It’s time to admit, once and for all, that I am a business stalker. Anytime I see a hint that a storefront is changing, I am on the case and will not give up until either A: I’ve discovered all the gritty details and realize that I am no longer interested or B: the business opens their doors and I can shop there whenever I please. Sometimes I even peek in windows. So, when I noticed that there were things happening in the shop adjacent to the Wok, my interest was piqued. And when I learned that the new business was going to be an international market, I danced in gleeful celebration.
It can be challenging to find all of the ingredients that I use in my kitchen around town in Fallon. There have been occasions where I will resort to ordering online or will hold off on a particular recipe until after I have a chance to go on a procurement run to Reno. The majority of these hard-sought ingredients are called for when I am either doing a super-special project (crafting bitters for example) or when I am preparing a dish from one of the many culinary traditions in Asia.
My husband would be the first to tell you that I make a lot of Asian dishes. He might actually say “too many” Asian dishes but, in my defense, they are delicious. There is something about the combination of bright, salty, sour, and sweet flavors laced with ginger and garlic, garnished with cilantro and scallions that makes my palette want to sing.
I probably sound like a broken record, but here it is, a well-stocked pantry complete with Asian ingredients makes cooking infinitely easier. Now that we have an international market set to open in Fallon within the week (please attend their ribbon-cutting on the 12th) the time is ripe to talk about stocking your Asian pantry.
Asian Pantry Essentials
Soy Sauce - this ingredient is an absolute must have. Even if you never stir fry vegetables or make Korean short ribs (Kalbi), soy sauce is an ingredient that you should have in your pantry. I use soy sauce in chili, meat marinades, dipping sauces, and salad dressing. I recommend having at least two varieties of soy sauce: light and dark. Light soy sauce is amber colored, has a thin consistency, and is fairly salty. Dark soy sauce is much thicker-bodied and is less salty. If you are gluten-free in your household, use Tamari as a wheat-free alternative.
Sesame Oil - I have three types of sesame oil in my kitchen storage: chili sesame oil, toasted sesame oil, and plain ole regular sesame oil. Of the three, I use the toasted variety most frequently. I use sesame oil primarily for seasoning a dish including a drizzle on a finished dish to add a kick of nutty flavor. Sesame oil is not typically used as a cooking oil because it has a strong flavor and a low smoke point which makes it ineffective for sauteing or frying.
Vinegars - There are a variety of vinegars that are used in Asian cuisine, the most ubiquitous of which are rice vinegar and black vinegar. Rice vinegar comes in two forms: seasoned and unseasoned. Seasoned rice vinegar has ingredients added to step up the flavor. Typically, it includes sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or msg. Seasoned rice vinegar is often used to flavor sushi rice or in salad dressings. But regular rice vinegar is much more useful in the kitchen. You can always add sugar and salt, so my recommendation is to stock unseasoned rice vinegar in your pantry. Black vinegar is totally extra. An ingredient that is nice to have and fun to play with but not essential. Additionally, balsamic vinegar and distilled white vinegar appear frequently in Asian recipes.
Mirin - is a sweet rice wine that is used as a seasoning ingredient in many Japanese dishes. Mirin often appears in marinades and sauces. Mirin is the ingredient that adds a lightly sweet, umami flavor coupled with a bit of tang that is prevalent in Japanese cuisine. It’s the magic I- just-can’t-put-my-finger-on-it ingredient that will set your dishes apart if used in a recipe.
Fish Sauce - Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, fish sauce is stinky. If you have ever inhaled deeply from the mouth of a fish sauce bottle, you probably immediately regretted it. That being said, fish sauce is an absolutely essential ingredient in my house. Think of it as a Southeast Asian Worcestershire sauce. It has a little bit of every flavor - salty, fishy, funky, and sweet all at once. Fish sauce is made by fermenting small oily fishes. Anchovies (or equivalent) are packed in salt and left to ferment for months and sometimes years in barrels. The liquid that the fermentation process creates as bacteria break down the fish is fish sauce. The key to fish sauce is to go ahead and use it in your dishes even if you think it sounds gross. You won’t regret it.
Hoisin Sauce - this one is a bit of a no-brainer (especially after fish sauce). Hoisin is basically Asian barbeque sauce. It is sweet and savory, can be used as a marinade or a glaze, added to stir fries, or used a dipping sauce.
Oyster Sauce - is very similar to Hoisin as far as its color and flavor profile. But while Hoisin is made typically from soy sauce, red chilies, and garlic, Oyster sauce is made from oysters. Despite its base ingredients, oyster sauce does not taste fishy at all. Instead, it is savory and sweet and an ingredient in almost every Chinese dish that has a dark, brown sauce.
Chili Sauces - My two “must haves” in my pantry are Sambal (chili garlic sauce) and Sriracha (discussed in a previous article). Both sriracha and sambal are hot. Sambal is a bit chunkier with pepper seeds throughout and lacks the big vinegar kick of Sriracha. I also love, love, love, Thai Sweet Chili Sauce. But with a well-stocked Asian pantry, you can make it yourself.
Cornstarch - Cornstarch can be used to coat shrimp or fish for a nice crunchy fried coating, as a sauce thickener when mixed with water in a slurry and is ingredient #1 in tempura.
Noodles & Rice - Too many variations to dive into much detail here. I typically have jasmine, basmati, and regular medium grain rice in my pantry. In the noodle category, I tend to buy the right noodles for the dish that I want to make but end up with half-bags of sōmen, ramen, and rice stick on hand.
Asian Pantry Extras--for those who like to be “Extra”
Gochujang & Gochugaru - Korean barbeque sauce and the pepper used to make it.
Shaoxing wine - Chinese rice wine, tastes like sherry
Fermented Bean Paste/Fermented Black Beans
Chinkiang Vinegar (Black Vinegar)
Sichuan Peppercorns - this one is an essential for me because I love how they make your mouth vibrate.
Dried Chiles & Mushrooms
Make Your Own Sweet Chili Sauce
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 cup water
3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons mirin
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 to 1 tablespoon dried crushed chili pepper (red pepper flakes)
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
3 to 4 tablespoons cool water
Add the vinegar, sugar, water, fish sauce, sherry, garlic, and pepper flakes to a pot and stir to combine.
Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and let boil for 10 minutes, or until reduced by half.
While the mixture is boiling, mix the cornstarch and the cool water together to make a slurry.
Reduce the heat to low and add the slurry. Stir to combine. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens. Then remove from the heat and taste-test.