There are a variety of unique and unusual ingredients that are used almost exclusively in Asian cuisine. Most of these ingredients can be found in an Asian market, but shoppers need to know what they are looking for in order to find them. Here are ten of the most important unique Asian ingredients for the professional Asian cook or hobbyist.
- Chili paste. Among cooking ingredients, chili paste is probably the most important staple of an Asian chef’s pantry. It is used in a variety of Asian countries, from Korea to Indonesia, to add heat and spice to stir fries, fried rice, soups and curries. Popular chili pastes include the Chinese dou ban jiang and Korean gochujang, both of which contain fermented soy beans or beans, and the Thai nam prik pow and Thai sriracha sauces, which contain red chili peppers, garlic and in the case of nam prik pow, shrimp or fish paste. >>Learn more about Asian sauces and pastes
- Cloud ear fungus. One of the most unusual ingredients of hot and sour soup is cloud ear fungus. Also known as wood ear, this jelly fungus is dark brown in color and has a delightfully crunchy texture. In hot and sour soups, cloud ear is usually cut into thin strips, those crunchy black noodle-shapes you see in the soup at a Chinese or Vietnamese restaurant. It can also be a wonderful addition to mu shu pork and stir fries. >>Learn more about:Asian vegetables,fruits and fungi
- Galangal. While most Asian cooking enthusiasts are familiar with ginger, very few have tried cooking with galangal. A root vegetable similar in appearance to ginger, galangal has a unique flavor that cannot be achieved with any other ingredient. It has a powerful floral aroma and a piney taste. It is an integral ingredient in many Asian countries, especially in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and the Indochina region. Use galangal in any of your soups or seafood dishes that are Southeast Asian inspired. It will help you achieve a more authentic flavor.
- Garam masala. An essential ingredient for the majority of Indian and Pakistani curries, garam masala is a curry spice blend. The components of garam masala differ by region, but it often contains cardamom, cloves, cumin, bay leaves, kalonji, cinnamon, nutmeg or mace, pepper, pippalis, star anise and coriander. To achieve the most authentic flavor, look for fresh or whole garam masala at your local spice store or Asian market. Grind the spices fresh in a mortar and pestle until they are a fine powder, then add it to curries to create a sharp, vibrant spiciness. >>Learn more about Asian spices and herbs
- Rice vinegar. Asian rice vinegars have a sweet and mild flavor that is not comparable to more acidic Western vinegars, which should never be considered an appropriate substitute. Chinese rice vinegars are more potent than Japanese rice vinegars, which have a mellower flavor. Vietnamese rice vinegars have a more sour flavor. Black rice vinegar is great for Asian dipping sauces. Red rice vinegar is the ideal cooking vinegar for Asian noodle dishes, soups and seafood. White rice vinegar is milder and is best used for sweet and sour dishes, pickling and stir fries. It is also an important ingredient in sushi rice.
- Fish or shrimp paste. A common component of South Asian and southern Chinese cuisine, fish or shrimp paste is made from sun-dried, fermented ground prawns or fish. Fish paste can be substituted for shrimp paste and vice versa. It is used at the beginning of the cooking process to add extra flavor to curries and seafood dishes. Many Asian restaurants in the U.S. forego the use of this paste, since it has a powerful fishy smell that some find unappetizing, but integrating shrimp or fish paste into your South Asian recipes will help produce a truly authentic flavor.
- Douchi. Fermented black beans, or “douchi,” refers to fermented soy beans. It is known as “fermented black beans” because the process of fermentation turns the soybeans black in color. They are one of the most unique Chinese ingredients and are used to create a pungent, spicy sauce called black bean sauce, which is commonly added to stir fries. The beans can also be used separately, too. For example, they can be mashed and combined with garlic and ginger to create a rub for meats or fish or a flavoring for wok dishes. Or they can be sprinkled over food prior to steaming. >>Learn more about Asian meats and proteins
- Kaffir lime leaves. Thai food just isn’t the same without kaffir lime leaves. They have a citrusy smell and impart a fresh tangy flavor similar to lime zest. They also add a beautiful aroma to any dish. Use kaffir lime leaves when making curries, curried rice and coconut milk soup or tom yum hot and sour soup. The leaves can be frozen or dried for storage, and can be found at most Asian markets. Kaffir lime leaves are also found in a variety of Malaysian, Indonesion, Laotian and Cambodian dishes.
- Jackfruit. Jackfruit is a versatile fruit used in both savory and sweet dishes in South Asian and Vietnamese cuisine. In its young, green form, the fruit is cooked and added to savory dishes like curries, or fried and eaten like potato chips. In this unripe form, its use is similar to that of plantains, breadfruit or potatoes, and it must be cooked before eating. It is said to taste like chestnuts. In its ripe form, the fruit is sweet and has a pungent residue that must be removed. Thereafter the fruit can be used for sweet dishes like ice cream, sorbet, custard, jellies, preserves and chutneys.
- Corn starch. The most common thickening agent in Asia is corn starch. Corn starch will thicken a sauce while still preserving the liquid’s translucent color and light texture. Flour should never be substituted for corn starch because it will make the sauce cloudy or opaque. Tapioca powder is a starch made from cassava, also used for thickening in Asia. Tapioca is a good substitute for corn starch.
When cooking with Asian ingredients, remember that freshness is key. Most Asian dishes use fresh vegetables, fruits and proteins. For the most part, whenever possible, fresh ingredients should be used over canned, dried or frozen ingredients. There are a few exceptions. Many people prefer dried shitake mushrooms to fresh ones, for example, because it brings out the “umami,” or “savory” flavors of the mushroom. The same is true of jackfruits. Also, in some cases pickled ingredients might be preferable, since the pickling ingredients and preservatives can add or alter the flavor profile of an ingredient.
Since you may not be able to find fresh Asian ingredients at your local markets or grocery store, you may have to settle for second-best. If you cannot find fresh ingredients, go with frozen ingredients over dried and dried ingredients over canned, unless the recipe specifically calls for canned or pickled ingredients.