A Guide to Basic Asian Cooking Ingredients
The Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year is the first day of the Chinese calendar and the most important traditional Chinese holiday. This year, it begins on February 10.
Also known as Spring Festival, the Chinese New Year marks the end of winter with 15 days of festivities steeped in tradition and local customs. According to Chinese horoscopes, 2013 is the “Year of the Snake.” In Chinese folklore, a snake in the home is a good omen signaling that the family will not starve in the
Food, of course, is important especially on Chinese New Year’s Eve. That evening, family members gather for the annual reunion dinner, a sumptuous feast laden with traditional dishes and delicacies. Red, the color of fortune, happiness, prosperity and longevity, decorates doors and windows. Families exchange red envelopes or red packets that usually contain money in even amounts like 8 and 6, two lucky numbers.
Joining China in holiday preparations are other Asian countries and territories that have adopted the Chinese calendar: Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines and Hong Kong. The Vietnamese New Year or Tet and Korean New Year or Seollal, also fall on the Lunar New Year and embrace their own traditions.
In the United States, many communities celebrate the Chinese New Year with elaborate parades, pageants and street fairs. Why not join the festivities by adding Asian-inspired dishes to your February menus. Asian cuisine continues to be popular, intriguing and challenging diners and cooks with its complex flavors and unusual ingredients.
For many cooks, the biggest hurdles to cooking Asian cuisine are knowing and finding the right ingredients. To help you navigate the Asian food section at your local market, we compiled a basic guide to common Asian cooking ingredients.
Guide to Common Asian Cooking Ingredients
Black bean sauce – A flavorful sauce made from salted, fermented black beans, rice wine and other ingredients like garlic, chile peppers, vinegar and soy sauce. Use sparingly in stir fries and other dishes; a little goes a long way.
Chinese Five Spice Powder – A blend of traditional Chinese spices including ground peppercorns, star anise, cloves,fennel, cinnamon. Some versions include ground coriander seeds. The powder spans a wide flavor range, from sweet to hot. Use as directed in recipes or sprinkle on meat, fish, poultry and vegetables.
Edamame (eh-dah-MAH-may) – Green, immature soybeans that are steamed or boiled. You eat only the soft, creamy beans – the pods are tough and inedible. Look for edamame – either still in the pod or shelled – in the frozen food case.
Fish Sauce – A pungent liquid is produced by fermenting fish like anchovies with sea salt. Fish sauce has an intense flavor so use sparingly; a little goes a long way.
Hoisin Sauce – A dark and thick reddish-brown sauce that’s spicy and sweet. Its main ingredients are fermented soybeans, vinegar, sugar, garlic and spices.
Kombu – An edible kelp with large leathery leaves used in Japanese and other Asian cuisine. You can find packages of dried kombu online or in natural food stores. Use kombu to flavor dashi, Japanese soup stock.
Mirin – A sweet, light-colored Japanese cooking wine. To make mirin, glutinous rice and malted rice are mixed with distilled spirits and allowed to ferment for 2 to 3 months. The resulting rice wine is high in sugar (40 to 50%) but low in alcohol (1% to 14%). The Japanese add mirin to fish and seafood dishes to help mask unpleasant or strong fishy aromas. Mirin also adds luster to sauces and glazes. Use sparingly; a little goes a long way.
Miso – A naturally fermented soybean paste essential to Japanese cooking. Miso is made by fermenting soybeans with salt and a grain such as barley or rice in wooden kegs. The color is a good indicator of the miso’s age and flavor. Lighter colored miso is younger, sweeter and less salty than a darker one that has aged for up to 2 years. Dark miso has a deep, more assertive and saltier flavor.
Nori – The thin, pressed sheets of dried seaweed commonly used as sushi wrappers or topping and condiment.
Oyster sauce – A mild sweet and smoky brown sauce made from boiled oysters, oyster extracts, sugar, soy sauce and other seasonings. Oyster sauce is popular in Cantonese dishes.
Panko – Flaky Japanese bread crumbs used as a coating for tempura and other deep fried foods. The word, panko, is Japanese for “bread crumbs.”
Plum sauce – A sauce made from salted plums, apricots, vinegar, ginger and chiles. Plum sauce’s sweet and tart flavor is perfect dipping spring rolls, fried wontons and other deep fried foods. It can have either a chunky or smooth texture.
Rice vinegar – A vinegar that’s milder and more delicately flavored than regular white vinegar. Use rice vinegar to flavor sushi rice or in soups, dipping sauces, salad dressings and other dishes that need some acidity.
Sesame oil – An amber-colored, aromatic oil made from roasted sesame seeds and used as a condiment. Hot sesame oil, a popular variation, is infused with hot chili peppers. Because it burns easily, sesame oil is not used for cooking. Use sparingly; a little goes a long way
Shrimp paste – A pungent paste made by fermenting shrimp in salt. Shrimp paste is often used in dipping sauces. Cooking the paste first helps tame its strong aroma. Use sparingly; a little goes a long way.
Soba noodles – Japanese noodles made from buckwheat flour and wheat flour and used in hot and cold dishes. When compared to Italian pasta, soba noodles are about the same thickness as spaghetti.
Soy sauce, tamari or shoyu – A slightly salty condiment or sauce traditionally made from fermented soybeans and wheat. Wheat-free and low-sodium varieties are also available.
Sriracha and other chile sauces and pastes – A spicy condiment made from a blend of fresh and dried chiles, vinegar and other ingredients like garlic. The amount of heat depends on the chiles used. Consistency varies from pourable sauces like Sriracha to thick pastes.
Tamarind paste – The sticky and paste-like edible pulp of the tamarind fruit. Young fruit has a sharp sour taste that works well in savory Thai dishes like Pad Thai. Riper fruit is much sweeter and used in desserts and beverages. Buy ready-made tamarind concentrates online or in Asian markets.
Tofu – Soybean curd made by curdling soy milk and then pressing the curds into molds. Tofu by itself tastes quite bland. In recipes, however, it absorbs the dish’s main flavors. Two common types in Western markets are silken tofu and pressed tofu. Silken is soft, smooth and creamy and has high water content, ideal for purees, pudding and smoothies. Pressed tofu is firmer and denser making it more suitable for stir-fries, frying and grilling.
Udon noodles – Thick, chewy Japanese noodles made from wheat flour. Serve udon hot in noodle soups and other dishes.
Wasabi – Often called Japanese horseradish, true wasabi is the root of the hard to grow wasabia japonica plant. Although related to horseradish, wasabi belongs to a different botanical family. In the United States, when we eat the hot green paste served with sushi and sashimi, we are most likely enjoying extra hot horseradish mixed with hot Chinese mustard. If you buy wasabi power, check the ingredient list to see how much true wasabi is actually in the powder.
Your Turn: What are your favorite Asian recipes?