Are you looking at jumping – or at least dipping your toe – into cooking Asian meals but are confused by what ingredients are needed? At first, it may seem intimidating, but with an easily stocked pantry of basic ingredients, you can quickly churn out a number of delicious dishes that will amaze your family and friends.
Thanks to one of my followers who wanted help stocking her pantry, I put together this guide to help you get started with the basic ingredients needed to start cooking some great Asian dishes with a focus on Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Indian cuisines. I’ve tried to limit the list to 20 ingredients that are easily found in most supermarkets, realizing that not everyone is fortunate to have a Japanese or Asian market nearby (for those who do, consider yourself lucky and have fun shopping!).
I should note that this is by no means an intermediate or exhaustive list, as there are so many other ingredients that could be included. Each region of Asia has so many different culinary highlights using unique ingredients. Even to say Chinese or Indian cuisine really does not do justice to the wide variety of flavors from the different regions in each country, but that is a story or post for another time.
Many of the pantry items listed below are also pan-Asian. For example, soy sauce, ginger and rice vinegar are used with both Japanese, Chinese and Korean cuisines. Fish sauce forms the backbone of many southeast Asian cuisines including Korean, Thai and Vietnamese. Rice – although not added below – is a staple across Asia. In my pantry, I stock three different types: short-grain rice for Japanese dishes, Jasmine rice for Chinese, Thai and Southeast Asian cuisine and Basmati rice for Indian cooking. There are many more varieties I also use, but the above three are the staple starches I always have on hand.
So, without further ado, here is my list of the 20 essential Asian pantry ingredients to have:
1. Soy sauce: soy sauce is one of the foundations of Japanese cooking and is generally used in place of salt for seasoning (there is so much more to Japanese cuisine than sushi or ramen!) Soy sauce is widely used in marinades for meats and seafood, glazes, sauces, salad dressings, and so much more. There are different varieties, usukuchi is a lighter color but is much saltier than koikuchi, the darker variety. My favorite soy sauce is Tamari which is less salty or milder then koikuchi. Tamari also happens to be gluten-free.
2. Miso paste: miso which is made from ground fermented soybeans, is another foundation of Japanese cooking and it can be kept for months in the fridge. There are different types and colors of miso paste, ranging from light (shiro) to dark or red (aka), with the darker colors having a more intense, sometimes pungent flavor. For a starting pantry, you will find the lighter shiro the most versatile. It can be used as a base for soups and stews, in marinades for meats or fish, quick glazes, salad dressings and more.
3. Rice vinegar: made from fermented rice wine, this is another staple of Japanese cooking. Rice vinegar has a nice, mild flavor compared to other vinegars and has low acidity (around 4%). It is great for making marinades, salad dressings, quick pickling (Japanese cucumber salad) and numerous other dishes. Rice vinegar is also widely used in Chinese cooking to add sweetness and acidity to dishes and enhance the flavors. As a note, Japanese rice vinegar is smoother than Chinese rice vinegar – not an issue if you’re using it for cooking, but for quick pickling or salad dressings, I always opt for the smoother Japanese rice vinegar.
4. Dashi powder: in Japanese cooking, dashi forms the base of many dishes and adds that unique umami flavor. Dashi is actually a stock (much like chicken or beef) made from konbu, a type of seaweed, and bonito fish flakes, which is dried, shaved skipjack tuna. If you are cooking Japanese only occasionally then dashi powder is the best way to go and is widely available. However, if you are looking at cooking Japanese food often (it’s very healthy and full of glutamates), then I would suggest buying konbu and bonito flakes to make your own dashi as it is very easy to make and the flavor is much better. Dashi forms the base for soups, noodle dishes like soba and udon, and dipping sauces (tsuyu).
5. Sake: often called rice wine (it is actually brewed more like beer), sake is a versatile addition when cooking Japanese dishes. It is used to tenderize seafood and meats, balance out flavors and helps to neutralize strong smells. When buying sake for cooking, follow the same guidelines for cooking with wine – it should be drinkable but not too expensive. My go-to sake is Gekkeikan which is inexpensive and is easily found in many liquor stores. You can also use cooking sake, but keep in mind that it contains salt so some ingredients would need to be adjusted.
6. Five-spice powder: as the name states, it is a mix of five or more spices that combined have a great depth in flavors ranging from sweet to savory, aromatic, pungent and sometimes salty. A common five-spice powder blend will include cinnamon (or cassia), fennel seeds, star anise, cloves and Sichuan peppercorns. It can be used as a spice rub for savory meat dishes also on seared tuna or tofu, added to marinades (char-siu pork) or stir fries, or even in baking as it offers hints of cinnamon and licorice.
7. Hoisin sauce: this is a great sweet and savory paste made from fermented black beans, garlic, vinegar, chilies, five-spice powder and sugar. It is often referred to as Chinese BBQ sauce, but is arguably one of the most common multi-purpose sauces in Chinese cuisine (actually Cantonese, but why quibble 😉 ). Hoisin sauce is used in stir fries, as a base for sauces (pork steam buns), glaze or marinades (moo shu pork, chicken) and also used simply as a dipping sauce (Peking duck, dumplings).
8. Peanut oil: is a great oil for adding some flavor. It has a light, nutty flavor that pairs perfectly with many dishes including stir-fries, noodle dishes and salads. Refined peanut oil has a higher smoking point than semi-refined which makes it ideal for stir fries or deep frying. Once opened, it is good for about six months out of the fridge (about a year in) before it starts to go rancid. I have found it in most U.S. supermarkets, but if you are shopping in an Asian market, you may find it as groundnut oil.
9. Sesame oil: just remember, a little goes a long way! This nutty oil is one of those essential flavors you will find in a wide variety of Chinese dishes. There are two basic types of sesame oil, light and dark. Light has a milder flavor and a higher smoking point while dark will have a stronger, nutty flavor and a much lower smoking point. Typically dark (or toasted) sesame oil is used to finish a dish or as part of a dipping sauce. Just remember, a few drops is often all you need. Also, keep in mind that it can go rancid rather quickly if left out of the fridge.
10. Chili paste: there are many varieties, but Sambal Oelek is my favorite. Chili sauce adds a burst of flavor to dishes and can be a good substitute for the red chilies that some Chinese dishes call for. However, if you have availability to dried red chilies go for that! Dried chilies are preferable to fresh chilies as the flavor is more concentrated. I also like to mix a little chili paste with soy sauce to make a delicious dipping sauce for dumplings, grilled tofu and pork buns.
11. Ginger: skip the ginger powder and always opt for fresh ginger. It can be grated, minced, thinly sliced or julienne, and is used ubiquitously in Asian dishes including marinades, stir fries and sauces. Ginger is one of those base aromatics along with garlic and scallions that is used with many types of Chinese dishes. As with garlic, the finer the ginger is minced (or grated) the stronger the flavor.
12. Green curry paste: a mix of many wonderful spices including lemongrass, kaffir lime, and of course chili peppers. This paste adds such a great depth of flavors – and heat – to Thai curry dishes. It is most often paired with coconut milk for a balanced dish. There are other types of curry paste but green (and red) are the ones commonly found in most American supermarkets. I find that green curry paste goes better with fish, chicken and tofu, and the red I use for pork or shrimp (and sometimes chicken). Which is hotter? I would have to say the green curry paste can pack quite the punch compared to red curry paste.
13. Chilies: Thai cuisine is known for its heat, and no pantry would be complete without some dried Thai or bird’s eye chilies (fresh is also good, but not a pantry item). There are of course, a multitude of other chilies as well, but bird’s eye and the longer red chilies are the most common. The small bird’s eye chilies are very fiery, while the longer red chilies are more tamed. If you can’t find either then Serrano chilies make an acceptable substitute.
14. Coconut milk: simply put, Thai curry is not Thai curry without coconut milk. It helps to balance the heat of chilies in many dishes whether curries, soups, marinades or desserts. It is also easy to make with just coconut flesh and water, but I find it easier to keep a few cans in my pantry (along with green chili paste) so I can whip up a Thai curry dish on the spur of the moment if I have that craving. Some recipes may call for coconut cream and if you cannot find it in your supermarket, simply use the thick cream at the top of the coconut milk can.
15. Chili sauce: actually there’s two kinds I would recommend – sweet chili sauce and sriracha. The sweet chili sauce can be used as a dipping sauce and a condiment (it’s more sweet than spicy), while sriracha is used to add some extra heat to dishes such as soups, sauces and noodles bowls.
16. Fish sauce: it has a strong, funky odor when you first open the bottle, but it adds such great savory, umami flavor to Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Chinese foods. With Thai cuisine in particular, it is considered the backbone of countless dishes (similar to soy sauce being a backbone of Japanese and Chinese cooking). Fish sauce is essentially anchovies in salt that have been left to ferment and the juices extracted and processed. I know it doesn’t sound appealing, but it adds such great complexity to sauces and the smell seems to disappear when it is cooked. You can use it in marinades, stir fries, soups, salads and even dipping sauces.
17. Curry powder: in actuality, it is not Indian in origin, but rather a colonial British invention. The common supermarket curry powder is a mix of spices which generally include coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek and pepper. Personally, I keep the base spices in my spice cabinet, and mix myself, but if you’re just starting out with cooking some Indian dishes then I think keeping a small jar of curry powder is easier. Garam masala is another type of mixed spice powder which has a “warm” flavor to it with the addition of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.
18. Turmeric: is probably one of the most widely used Indian spices and can be easily found in powdered form. Turmeric or Haldi is the spice that gives the bright yellow color in Indian dishes and has a great mild flavor with hints of earthiness and sweetness when cooked (raw, it’s bitter). It can be used in curries, dahls, egg dishes, tofu scrambles, in soups and more. Turmeric is also reputed to have anti-inflammatory properties and in India it’s also used topically for a variety of skin conditions.
19. Black Mustard seeds: a key component of many southern Indian dishes, the black rai seeds are initially tempered in hot oil until they start to pop (use a lid to stop them from jumping out and covering the stove). When toasted, black mustard seeds take on a slightly sweet flavor with a nutty aroma. They’re used in a number of dishes including lentils or dahls, egg bhurji, upma, meen moilee and other curries.
20. Ghee: is nothing more than clarified butter and is used as the quintessential cooking oil in Indian cuisine. You could make your own, but I find that ghee found in Asian stores has a nuttier, toasty flavor to it. Ghee is best stored in a cool, dark place.
If you would like to expand upon the above list, here are some other items I keep in my pantry:
- Nori sheets: seaweed for sushi, crumbled or powdered as a garnish
- Shichimi togarashi: seven-spice red chili powder for sprinkling on soups and other Japanese dishes
- Mirin: a sweet rice wine added to miso and sake to make my favorite marinade for seafood
- Sesame seeds: I keep both white and black for garnishing pickled Japanese cucumbers, rice dishes and countless other Japanese dishes
- Wasabi paste: for garnishes or added to dipping sauces
- Dried shiitake mushrooms: also great to add to dashi, I use them to add an earthy flavor to Japanese and Chinese dishes
- Char siu sauce: another great Chinese BBQ marinade in a jar. Much easier than making from scratch
- Lemongrass paste: Another staple of southeast Asian cuisine. I prefer fresh lemongrass stalks and smash them with the flat of a knife, but I can’t always find them, so the paste is great to keep in the fridge.
- Garam masala: a very common Indian spice blend
- Urad dal: split black lentils, are added to a wide variety of Indian dishes
- Cumin: also one of the core Indian spices, I would have added it above if the list was longer than 20
- Coriander: adds a lot of flavor and aroma to Indian dishes