Asian basics for a new cuisine
Pantry Staples
Photo by Annabelle Breakey; food styling by Karen Shinto

International sections of mainstream urban supermarkets should have most of these items. For more brand choices, shop in Asian groceries.

ASIAN (TOASTED) SESAME OIL: Dark oil extracted from toasted sesame seed. For maximum flavor, get a brand that is 100 percent sesame oil; cheaper blends are less intense.

Use for its rich, nutty, and toasted fragrance. Add at the end of cooking, as heat dissipates flavor and aroma.

Add to salad dressings, marinades, and soups, and use to season vegetables or noodles.

Quick toasted sesame sauce. In a blender, smoothly purée equal parts toasted sesame seed and Asian (toasted) sesame oil. Brush the sauce on pan-browned fish or use to dress baby salad greens.

James McDonald, Pacific’o Restaurant, Lahaina, Hawaii

Per tablespoon: 103 cal., 96% (99 cal.) from fat; 1 g protein; 11 g fat (1.5 g sat.); 1.3 g carbo (0.6 g fiber); 0.6 mg sodium; 0 mg chol.

ASIAN FISH SAUCE: Thin, salty, amber-colored sauce made from fermented fish and salt. Look for nuoc mam or nam pla on label.

Use instead of salt or as a light-colored alternative to soy sauce, especially in curries, sauces, dipping sauces, salad dressings, and soups.

Use the sauce instead of anchovies in dressing for Caesar salad.

David Soohoo, Neptune, Sacramento

ASIAN RED CHILI PASTE: A blend of fresh or dried hot red chilies and vinegar. The paste sometimes includes oil, garlic, and other seasonings. Heat level varies with brand and country of origin.

For pungent heat, add to salad dressings, stir-frys, marinades, and soups.

Add to dipping sauce for spring rolls.

Wolfgang Puck

COCONUT MILK: Made from water pressed through shredded fresh coconut. Thick cream floats to top.

Use to deglaze pans in which meat, poultry, or fish has been browned in butter or a mild-flavor oil; reduce slightly to make a velvety coconut sauce.

Tim Hartog, 301 Folsom,San Francisco

Use instead of cream in soups and sauces.

Roy Yamaguchi

FRESH GINGER: Long-lasting rhizome with pungent and refreshing bite.

Use in savory and sweet dishes ― sauces, dipping sauces, stir-frys, salad dressings, marinades, cakes, cookies, and breads. Especially good with fish.

Cut in fine slivers and fry crisp. Use to garnish entrees, soups, and salads.

To crush whole ginger, put in a heavy plastic food bag and smash with a frying pan.

James McDonald

HOISIN SAUCE: Thick, sweet, red-brown sauce made from soybeans, vinegar, sugar, garlic, and bold spices.

Use in stir-frys, marinades, and barbecue sauces; brush sauce on near the end of cooking as the sugar makes it brown fast. Especially good with poultry and lamb.

Sear rack of lamb. Brush with hoisin sauce, press sesame seed onto lamb, and roast.

James McDonald

Mix with garlic, ginger, guava purée, and sambal (Indonesian chili paste) for a sweet-hot, pungent marinade.

Mako Segawa-Gonzales, Maui Beach Cafe, Los Angeles

LEMON GRASS: Pale green, woody grass stalks with distinctive lemon aroma. Remove fibrous outer layers and coarse leafy tops, and trim root. Use tender inner stalk. Adds fragrance and flavor but is not acidic.

Mince for stir-frys and curries.

To release the maximum amount of flavor, use a hammer or the blunt edge of a cleaver to crush stalk, then toast with ground turmeric, minced fresh ginger, and crushed garlic to make a seasoning base for sauces and marinades.

James McDonald

Add to crab cakes or cook with pan-browned scallops.

Wolfgang Puck

Use instead of lemon juice for flavor in fish marinades where the acid in juice “cooks” the fish, changing its texture and color, such as on tuna.

Tim Hartog

Simmer with liquid when making chicken or vegetable broth.

Serge Burckel, Splash, Los Angeles

OYSTER SAUCE: Thick, brown, salty-sweet sauce made from oyster extract, sugar, and spices. According to David Soohoo, “Chinese call it the magic sauce. It’s one of our secrets.”

Use in stir-frys, marinades, and sauces.

Drizzle over cooked green vegetables ― broccoli or green beans.

For a flavor jolt, add a little to melted butter or cream sauces to pour over meat, vegetables, or fish.

Vicky McCaffree, David Soohoo, Larry Tse, House, San Francisco

Add to chicken broth and thicken to make an all-purpose gravy or sauce. ― David Soohoo

RICE VINEGAR: Transparent or golden mellow vinegar made from rice wine. Tastes less acidic than cider, wine, or distilled white vinegars, and does not have a piercing acetic aroma. Seasoned rice vinegar, also called sushi vinegar, contains sugar and salt.

Use plain or seasoned on salad greens for a no-fat dressing.

Use instead of butter to season baked potatoes or baked sweet potatoes.

SOY SAUCE: Dark, aromatic, full-bodied sauce brewed from fermented soybeans and wheat. There are distinctive flavor differences between Japanese- and Chinese-made soy sauces, and among different brands. Flavored soy sauces, such as mushroom soy (infused with the essence of mushrooms), have unique qualities.

Use instead of salt in any mixture in which soy sauce’s dark color adds an interesting dimension.

Mix equal parts soy sauce and mushroom-flavor soy for richer flavor.

Tim Hartog

Substitute salt and pepper at the dinner table with soy sauce and chili pepper water.

Alan Wong, Alan Wong’s Restaurant, Honolulu

In dressings made with Asian fish sauce, replace some fish sauce with soy sauce to tone down fish flavor.

Roy Yamaguchi

THAI CURRY PASTE: A wet paste made from chilies, spices, and other seasonings. There are many types, including red, green, yellow, panang, and Mussaman ― each blend has its own flavor. Comes in packets, envelopes, and jars.

Mix a yellow curry paste with coconut milk to taste and heat to make a spicy sauce. Or marinate split chickens in the mixture and grill. Serve with Thai sweet chili sauce (see below).

Steam mussels in broth flavored with red curry paste and coconut milk.

Vicky McCaffree

Use curry paste instead of curry powder.

Roy Yamaguchi

WASABI: Powerfully pungent, hot green horseradish. Available as a dry powder or paste in a tube. Mix powder with water and let rest for 10 minutes for flavors to “bloom.”

Use as you would horseradish or hot mustard.

Add dry powder with dry ingredients for sauces and in baking.

Use in broth for poaching oysters.

Bruce Hill, Waterfront, San Francisco


Other ingredients chefs like to use

BLACK BEAN SAUCE: Made from salted black beans, rice wine, and seasonings.

BLACK VINEGAR: Dark, mildly sweet, smoky vinegar made from rice, wheat, millet, or sorghum.

CHILI PEPPER WATER: A mixture of hot red chilies, vinegar, and water. Popular in Hawaii.

COCONUT OR PALM SUGAR: Comes in hard chunks to crush or melt. Tastes like sugar boiled with water until thick enough to harden.

PONZU SAUCE: A thin, yellow, citrus-flavor Japanese sauce, sometimes called citrus-seasoned sauce.

THAI SWEET CHILI SAUCE: Thick, sweet, faintly sour syrup with chilies, sometimes called sweet chili sauce.

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