Longtime readers may have noticed that my family often makes Chinese, Japanese, and Indian food. Check out my article at Kitchen Stewardship about incorporating Asian flavors and techniques into your everyday cooking! Here, I’m giving more detail about some of the ingredients I like to keep handy.
Two foods I’ve always considered basics, even when I lived in a dorm and cooked in an electric hot-pot, are rice and soy sauce.
Brown rice is more nutritious and has more fiber; white rice is more traditional. Basmati rice, sushi rice, or jasmine rice might be most suitable for specific recipes, but properly cooking each variety is a bit of a hassle. I often use ordinary, inexpensive white rice for everything–Mexican and South American food, too!
Soy sauce should be traditionally brewed–it makes a big difference in flavor. For years, I only bought Kikkoman because none of the other brands tasted right. I tried Trader Joe’s soy sauce after learning that Kikkoman now uses genetically modified soybeans in its soy sauce for the US market. (Kikkoman’s organic variety is, of course, GMO-free…but it’s hard to find and expensive.) Trader Joe’s house brand plant-based foods are all GMO-free, and their soy sauce is traditionally brewed in Japan and tastes great!
However, if you’re gluten-free, you’ll need a soy sauce with no wheat in it. Look for tamari, and even so, read the ingredients to make sure. San-J tamari is gluten-free and very tasty.
If you can’t have soy at all, coconut aminos give a very similar flavor.
Whatever you do, don’t buy La Choy soy sauce–blecchh!!
I do eat non-GMO soy, and tofu is another favorite ingredient in my cooking. If you’re allergic or opposed to tofu, in most recipes you can substitute boneless chicken–just make sure it gets cooked thoroughly in the recipe, or pre-cook before adding it.
My whole family loves nori seaweed, the greenish-black stuff that’s wrapped around sushi and recently popular in snack packages. We make our own maki rolls (technically different from sushi, maki use more nori) and omusubi (rice balls, also called onigiri) or sometimes we just eat nori by the sheet! It’s great for balancing your metabolism after eating too much sugar.
Rice wine vinegar makes sushi rice taste right and is a useful ingredient in sauces.
Sesame oil is delicious! It’s more of a seasoning than a cooking oil: Mix it into a sauce or salad dressing, drizzle it on cooked food just before serving, or use a small amount of sesame oil mixed with a lighter oil (like peanut oil) for stir-frying.
A basic yellow curry powder works in both Indian and Thai recipes. I buy mine in bulk at the food co-op.
Another great spice blend for Indian food is garam masala (also available at the co-op). I was pleased to find that it has the right flavor for the Middle Eastern dish Loubie, as well.
For hot-and-spicy flavor, dried red pepper flakes or a standard American hot sauce will work, but I prefer sambal oelek chili paste. It’s spicy but not ridiculously super-strong, just right for mixing into a sauce or adding to one serving just before eating.
Fresh garlic and ginger give the best flavor…but I’ll admit I usually get lazy with ginger and use the dry powder. A garlic press makes fresh garlic easy to use.
Hondashi, also called bonito broth mix, is instant broth made from dried fish–essentially, fish bouillon. It adds fishy flavor to soup, rice, or sauce.
Fish sauce has a stronger flavor than hondashi, kind of smoky. Generally, fish sauce is more suitable for Thai or Vietnamese food, while hondashi is for Japanese food. We recently tried a recipe for Thai coconut lemongrass soup that called for hondashi, but I ended up adding a dash of fish sauce to my servings to make it taste right…so the next time I made it, I used fish sauce instead of hondashi, and it was much better!
Coconut milk is yummy, in my opinion and both kids’, but my partner Daniel usually doesn’t like it–that soup is a rare exception. Fortunately, in many recipes the coconut milk is added at the end of cooking, so we can leave it out of the pot and add it to some people’s servings at the table. This works well with the “curried lentils and random vegetables” kind of meal. Canned coconut milk is easy to keep in the pantry for spontaneous use.
Lime juice allows for spontaneity, too, if you keep a bottle in the refrigerator door.
Cilantro is great in Thai, Indian, and also Mexican food. I wish the stores sold smaller bunches of it, but it’ll last two or three weeks in the refrigerator if loosely packed into a glass jar.
Oyster sauce, plum sauce, and hoisin sauce are bottled sauces you’ll usually find in my refrigerator door–but I don’t just use them by themselves; I mix them with other ingredients to make stir-fry sauce. I especially like the smoky flavor of oyster sauce–try it in Zucchini Tofu!
We also keep stocked up on two kinds of Japanese noodles: Soba noodles are made of buckwheat and taste great with stir-fry, in place of rice. Udon noodles can be used the same way or in delicious soup.
Pickled ginger is traditionally served alongside sushi, but it’s a tasty garnish for a noodle bowl, too. Look for a brand without artificial coloring. I used to love pickled daikon, too, but lately all the brands I can find contain not only artificial coloring but also artificial sweetener! I have a scary metabolic reaction to artificial sweeteners, so I can’t have any more pickled daikon…but that reminds me…
Daikon is a big, long, white radish with a mild but interesting flavor. (If red radishes upset your stomach, daikon might not–especially when it’s cooked.) Most Asian markets and some supermarkets sell fresh daikon, which can be grown in many parts of the United States. It’s nutritious and low in calories! Slice it up for your soup or stir-fry.
Those are some of my favorite Asian ingredients! What are yours?
Visit the Hearth & Soul Link Party for more fabulous food ideas!