These Asian pantry essentials are the must-have Asian ingredients you need to stock in your pantry for cooking Asian food during the coronavirus and beyond. Our recommended Asian essentials include everything from fish sauce, soy sauce and hoisin sauce to ingredients we love such as Chinkiang vinegar and Doubanjiang.
Like a lot of people we know, we’ve just moved to a smaller more affordable apartment in Cambodia’s Siem Reap to hunker down. While packing and unpacking the kitchen and starting to plan meals and write a shopping list for the next weeks (maybe months) at home, I began to think about the Asian pantry essentials we can’t do without for cooking Asian food during the coronavirus and beyond.
We typically keep our Asian pantry stocked with everything we need to make our favourite Asian dishes and recipe test for the Cambodia cookbooks we’re working on. While the kitchen cupboards are filled with Asian pantry essentials that most Asian food lovers would know, such as soy sauce, hoisin sauce and oyster sauce, it also includes ingredients that some home-cooks might be less familiar with, such as Chinkiang vinegar and Doubanjiang.
Below you’ll find a list of Asian pantry essentials that we consider pantry staples – the Asian ingredients we can’t live without. Of course there are other items in our pantry, such as peanut oil for its high smoke point for deep frying and, of course, Sriracha sauce – both the Huy Fong Sriracha brand from the USA, as well as the original Sriracha brands from neighbouring Thailand.
Asian Pantry Essentials – The Must-Have Asian Ingredients You Need In Your Pantry
While I separate these Asian pantry essentials from other ingredients from everywhere from Europe to the Middle East and Australia, there’s definitely a crossover when it comes to cooking. No doubt that’s due to the fact that we’re Australian after all, and, like many Aussies, including some of Australia’s chefs cooking contemporary Australian cuisine, I feel comfortable reaching into the kitchen cupboards for everything from Spanish olive oil and Italian balsamic vinegar from Modena to Tunisian harissa and Mexican habanero chile salsa (we adore El Yucateco).
For instance, I love making tonkatsu, the wonderful Japanese breaded deep-fried pork cutlets, for which I also love to make my own tonkatsu sauce. For that I raid the Western pantry for tomato sauce (ketchup to our American friends), Worcestershire sauce and Dijon mustard. I’ll be posting a tonkatsu recipe soon, but in the meantime, here’s our list of Asian pantry essentials we recommend you keep in your pantry.
Asian Pantry Essentials – Your Must-Have Asian Ingredients
If I was forced to choose one must-have ingredient of all our Asian pantry essentials it would be fish sauce. It’s probably the most used Asian pantry item in our kitchen. In many Southeast Asian countries, fish sauce is used instead of salt for seasoning.
It’s used in marinades and sauces and, along with palm sugar, below, it’s an essential ingredient in balancing the seasoning in curries. I tend to reach for Thailand’s Megachef when fish sauce is called for in most Southeast Asian recipes, as its sodium levels are always consistent, unlike some other brands.
However, when we’re cooking Cambodian food, we might splash some of the locally produced Cambodian fish sauce into a dish and when we’re cooking Vietnamese food, we will use a Vietnamese fish sauce. If you’re reading this in the USA, our chef friends there rave about Red Boat Fish Sauce although we’ve never seen it here.
We have countless fish sauce recipes on the site (just use the search box and you’ll find scores) but we love it in the dipping sauce that accompanies this Cambodian grilled corn:
Another one of my Asian pantry essentials is palm sugar, which is used extensively in Thai and Cambodian cooking. Palm sugar is made from the juice of the male fruit of the sugar palm or palmyra palm tree (Borassus) which, after being collected, is boiled in a massive wok until it is reduced to a thick texture that resembles creamed honey.
It’s then sold in that form in jars, as well as being taken through a further process of being poured into rings made from strips of banana leaf to create hard tablets called palm sugar ‘candy’, and it’s also granulated to make palm sugar.
I prefer the thick creamy honey-like palm sugar for cooking. It’s used extensively here in Cambodia to sweeten dishes such as curries, and used in sweets, such as this banana coconut tapioca pudding:
Chinkiang vinegar is another one of my Asian pantry essentials you must have in your pantry. The black vinegar is used in many much-loved Chinese dishes such as bang bang chicken and dan dan noodles (recipe coming soon). Chinkiang vinegar is also used as a key ingredient in many sauces such as the one for fish-fragrant eggplant, which we hope to do a recipe on soon as well. In the meantime, you can use your chinkiang vinegar in this chao shou or Sichuan pork wontons recipe:
CHILLI BEAN PASTE – DOUBANJIANG
This salty chilli bean paste, doubanjiang, is used in many popular Sichuan dishes such as mapo tofu. The chilli bean paste is another one of my Asian pantry essentials and it’s made from fermented broad beans, soybeans, salt, rice, and spices. Although it’s important to note that in Sichuanese cooking, chilli bean paste contains broad beans (fava beans) not soybeans.
We use both light and dark soy sauce in our kitchen and consider both to be Asian pantry essentials. One soy sauce – or soya sauce, but not simply ‘soy’ – is not going to be enough. You’ll need a light and dark soy sauce.
The light soy sauce is used in just about every Southeast Asian and Chinese cuisine and the dark soy is key to a good char kuey teow.
It’s a salty condiment produced by fermenting soybeans and wheat, with salt and a fermenting agent. But you’ll also find a need for dark soy sauce in numerous recipes. We also keep Indonesian sweet soy sauce, kecap manis, but don’t use it as often as the other two soya sauces. We marinate these ribs in a light soy sauce among other things:
And a dark soy sauce gets used in this braised pork belly dish with ginger, black pepper, palm sugar, star anise, and peanuts. It’s one of our favourite Cambodian dishes.
This Chinese fermented soybean-based condiment is another one of our Asian pantry essentials and we use it for everything from enhancing Vietnamese phở to including it as a vital ingredient in char siu sauce (although we reckon it’s far better to make it from scratch than buy commercial versions).
Oyster sauce is another one of our Asian pantry essentials. A Chinese condiment made from oyster extract, sugar, salt, and corn starch, it’s a thickening agent and is most commonly used in stir-fries in Vietnamese cooking and in fried rice in Chinese cooking, although it has myriad other uses. We use oyster sauce, along with light and dark soy, among other ingredients to season the spicy chicken mince for these lettuce wraps:
Made from fermented ground shrimp, shrimp paste is another of our Asian pantry essentials. Shrimp paste is used in Thai, Lao, Cambodian, and Vietnamese cooking, and we really love shrimp paste in dishes such as Vietnam’s bún bò Huế, to which it adds an extra kick of umami. Shrimp paste is fantastic in this Cambodian shrimp fried rice recipe with shrimp paste:
TOASTED SESAME OIL
Made from roasted sesame seeds, this nutty-flavoured oil is not used for cooking but used as part of a dressing or as a last-minute garnish before serving, mainly in Vietnamese and Chinese dishes. Toasted sesame oil is a must for finishing special fried rice and it’s another of our Asian pantry essentials.
SESAME PASTE / ZHI MA JIANG
First of all this is not the same sesame paste as tahini, as the white sesame seeds are heavily toasted so the paste has a darker hue. The other ingredients are soybean oil, soybean, peanuts, and black sesame paste. Sesame paste is mainly used as an ingredient for sauces in dishes such as dan dan noodles and bang bang chicken and as far as I am concerned it’s another of our Asian pantry essentials.
Japanese mayonnaise is sweeter and more flavourful than American-style mayonnaise. This is due to several factors. Firstly, only the yolks of the eggs are used and the eggs are of a superior quality with darker yolks.
Secondly, rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar is used instead of distilled vinegar, but the sauce still has a tang.
Thirdly, it contains monosodium glutamate (MSG) unless you’re in the United States. It’s a perfect accompaniment to fried food such as karaage (Japanese fried chicken) and it’s another of our Asian pantry essentials.
You’ll find plenty of recipes with Japanese mayonnaise on the site, but try this Japanese potato salad recipe for starters:
This Chinese rice wine hails from Shaoxing, a city known for rice wine production and is another of our Asian pantry essentials. Shaoxing wine has an amber hue and is different to clear rice wine for cooking and cannot be substituted with it.
It has a deep, rich aroma and taste and is used widely in Chinese cooking – and in almost every dish we make. Frustratingly, here in Siem Reap the staff at the supermarkets often put it in the wine section and not the sauce section so I often have trouble finding what for me is another one of our Asian pantry essentials.
We use Shaoxing wine to season the filling of these delicious pot stickers:
Mirin, typically labelled as ‘Aji-Mirin’, is a sweet fermented rice wine and is widely used in Japanese dishes and it’s another of our Asian pantry essentials. Mirin is quite similar to sake, but is sweeter and has about the same alcohol content as normal wine (around 14%).
While some websites suggest that you can substitute dry sherry or a dry white wine, if you want to cook authentic Japanese cuisine, it’s best to have this in your pantry. It’s used in many marinades and dipping sauces and sherry is most definitely not a good replacement.
Mirin gets used in the stock in this comforting katsudon recipe:
Maltose is also known as maltose syrup and is a thick syrup used in Chinese cooking that is another of our Asian pantry essentials.
Although it’s used in confectionary, for me it’s the ingredient that makes Beijing roast duck look so shiny and is the key ingredient in char siu sauce to get that glossy look on your char siu barbecue pork, below.
The reason for that is because of its thick consistency as it really ‘sticks’ to the meat. A trick to adding it to your char siu is to add the vegetable oil to the saucepan first then scoop the maltose onto your measuring spoon.
Do you have these Asian ingredients in your kitchen cupboards? We’d love to know what your Asian pantry essentials are. Please feel free to let us know in the Comments below.