Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Asian Pantry

From Things Cooks Love: Implements. Ingredients. Recipes.

Many of us love Asian food but don’t necessarily feel comfortable cooking it at home. However, many Asian recipes rely on a minimum of tools and cookware, use techniques that are easy to master, and call for only a handful of ingredients. In this chapter, you’ll take a closer look at a few classic pieces of cookware found in Chinese and Japanese kitchens, such as the wok, suribachi, and bamboo steamer. The fascinating ingredients typically found in an Asian pantry include pickled ginger, tamari, and umeboshi, and then accompanying recipes put them to use. You’ll also find suggestions for substitute cookware if you don’t have the authentic piece on hand. Soon the thought of cooking Asian food at home will no longer seem impossible.

Chile-Pepper Oil
Sold in small bottles in Asian grocers, chile oil is vegetable oil that has been steeped with hot red chiles. It’s used as a seasoning in dipping sauces, stir-fries, soups, and other dishes. Buy it in a small bottle and store in the refrigerator to preserve its heat and keep it from turning rancid.

Chinese Rice Wine
Sometimes called yellow wine, rice wine is made from fermented rice. It has a slightly nutty taste and is used in many Chinese dishes. It is available both salted for cooking and unsalted for cooking and drinking. Look for Shao hsing, which can be purchased in Asian markets. If Chinese rice wine is unavailable, dry sherry, sake, or dry white vermouth can be substituted.

Chinese Salted Black Beans
These small, fermented, very salty black soybeans are used to flavor steamed and stir-fried seafood, chicken, or vegetables. They come in small plastic bags. They can be rinsed before using to remove some of the salt. Store at room temperature.

Fish Sauce

Pungent and salty, fish sauce, made by allowing salted fish, usually anchovies, to ferment in large earthenware crocks or barrels in the sun, is used as both a flavoring and a condiment in Southeast Asia. There is a wide variety of brands to choose from in Asian groceries and well-stocked supermarkets, most of them from Thailand. Once opened, store fish sauce in the refrigerator. Buy a small bottle as a little goes a long way.

Five-Spice Powder

The spices used in this aromatic blend vary among manufacturers, but can include any combination of cinnamon, fennel, star anise, clove, ginger, and Sichuan peppercorns. It is a popular ingredient in southern China and in Vietnam, where it is used in rubs, marinades, and as a seasoning.

Fresh Ginger

A knobby-looking rhizome with thin, tan skin and creamy white, somewhat fibrous flesh, fresh ginger is used in marinades, stir-fries, soups, and countless other ways. The skin is easily peeled with a paring knife or scraped off with the edge of a teaspoon. Once peeled, the flesh is grated, slivered, or chopped. Ginger, which has a pleasantly spicy, peppery yet sweet flavor, is stocked in the produce section of most supermarkets. Store unwrapped in the vegetable bin in the refrigerator. For longer storage, slip ginger into a resealable plastic freezer bag and freeze for up to four months, then peel and grate or chop while still frozen.

Hoisin Sauce
Hoisin sauce is a slightly sweet, spicy, thick soybeanbased sauce typically flavored with sugar, garlic, chiles, and many other seasonings. It is used as a glaze or basting sauce for grilled, roasted, or slow-cooked meat and poultry; to flavor stir-fries; and as a dipping sauce, often thinned with soy sauce or Chinese rice wine (or dry sherry). Once open, store in the refrigerator; it will keep indefinitely.

Japanese Rice

When properly cooked, Japanese medium-grain rice, also called sushi or short-grain rice, yields moist and slightly sticky yet firm kernels. It must be rinsed well before cooking to remove some of the starch, and because it absorbs some of the rinse water, it requires less water for cooking. Excellent-quality Japanese rice is grown in the United States. Look for Kokuho Rose, CalRose, and Nishiki brands. Japanese-grown rice is not exported to this country.

A versatile fermented soybean paste found in every Japanese pantry, miso is available in jars or plastic containers in the refrigerated section of the market. There are many different types of miso, each with its own color and flavor. Light-colored, mild misos are used in delicate soups, sauces, and salad dressings, whereas darker, stronger-tasting types are used in more robust soups and for all-purpose cooking. Stored in the refrigerator, miso will keep for months.

These thin sheets of dried, dark green to black seaweed, with a flavor reminiscent of the sea, are primarily used for wrapping sushi and for snipping into small pieces for garnishing all kinds of dishes. Toasting nori improves its flavor and texture, emphasizing its nutty, salty taste. It can be purchased already toasted, or it can be briefly toasted over a gas burner or with a chef’s torch. Nori is typically sold in cellophane-packaged sheets, either whole or perforated.

Pickled Ginger
Cut into paper-thin slices and preserved in sweet vinegar, pickled ginger, or gari, is available in plastic containers or jars in the refrigerated section of Japanese or Asian markets. Available in its natural color or dyed pale pink, it is always served alongside sushi.

Rice Vinegar
Japanese rice vinegar is colorless, generally quite mild, and versatile. Look for Marukan brand, which is light enough for dressing leafy greens and rice salads. It comes both seasoned and unseasoned, although unseasoned vinegar is preferred by many cooks because of its pure, clean taste. Chinese rice vinegars, available in black, red, and white, are usually stronger tasting than Japanese vinegars and are used mostly for braised dishes; for stir-fries, such as sweet-and-sour pork; and as a table condiment.

Sesame Seeds
White, tan, and black sesame seeds are used in Chinese and Japanese cooking. The white are unhulled and have a mild taste. The tan and black are hulled and have a more assertive, nutty flavor. They are used as a condiment and in salads, stir-fries, sushi, and other dishes. Because sesame seeds are high in fat, they should be refrigerated to avoid rancidity. They’re available in jars or cellophane packages in Asian or other well-supplied grocery stores.

Sesame Soy Marinade

Available in specialty grocers, this Shanghai-style bottled soy-based mixture of sesame oil, spices, and sherry is used to marinate poultry and meat or as a seasoning for stir-fried rice or vegetable dishes. It’s the familiar flavor in stir-fried beef and broccoli.

Shiitake Mushrooms

These mushrooms are sold whole or sliced, dried in cellophane packages or boxes as Chinese black mushrooms in Chinese stores and shiitake mushrooms in Japanese stores and must be rehydrated in boiling water (for a quicker result) or tepid water before using. The flavor and aroma are both smoky and pungent, and the texture is thick and meaty. In contrast, fresh shiitake—available in most supermarkets—are mild and soft. Before using whole fresh or dried, discard the tough, inedible stems.

Shiso Leaves

Related to the mint and basil family, shiso is a popular herb in Japanese cooking. The heart-shaped, jaggededged, aromatic leaves are used in recipes for Japanese sashimi, sushi, and salads. Small plastic bags holding about six fresh leaves are sometimes found in produce sections of Japanese markets. Refrigerated, they’ll keep about one week. It is sometimes called perilla or Japanese basil.

Soy Sauce

Used as a condiment or seasoning, this familiar Asian sauce is made from fermented soybeans combined with roasted wheat or occasionally barley and is available in a variety of strengths. Light or thin soy, used primarily with milder foods such as fish and poultry, is often saltier than dark soy, which is aged longer, giving it a deeper, more caramel-like color and flavor well suited to use with meats. Bottles labeled simply “soy sauce” hold a pleasantly strong and salty all-purpose sauce. Low-sodium soy sauce has the mildest taste and is recommended for people watching their sodium intake. Mushroom soy, a popular Chinese sauce, is soy sauce flavored with dried Chinese black mushrooms.

Similar to soy sauce and traditionally made without wheat, tamari, which originated in Japan, is slightly thicker and has a mellower, richer flavor. Today, tamari made both with and without wheat is sold. If you are following a wheat-free diet, check the label before purchase.

Toasted Sesame Oil

This aromatic, amber-colored oil is pressed from toasted sesame seeds. It is a seasoning oil, not a cooking oil, and it adds a delicious depth of flavor to steamed vegetables, soups, stir-fries, marinades, and dipping sauces. Buy small bottles and store in the refrigerator because it
quickly turns rancid.

Tofu is made from soy milk. It is sold in square white cakes in the refrigerator section of almost all markets. Sometimes called soybean curd or bean curd, it has a custardlike texture and bland flavor, which helps it to blend well with spicy or highly flavored foods. In Chinese and Japanese cooking it is often stir fried, deep-fried, or added to broth. It can be diced, sliced, mashed, or pureed. Many types of tofu are available, including soft, firm, and extra firm. In Western-style cooking it is used in casseroles, soups, smoothies, salads, stir-fries, sandwiches, and puddings and other desserts. Tofu should be kept refrigerated. It stays fresh for about one week.


These brined, unripe plums are a delicacy in Japan. They are deep red—which comes from including red shiso leaves along with the brine—and have a mouthpuckering tartness. Believed to aid digestion, umeboshi are used as a stuffing in onigiri (rice balls wrapped in nori) and as a condiment at most meals. These are available as whole plums or as a paste in jars, tubes, and cans in Asian or Japanese food shops.


Wasabi, a Japanese root commonly compared to Western horseradish (the two are unrelated), has a memorable eye-watering, sinus-clearing kick. Sold as a pale green paste or powder (the fresh root is rarely available in the United States), it is lightly applied—just a tiny dot is sufficient—to maki-zushi and other sushi and is mixed with soy sauce as a dip for raw fish. The paste is available in a convenient small tube, whereas the powder, which must be reconstituted with water (follow the directions on the label), comes in a can.

1 comment:

Franz Elioe Narcis said...

I've been an Asian all my life.
It's surprising to see someone define 'ASIAN' food when 'JAPANESE' food is being focused on. After reading your post again and again, I notice that even the ingredients you post are mainly Japanese.

Sure, Japanese foods are simple and easy to cook, easy to prepare. If you take a closer look into Chinese food, you'll have a huge headache - Especially when simple recipes Modern Chefs use today to impersonate traditional ones. One simple marinade could take up to 20 items and hours of cooking.

Please do not generalize Asian food just by looking at Asian foods in the Japanese perspective. We also have Malaysian, Thai, Indonesian, Korean, Pinoy, Singaporean, Indian, and a whole load more you can't even believe the recipes take more than just hours of cooking time.

I hope you take notice. I've been a Chef for years now and I don't see how I can even connect Brazilian and Portuguese, South American and Morrocan. Even Indian and Malaysian. The term 'Asian' is a very general term.