If you love to eat Asian food at restaurants, but feel a little intimidated to cook some of the dishes at home, this post is for you. These ingredients are simple and straightforward, and most can be found in the Asian aisle of mainstream grocery stores. This is a starter list and how I grew my Asian ingredients over time. Most grocery trips, I would check out the Asian section and pick something out. Sometimes I knew what I was going to do with it, sometimes not. Once you get a feel of what you do and don’t use that much in your home cooking, I highly recommend going to an Asian grocery store. The selection is much better and usually the prices are great. Many Asian grocery stores also have a great selection of small cooking equipment and dishware that will make your homemade dishes feel a little more authentic.
So here is a list you can slowly stock up on. I didn’t include the most popular ingredients like soy sauce and sriracha, because if you like Asian food, you probably have already purchased these. Unless noted, these items will hold up in your pantry or fridge for months. I’ll go over how easy it is to find all the ingredients and if they aren’t super common, where to find them for the best price.
- Rice vinegar: You will also see this labeled as rice wine vinegar or rice wine. It has a much lighter taste than white vinegar, with a hint of sweetness. There are two common rice vinegars at American grocery stores: seasoned and unseasoned. Seasoned has sweetener, salt, and maybe a little more flavor, where unseasoned is in its true form. I tend to choose seasoned because it already has flavor that I would add anyway, but having the unseasoned gives you a little more flexibility. If a recipe calls for rice vinegar and you don’t have any, apple cider vinegar is the best substitute, but add just a little less ACV than the recipe calls for. I pour it over sliced cucumbers and add it to Asian vinaigrettes, sauces, and marinades. I almost always add rice vinegar to my Asian dishes (besides curries and Indian dishes), because it add a nice tanginess to everything.
- Black vinegar: Black vinegar isn’t as easy to find at mainstream grocery stores, but it’s definitely worth the hunt. It’s widely available online and of course at Asian grocery stores. I use black vinegar the most as a dipping sauce, usually with a little soy sauce and something spicy. It has a richer flavor than rice vinegar and is mild enough to eat on its own. There’s also not a great substitute for it (some blogs say balsamic, but I don’t think the flavors are all that similar), so if you like to cook Chinese food and especially if you like dumplings, this is definitely something to have.
- Fish sauce: Fish sauce is actually fairly common at most grocery stores now. I’m not a huge fan of fish (or anchovies which is what some fish sauce is made from), but I absolutely love this stuff. It’s super salty and smells a little like miso (if you’ve had miso soup or other miso dishes). This is another sauce that goes into many of my Asian dishes, especially veggies to add umami. It’s also the main ingredient in one of my favorite homemade sauces: nuoc cham, a go-to Vietnamese sauce that’s salty, sour, sweet, and spicy all in one. I like this recipe, but I use sambal oelek (see below) instead of fresh chiles since I always have sambal oelek. And I use brown sugar instead of palm sugar for the same reason.
- Sesame oil: You don’t use sesame oil like you do other cooking oils. Very little goes a long way. It adds a deep nuttiness to dishes and when you try it at home you’ll think “oh that’s what my dishes were missing.” Sesame oil pairs well with many Asian dishes, but I especially put it in chicken and tofu dishes.
- Oyster sauce: Thick, dark, sweet and salty. This is a sauce that doesn’t need a lot of help being delicious. Pour on top of veggies or chicken and easily turn them into an Asian-inspired meal. Oyster sauce also doesn’t have a strong oyster or seafood taste, so if that’s not what you’re into, you still might really like this sauce.
- Curry pastes: I usually always have red and green curry paste in my fridge. They’re easy to find now in most grocery stores. Mainstream curry paste can taste a little boring, so if your curries are lacking something, usually just a little salt and something citrusy fixes the blandness. I usually mix with coconut milk and lots of seasonings. If you cook stirfry, try using those main veggies and proteins and make a curry instead.
- Coconut milk, canned: Another easy ingredient to find at most grocery stores now. I opt for the canned coconut milk because it usually has a thick layer of solid that is much better for creating creamier sauces than carton coconut milk. I add coconut milk to most of my curries, and it can turn an everyday tomato sauce into a creamy Asian sauce in no time.
- Sambal: I usually buy sambal oelek (or chili garlic sauce which looks just the same) at the grocery store and it’s widely available now. You can easily make your own, but I really like the flavor of sambal oelek. It has a similar taste to sriracha, but it’s chunkier. You can see the seeds and bits of the peppers in the sauce, and that’s why I tend to use it more than sriracha. It’s good to add a little heat into homemade sauces, but I especially like a dollop in my ramen or mixed with a dipping sauce for dumplings or veggies.
- Gochujang: This is probably my favorite Asian ingredient right now. I found out about gochujang a couple years ago. It has the irreplaceable flavor of spice and warmth. If you haven’t bought gochujang before, I recommend starting out with a premixed sauce, like Momofuku’s Ssam sauce (I found mine at Whole Foods). It’s already mixed to have an easier consistency to work with and is ready to top your tacos, avocado toast, eggs, and rice bowls. I think it’s a step up from sriracha. Once you fall in love with the flavor, you can buy a tub of gochujang at an Asian market or online. This is usually a paste, so you’ll have to mix it with other things to create a sauce, but it will add depth to so many of your dishes.
- Chili oil: You’ll find chili oil that’s just oil and some with chili flakes or other ingredients. Simple chili oil is a great finishing touch to dishes and sauces. A little goes a long ways, like sesame oil, but usually the heat isn’t over the top. I particularly like chili oil with crunchy chili flakes. My favorite brand is Laoganma. It’s more crispy bits than oil. Laoganma plus some black vinegar is my go-to Chinese dipping sauce for dumplings. Chili oil isn’t as common in mainstream grocery stores, but most Asian grocery stores have a nice selection or you can find online. If you buy online, just know you’ll be paying $2-$5 more than what you would at an Asian market.
Items you probably already have, but are wonderful for Asian recipes:
- Peanut Butter: I make an Asian-inspired peanut sauce for dipping or for noodles at least once a month. It’s so easy and I almost always have all the ingredients. I use something similar to this recipe here, but all you really need is peanut butter, water, something to add tang (like citrus juice or vinegar) and soy sauce. Mix peanut butter and water until it thins out some, then add soy sauce & other ingredients until it mimics an Asian sauce. I use conventional peanut butter because the smoother consistency makes for a better sauce, but you could try it with whatever nut butter you have.
- Peanuts and cashews: I lightly crush up peanuts and cashews all the time and top ‘softer’ dishes to add texture. Pad thai, different tofu dishes, sauteed veggies like squash all are a little better with crushed peanuts or cashews.
- Sesame seeds: I eat sesame seeds every single day. I put them in my soup, on eggs, and on many of my Asian and Mediterranean dishes. I usually use white sesame seeds because they’re the easiest to find, but I love using the tuxedo sesame seeds (mixture of black and white), or a sesame seed mix, like za’taar or Trade Joe’s Everything but the Bagel mix.
- Ketchup: You’ll see ketchup as a base in many Americanized Asian recipes. You wouldn’t think of it as a go-to Asian ingredient, but tomatoes, vinegar and sugar are all really common in many Asian cuisines and having them premixed into ketchup makes your cooking a little easier. Use it in Asian BBQ sauce, sweet and sour pork, and in general sticky, sweet sauces.
- Mayo: Mayo is quite popular in many Asian cuisines, particularly the Kewpie brand. You’ll find it on top of sushi and other seafood-based dishes and in Americanized sauce, like yum yum sauce, that you can dip pretty much anything in and will taste great.
- Brown sugar: I add brown sugar to tons of savory dishes. So many Asian dishes have a subtle sweetness you may not pick up on if you’re just used to ordering the dish. Brown sugar particularly pairs well with darker sauces, like soy sauce or vinegar, and with some curries.