of Penguin Random House.