All of the unique Asian spices and herbs available will fill up the pantry of an Asian cooking enthusiast very quickly. While it is always better to use real ingredients, using substitutions can save Asian cooking hobbyists plenty of time and money they would otherwise spend looking for and purchasing exotic ingredients. Learn about the different types of Asian spices, how they are used and whether or not there is an adequate substitution out there.
Asafoetida – (as-uh–fet-i-duh) A pungent, vile-smelling spice that is cooked, thereby removing the bad smell and imparting a flavor similar to that of sautéed garlic, leeks or onions. Used in Indian and other South Asian cuisines, especially in vegetarian curries and dhals. Substitute with extra sautéed garlic or leeks.
Bay Leaves – A laurel leaf used to flavor dishes in Indian, Pakistani and Indonesian cuisines. They are a common ingredient in garam masala – an Indian curry spice blend. Bay leaves have a sharp, bitter taste that is diffused with cooking. Curry leaves or equal parts thyme can be substituted.
Cardamom – An herb in the ginger family, whose small, round, black seeds are often ground and used in Indian cooking. They have a powerful, flowery and minty taste and are aromatic. Cardamom is a key ingredient of garam masala – an Indian curry spice blend. Can be replaced with a blend of half cinnamon, half nutmeg, but only as a last resort.
Cassia – (a.k.a. Chinese cinnamon) A bark related to cinnamon that is used in Indian cooking as a replacement for common cinnamon. Cinnamon can be substituted.
Cinnamon – Common cinnamon is a popular addition to South Asian curries and is an integral ingredient for garam masala. Cassia can be substituted.
Cloves – Dried buds of a flowering evergreen tree, cloves are used in moderation in cooking, since they have a very strong flavor that can overpower a dish. A common ingredient in garam masala, they can be used for both sweet and spicy dishes, but is especially popular in curries and teas. Often, cloves are used in their whole form to impart flavor to a dish, then removed before cooking. Substitute with nutmeg, mace or allspice.
Curry Leaf – Leaves of the curry tree, most often used in fish and coconut milk curries. They have a powerful bitter flavor that becomes more subtle with cooking, and are a popular addition to Indian, Sri Lankan and Pakistani dishes. Bay leaf can be substituted.
Five Spice Powder – A Chinese spice blend, usually containing equal parts cloves, cinnamon or cassia, Szechuan pepper and fennel. Used to flavor stir fries, stews and greasy meat dishes.
Garam Masala – The most popular Indian curry spice blend. The ingredients of garam masala differ regionally, but it usually contains pepper, cardamom, cloves, pippali, cumin, bay leaves, kalonji, cinnamon, nutmeg or mace, star anise and coriander.
Kaffir Lime Leaves – Leaves of the kaffir lime tree that smell and taste like citrus. A common ingredient in Thai cuisine, the leaves are added to curries and soups. They can be chopped, cooked and eaten, or added whole, cooked and removed. When eaten whole, they are often unpleasantly chewy or fibrous. Substitute with lime zest, key limes or lemon leaves.
Kalonji – (a.k.a. nigella seed, black cumin) A spice from the nigella sativa plant, used in confections and liquors, as well curries and in a Pakistani naan known as “Peshawari”. It has a strong bitter taste. Substitute with oregano or black sesame seeds as a last resort.
Laksa Leaves – (a.k.a. rau ram, Vietnamese cilantro, Vietnamese coriander) In Vietnam, the laksa leaf is crushed and sprinkled on laksa soup. It has a peppery taste with hints of mint and cilantro. Equal parts mint and cilantro make an excellent substitute.
Lemongrass – An edible grass that has a lemon bouquet and a citrusy flavor. It is used in soups, curries and teas throughout Eastern and Southern Asia. It is usually crushed or bruised, then used in cooking to impart its flavor to the dish, and finally removed before eating due to its unpleasant fibrous texture. Substitute zest of one lemon for every two stalks of lemongrass.
Mace – Mace is the red covering of the nutmeg seed. It is usually sold as a powder. It tastes similar to nutmeg and can be found in some variations of garam masala. However, usually nutmeg is used instead, since it is a more economical alternative, and makes for a perfectly adequate substitute.
Mitsuba – (a.k.a. trefoil, Japanese honewort) A leafy herb with a similar appearance to cilantro. Used for flavoring soups and salads in Japanese cuisine. Watercress can be substituted.
Panch Phoron – A blend of five spices used in Bangladesh and India. Includes fenugreek, kalonji, fennel, mustard seed and radhuni or celery seed. Used to cook fish and vegetables, as well as for making dhal.
Pippali – (a.k.a. long pepper) A hotter relative of black or white pepper. The pippali is a thin, long, black fruit that consists of many tiny, black, seed-like beads resembling poppy seeds. It is an Ayurvedic herb, often used for Indian pickles and in Malaysian and Indonesian cooking. Black peppercorns can be substituted as a last resort.
Rice Paddy Herb – The leafy parts of rice paddies are used as an herb in Vietnam and Thailand. It is added to soups and curries to give a fresh, citrusy flavor. Cilantro can be substituted.
Radhuni – (a.k.a. wild celery) South Asian seeds with a powerful aroma, used mostly in Indian and Indonesian curries or dhals. Tastes similar to celery. Occasionally an ingredient in panch phoron – a five-spice blend. Replace with celery seeds or mustard seeds.
Saffron – The most expensive spice in the world, saffron is the stigma of the flower crocus sativus, used in a variety of Central Asian and Indian luxury dishes. Saffron imparts a sweet, hay-like flavor and golden color to dishes. It is said to make any dish delicious. There is no good substitute for saffron, but in desperate times, turmeric can be used instead.
Sesame Leaf – The leaves of the sesame plant, used in Korea as an herb or for wrapping meats. A common ingredient of Korean bossam – wrapped steamed pork. Can be replaced with lettuce.
Shiso – (a.k.a. perilla) An herb used in Japan and other Asian countries to add flavor during the pickling process, especially when pickling plums. Mint or African basil can be substituted.
Star Anise – (a.k.a. badiane) A star-shaped seed with eight points that is broken into pieces before used for cooking. It should not be eaten whole, but is only added to impart flavor. So always remove it from the dish before eating. Anise can be substituted in moderation.
Szechuan Pepper – Berries that resemble black peppercorn but that are more flavorful than hot. They have a spicy, citrusy flavor and cause the mouth to go slightly numb. A common ingredient in Eastern Asian cuisine, particularly Tibetan cuisine and Chinese hot pot dishes. Tasmanian pepper is the only good substitute.
Thai Basil – (a.k.a. horapa) A species of basil used in Thai, Taiwanese and Vietnamese cooking. It is a common ingredient in Thai red and green curries. It has a spicier, more minty flavor than standard sweet basil. Can be substitute with any other variety of basil, especially African basil. Thai holy basil and Thai lemon basil are two other varieties of basil used in Thailand that are distinct from the common Thai basil.
Tia To – (a.k.a. Vietnamese perilla) A spicy leaf herb where one side of the leaf is purple and the other is green. It is said to taste like cinnamon. Added to Vietnamese soups at the end of the cooking process. Perilla (shiso leaf) can be substituted.
Turmeric – A root bulb in the ginger family. It has a yellow color and a spicy, peppery, earthy flavor. Turmeric is an integral ingredient for almost any curry. It is usually dried and used in its powder form. There is no good substitute for turmeric.