Is there a more intimidating place than an international supermarket? With foreign languages, unusual and intriguing ingredients and little clue how to use them, it’s no wonder that people often stick to what they know. However, just venturing into an Asian supermarket is a culinary journey and there is a wealth of fantastic Asian ingredients that should become staples in your pantry. We translate and demystify the best Asian ingredients you’ll find at your nearest Asian supermarket.
Bonito flakes (katsuobushi)
Well, here comes bonito, or katsuobushi, which is skipjack tuna that is dried, fermented and smoked. It is sold either in one large piece, looking much like a piece of wood, or already shaved into flakes. If you’re into making any type of broth, you’ll need bonito along with kombu to make the dashi base. The same goes for miso soups, as the bonito adds an earthy umami flavour that really can’t be replaced.
Fish sauce (nam pla)
We are longtime lovers of fish sauce, as seen in our favourite stir-fries found here. It somehow manages to find its way into the hearts (and dishes) of even devoted fishy-haters. Made from anchovies and salt, which are then fermented, fish sauce adds so much more than fishiness to food. It adds depth, saltiness and umami. If a recipe calls for fish sauce, make sure that you use fish sauce – there really is no substitute for this powerhouse ingredient. If you’re still not convinced, try out these Asian-style Fish Burgers, you’ll only need a dash or two of fish sauce to see its flavour come through.
Weird sounding, yes. Weird tasting? Most definitely not. Gochujang (pronounced GO-CHOO-jong) is a spicy, fermented, pepper paste which can be incorporated into nearly any recipe that requires a little bit of heat. Its flavour is a layered mix of spice, funkiness, and umami. The next time you’re making a marinade, swap out the chilli sauce you usually use with some gochujang – it will take it to the next level. Just watch out for the heat and add sparingly as you go, the spice is not playing around.
Hoisin is not too unfamiliar an Asian ingredient, as anyone who’s eaten Peking duck will know it. It really is a delicious condiment to have around, made from soy beans, ketchup, maple syrup, red chillies, garlic, vinegar and Chinese 5 spice. It has a wonderful mix of sweet and salty flavours, and can be used in marinades and sauces or just as it is!
Mirin, very similar to sake, is a rice wine (or rice beer depending on how you see it) that is lower in alcohol but higher in sugar content. It also adds a rounded sweetness but is really wonderful when used to finish soups and sauces. This is one of those Asian ingredients that is used in a lot of different recipes and should definitely be a staple.
Let’s start with something familiar, shall we? Miso paste is no longer the exotic and unknown Asian ingredient it used to be, and in all honesty, you could probably find it at your regular grocery store. Miso paste is a seasoning produced from fermented soybeans, a little salt and a fermenting agent. What can you cook with it? The question should be what can’t you cook with it? It works wonderfully whisked into dressings, light marinades and even mixed into a butter. In this Miso Roasted Pork Belly, it forms part of the glaze, giving the meat a much-loved hit of umami. Experiment with it in all your cooking, you’ll be surprised at how quickly it becomes one of your go-to staples.
Not a fan of oysters? Don’t worry, you’ll still love this condiment. Oyster sauce is made from sugar, salt and cornstarch-thickened water, with only oyster essence or extract added. No actual oysters involved! Its thick and glossy nature makes it an excellent addition to stir-fries and marinades. It adds a deep sweetness, with a briny flavour rather than an oyster-y one.
Kewpie mayo is an absolute favourite when it comes to Asian ingredients. It’s made with rice vinegar rather than distilled vinegar and egg yolks rather than the whole egg, so it has a smoother and creamier texture. It’s the delicious, creamy blob on top of a lot of sushi and is a favourite in Japan as a dressing and more. If you’re wondering about the name, it was chosen to help create a brand that everyone would love, and what’s not to love about the big-eyed Kewpie doll? We’re not sure how they got around the copyright infringements there but the fact remains it’s a super popular Asian pantry staple.
Kombu is basically dried kelp, cultivated on the shores of Japan and Korea. It has immense flavour and really only has fine salt lightly packed on it when packaged. As with bonito, if you’re looking to make any kind of Asian broth, you’ll need a dashi and only kombu can give you that. Kombu is also an important ingredient for any vegetarian pantry, as it adds meatiness to soups, stews and broths without any of the meat!
Nori is a form of edible seaweed and its popular in plenty of Asian cuisines, specifically Japanese. You’ll most commonly know it for being the tie that binds sushi rolls together (that familiar, dark green, almost black wrapping). It has a mild flavour and can be used in a variety of dishes and snacks.
Made from the sap of a number of different palm tree varieties, which is boiled down and allowed to crystallise, palm sugar is for all intents and purposes, the same as regular sugar. However, the flavour of palm sugar is extraordinary, like a rich butterscotch. If you’re making any sort of Thai curry, palm sugar is best to counteract any acidity while still building complex flavours. It lasts very well, so one or two little rounds will keep for a while.
Before you even mutter, ‘but they’re just breadcrumbs’, hear us out. Panko is a breadcrumb product, but it’s not exactly the same as every breadcrumb available. Panko is only made from white bread or labelled panko tan, it is made from the whole loaf of bread. What sets panko apart is that it’s processed into large flakes, rather than little crumbs. This allows for maximum surface area meaning extra crispiness on each little panko morsel. You could certainly swap panko for breadcrumbs in any recipe that called for breadcrumbs, but we wouldn’t suggest using regular breadcrumbs where panko are required. Try out this delicious Beetroot and Baby Spinach Salad with Panko Crumbed Brie and you’ll see just how superior panko is. It’s definitely one of our favourite Asian ingredients.
You may hear people refer to ponzu as a soy and yuzu mix, but it really is so much more than that. It’s made by gently cooking soy sauce, rice wine, rice vinegar, bonito fish flakes and seaweed together, as well as a little chilli and mirin. It’s used mostly as a dipping sauce but can also add flavour to other sauces and marinades. It’s also a refreshing change from soy sauce (if you eat a lot of soy) or even Worcestershire sauce if you’re the ballsy person who drizzles that over everything. Try this recipe for Deep Fried Samurai Mussels with Deadly Ponzu Dipping Sauce.
Rice wine, while called rice wine, is not the same as sake and mirin, which we know now are technically closer to rice beers. Rice wine is more like a wine as we know it, made from fermented glutinous rice in a process where yeast transforms the sugars to alcohol. Weirdly though, it can be used in a similar way to mirin and sake for tenderising meat and adding depth to sauces and soups. Just for comparison, if you’re really in a pinch and need to substitute rice wine, your best bet is pale dry sherry – which gives you an idea of the flavour of rice wine.
Before you rush out and buy the first bottle of sake you see, you need to make sure you’re picking up the cooking sake, called ryorishu. Not only is there a price difference between drinking and cooking sake, but you want to make sure that you’re using the cooking option due to the salt and vinegar added to it. Sake, while often referred to as rice wine, is actually closer to a flat rice beer because of the brewing process it follows. What does it add to your cooking? Well for one, a delicate sweetness from the rice and it acts as a tenderiser for meat and fish. Use it the way you would white wine, it goes particularly well with seafood.
A little bottle of sesame oil will take your food to places it has never been before. Made from, obviously, the oil of toasted sesame seeds, this little ingredient will add a punch of roasted nuttiness to any dish. Use it as part of a dressing or a stir fry sauce, but also toss it through cooked noodles to harness its full, delicious flavour.
Shiitake Mushrooms (dried)
If you see a pack of these gnarly looking things, be sure to pick it up. Dried shiitakes are one of the ultimate Asian ingredients, whether you’re cooking Asian food or not. All you need to do is soak them in a little warm water to rehydrate them and then you’re left with a rich flavoured mushroom stock to add to your cooking. These are also great additions to a pantry used for vegetarian cooking, as the deep meaty flavour of a shiitake is irresistible. See our list of different kinds of edible mushrooms here.
Provided you don’t have a shellfish allergy, shrimp paste should be a staple in your kitchen. It may sound scary, as it’s made from fermented and ground shrimp, but the flavour is a wonderfully-rich shellfish one, with a little bit of funkiness thrown in for interest. It forms the base of lots of Thai curries, but is also great mixed well into a marinade or salad dressing.
Soy sauce is a by-product of fermented soybeans and wheat that have been mixed with brine. Moulds are then added and left to grow for three days after which it’s combined with salt water in vats where another bacteria, that breaks down sugars into lactic acids, is added. The resulting mixture is then left to ferment for a further six months, at least, before being strained, pasteurised and bottled to be sold as the delicious salty condiment we know and love.
Rice vinegar, is a vinegar made from fermented rice or rice wine and is not to be confused with actual rice wine. It’s possibly already hanging out at the back of your cupboard and if it’s not, it should be. When used in marinades and dressings, it adds more sweetness and less acidity than the rest of its vinegary cousins and works especially well with fried foods, cleaning up any lingering fattiness in your mouth. Try it out in this Sweet and Sour Stir Fry.
Togarashi (also called call shichimi togarashi)
Also known as Japanese 7-spice, this aromatic spice mix is used in many dishes to add incredibly complex flavour. It’s a blend of different kinds of chillies with other aromatics and it can be used on meat, fish or noodle dishes.
Imagine lemons, oranges and grapefruit had a baby. There, you’ve basically imagined the flavour of yuzu to some extent. In appearance, depending on ripeness, it looks like a smaller, more wrinkly grapefruit. Unfortunately, the actual fruit is pretty impossible to get hold of but the juice is readily available at any well-stocked Asian ingredients store. Use for marinades and sauces, such as homemade ponzu.
Now that you have your pantry stocked with a range of Asian ingredients, check out these recipes where you can use your new purchases.
Miso Butter Charred Onion Potjie
This is the potjie you never knew you needed!
Recipe for Miso Butter Charred Onion Potjie
Udon Noodle & Vegetable Broth
There’s nothing more satisfying than a bowl of slurpable noodles in a delicious broth.
Recipe for Udon Noodle & Vegetable Broth
Deep-fried Chicken & Vegetable Dumplings with Sriracha
This sriracha and crunchy dumpling combo is a winner.
Recipe for Deep-fried Chicken & Vegetable Dumplings with Sriracha
Veg Springrolls with Soy & Honey Sauce
These are seriously ‘soy’ yummy!
Recipe for Veg Springrolls with Soy & Honey Sauce