If you love going to different Asian restaurants but rarely cook those recipes at home, a part from the occasional stir fry or fried rice, this post is for you. I’ve slowly grown my Asian ingredients list by just grabbing a new ingredient when I go to the grocery store and making a few trips to the Asian grocery store. Some of the items I bought were a flop, but some have completely changed my cooking and my confidence in trying new recipes.
This post focuses more on South Korea, some parts of China, Japan, Vietnam, and Thailand. I won’t touch much on Indian ingredients as I’m working on a separate post for that. And honestly, I’m not familiar enough with some of the other Asian countries (or don’t have easy access to ingredients) to include here. I also didn’t include much information on spices, because I also think they deserve their own attention and I’m working on a post just for them. Lastly, I mention a few fresh ingredients, but mostly I’m focused on items you can easily keep stocked and when you’re craving a certain cuisine, bam, you have all the base ingredients.
I separated the list on what I can usually find at most grocery stores and what I buy at the Asian grocery store. I also listed some substitutes so if you’re just missing that one ingredient you’ll know how you can complete a dish.
Easy to Find Ingredients: Here are the Asian items that I don’t let myself run out of and that are usually easy to find at a mainstream grocery store. Note that all of these (except the ginger) will last for months in a pantry or fridge. This allows me to always have these ready to go for an Asian recipe I find.
- Soy sauce. My most used ingredient. I add soy sauce to almost every Asian dish. Substitutes include tamari and coconut aminos. You could also get away with using Worcestershire sauce in some recipes, but don’t quote me on that. Tamari is a popular (usually) gluten-free version of soy sauce and they taste almost identical. Coconut amino is deemed as ‘healthier’ than soy sauce and I noticed its popularity increase as Paleo and Whole 30 diets recommend it. It is sweeter and has a slight aftertaste. Cooking with it seems just fine, but I don’t like it as a dipping sauce sub. When you shop at a mainstream grocery store, you’ll usually find normal and low sodium soy sauce. Go with either. When you go to an Asian grocery store, you’re likely to encounter dozens of soy sauces, from dark to light from several different countries. Pick a couple and see which you prefer. If the selection overwhelms you, go with low sodium from Japan. It’ll be the most familiar.
- Curry Pastes. A dense mixture of spices, peppers, ginger, garlic, and more. Curry pastes last a long time in the fridge. Usually in small jars in the Asian section, you should be able to easily find a couple Thai pastes, including yellow, red, and green. They all have subtle flavor differences, but for the most part, can be interchanged in your home cooking. I usually steer clear of the Indian curries in jars because I can never make them taste like I want. You may also find Japanese curry pastes. The mainstream brands are usually pretty good, but I recommend trying Japanese curry elsewhere before you make some at home to truly appreciate it. You can sub out different curry pastes, but there’s not really another substitute in flavor if you don’t have any curry pastes. You can make your own too: see here and here. Most of the time the recipe asks you to mix a couple tablespoons of curry paste and coconut milk together for a quick and easy meal.
- Coconut milk. Usually in both the Asian and Hispanic sections of the grocery store. I always go for full-fat because it’s the tastiest and the best for cooking. Light coconut milk is basically regular coconut milk with more water, which can easily turn a sauce into an accidental soup. Most coconut milk in a can separates where the top part has a really thick cream then under it is the coconut water, completely normal.
- Rice vinegar. You’ll also see this called rice wine or rice wine vinegar. Most recipes will call for unseasoned, but if you can only find seasoned at your mainstream grocery store, no worries. Seasoned will just have a bit more flavor and you can easily tone down the other ingredients. Rice vinegar is my second most used Asian ingredient (after soy sauce). It adds the perfect amount of acidity to sauces, soups, meats and vegetables.The best substitute I found for rice vinegar is either apple cider vinegar or lime juice. If the recipes asks you to cook with it, I recommend apple cider vinegar. If the recipe asks you to add it to finish off a dish, I recommend lime juice.
- Sesame oil: The first time you use sesame oil and smell it warming in a pan, you’ll think “yeah that’s what my dishes have been missing.” It’s way more potent than olive oil or vegetable oil and a little goes a long ways. Again, this goes into most my recipes. I don’t let it heat as high as I do other oils. I will usually add some sesame oil over medium heat to help onions and garlic start to cook, then add in more sauces to control the heat. It’s also really nice to add in after a cooking process or even on raw vegetables. Cucumbers with some fish sauce, sesame oil, and a little salt make for a perfect side dish. Thick noodles, cooled down with sesame oil, soy sauce, and fresh green onions make for a quick and tasty lunch.
- Sesame Seeds: Nice and simple, I top most of my Asian recipes with A LOT of sesame seeds. They add a really nice crunch and mild taste to everything. Any kind will do, but you will probably find white, toasted, and black at most grocery stores. Crushed peanuts would be my recommended substitute. If you’re feeling adventurous and like the subtle flavor of seaweed, look for a furikake blend at your Asian grocery store.
- Fish sauce: Even at most mainstream grocery stores now, you’ll find one or two brands of fish sauce. Many people will recommend the Red Boat brand, but anything will do to start you off. You’ll see dozens of brands if you go to an Asian grocery store. Note that fish sauce is a liquid, while most other Asian ‘sauces’ are much thicker. I personally love the funk of fish sauce, but if the smell weirds you out, don’t worry, the flavor really mellows out in dishes. I’ll eat cooked fish occasionally– I’ll be in the mood for a nice grilled filet sometimes, but if you’re not a big fish person either, I still think you’ll like fish sauce. It’s really hard to replicate most Southeast Asian dishes without it, and most other coastal Asian cuisines for that matter. If you don’t have any, I recommend more soy sauce and a little vinegar for the tang.
- Chili oil or paste: I don’t normally cook with chili oil from the beginning, but more often add in to middle of cooking or towards the end. I add chili oil to sauces, soups, and on top of dumplings and even eggs. I purchase S&B’s La-Yu (which literally translates to spicy oil) at mainstream grocery stores. It’s strong and last for a long time. Sambal oelek and chili garlic paste (usually in the same style of packaging) don’t have the oil content, but do the same thing as the chili oil and are also easy to find now. A spoonful in most dishes adds just the right amount of heat. My personal favorite is Lao Gan Ma, but you’ll need to head over to an Asian grocery store to find. It has a good amount of oil, but also has these crispy pepper flakes and salty beans that I want to eat every day.
- Soybean paste/miso paste: You will see this called miso paste in Japanese recipes and soybean paste (or the actual language term for it) in other Asian cuisines. I talk all about miso paste here, but what you really need to know it is to super versatile, quite salty, with a wonderful creamy, umami flavor that’s hard to replicate. It’s used as a glaze, cooked into recipes, or in soups. I really don’t want to give a recommendation of a substitute on this one, but maybe hoisin or teriyaki sauce for a glaze or extra soy sauce in a soup. But just buy it. It lasts for months and months in your fridge. You should easily find it at most higher end or health-focused grocery stores, maybe 2-3 options. Or dozens of options at an Asian market. If you’re new, start with a white or yellow paste; it’s mild and easier to experiment with.
- Ginger: Ginger is definitely not my favorite Asian ingredient, so I tend to tone down the amount I put in dishes. But I noticed when I completely leave it out, the dish isn’t as good. I’ll buy a big knob of ginger a couple times a month and if I run out, I just use ginger powder. Ginger powder is milder, so if you don’t love ginger, it’s a good alternative. Or for more authentic flavor, dice the fresh ginger finely and add to your dishes when you add your garlic.
Asian Grocery Store Finds: And here are my top picks that I can’t normally find at my every day grocery store, but there’s a ton of options at Asian grocery stores. These are definitely my personal preferences and as you’ll see most are just different ways of adding spice and flavor to dishes. If you haven’t been to an Asian grocery store before, you might get overwhelmed. If the labels are in a language you don’t know, look at the ingredients list and the nutrition facts. Those will be in English and can help ensure you’re buying what you think you are. Asian grocery stores are usually separated by regions and countries, so have an idea of where the ingredient is from and it’ll be easier to pick an aisle. When I’m getting lost at a store, I usually lean towards brands I know, like Cantonese brand Lee Kum Kee. They have a lot of paste and sauces I like.
Picture 1: Gochujang paste; gochugaru powder, 1 lb bag plus powder on display; Gochujang sauce ready to go for dips and dishes. Picture 2: Chili Bean Sauce. 3: red label: Shaoxing wine; smaller bottle: Mirin from a mainstream grocery store.
- Spicy soybean paste: You will see this called Doubanjiang, Toban Djan, chili bean sauce, and soybean paste. It gets a little confusing, because soybean paste can also be miso paste, but you’re looking for a dark paste (either red for spicy or almost black for not as spicy) for this particular ingredient. It’s not as salty and savory as miso paste and I definitely wouldn’t use miso paste as a sub here. I get the Lee Kum Kee’s chili bean sauce. It’s the right amount of heat and my go-to ingredient for most my spicy Chinese dishes. A substitute for this would be oyster sauce (that you can usually find at mainstream grocery stores) mixed with some red pepper flakes.
- Gochujang: The best spicy paste I’ve ever had. There’s nothing to replace this flavor in my opinion. It’s becoming quite popular in restaurants and you may have already seen it on wings or fried chicken. You can either go with a small carton of the really thick paste or you can usually find it in a bottle already mixed into a thinner sauce. I’ve found premixed sauces at mainstream grocery stores several times. It’s Korean, so definitely add it to your Korean dishes, but it’s really versatile and would work as a sauce in many other recipes. Here’s a nice article to think about how to use it, from tacos to hummus to deviled eggs. I would also highly suggest gochugaru, the Korean ground red pepper. I have both gochujang and gochugaru, but honestly if you have one you can mimic the flavors enough for most dishes. Gochugaru spice is what gives kimchi and most Korean soups their color and flavor.
- Shrimp pastes: Or sometimes called shrimp sauce, I understand if there’s some hesitation in buying this. It’s fermented, salty shrimp ground into a paste (different brands have different texture). It packs such a flavor punch that you can take a spoonful of this paste, add to some blanched veggies and noodles and there’s dinner. It’s popular with most coastal Asian cuisines, so it can be used throughout many dishes. You can use fish sauce as a sub, but note that fish sauce is completely liquid so you might need to mix with something thicker, like a soybean paste, to get it to stick to the other ingredients like the shrimp paste will.
- A couple Asian noodles: Can you make a dan dan noodles with spaghetti noodles? Yes. But will you feel like you’re just eating bolongese sauce with soy sauce? Probably. Sure there are several options at your mainstream grocery store: ramen, udon, pad thai noodles, etc. But there’s something next level about getting some good noodles at an Asian grocery store. Pick two that are different. Something thin and something thick. Something straight, something wavy. I like the texture of thicker noodles more, so I tend to grab thick ramen noodles and udon. You can always google how to cook the noodles if it’s not clear on the packaging, but in general most Asian noodles only need a few minutes so keep an eye on them.
- Cooking liquor and wines: Sake, mirin, and Shaoxing wine. I may get some shit for putting all these together but my cooking isn’t quite advanced enough to say you need to have all these. They do have different flavors, but if you’re just starting out, one of these will do. Sake and mirin are both common Japanese ingredients, with mirin being sweeter and less alcoholic. And Shaoxing wine is Chinese. You can find mirin and Shaoxing (pronounced shao, rhymes with cow, and shing) with other cooking sauces, but Sake (rhymes with hockey) is usually in the alcohol section. I bought mirin at a mainstream grocery store, and I’m not a big fan. I like Shaoxing wine a lot more. They all add a subtle, distinct sweetness to dishes. I think you could substitute each of these for themselves. Sherry would also be a good substitute. And honestly many of the recipes call for only a tablespoon and it won’t ruin a dish if you leave out.
A few honorable mentions because I can’t help myself:
- Seaweed: Seaweed deserves its own post. It’s super healthy and whether you realize it or not, it gives a large amount of Japanese dishes and other cuisines their flavors. Seaweed goes way beyond the nori sheets to wrap your sushi. If I could recommend a couple to start with: sea kelp (kombu, what many ramen broths are made from) and sea mustard (aka wakame). I also use kelp granules and dulse in many vegan dishes to give them a seafood flavor with no seafood.
- Lemongrass: Lemongrass is a very important ingredient in several Southeast Asian cuisines and the only reason it’s in honorable mention is that most of the curry pastes I buy already have it so I don’t often need to buy it alone. It has a very distinct flavor that make many Asian soups and sauces so flavorful. Most health food stores carry lemongrass, but if you’re worried it’ll go bad before you use it all, Asian grocery stores have lemongrass pastes that you can just stock.
- Black vinegar: Hands down, my most craved Asian ingredient. I will make dumplings just to use this for a dipping sauce. I’ve seen it spelled ‘chinkiang’ and ‘zhenjiang’. It’s the main vinegar in the Chinese aisle and it’s completely black in color.
Transition Ingredients: And finally, let’s end with some universal ingredients that can easily transition from a Western cuisine to your Asian recipe. I’m all about ingredients doing double-duty and here are some of my favorites.
- Rice: There are lots of different options for rice, but don’t think too much about it when it comes to substituting if you don’t have the exact rice a recipe calls for. Unless you’re making a dish where the stickiness of the rice really matters (like sushi), you can use whatever rice you have at home. If you need help picking, I lean towards basmati and jasmine. They’re easy to find and easy to cook. Brown rice, although not super authentic usually, is also just fine.
- Garlic: I keep a few bulbs of fresh garlic on hand, but I also always have a jar of minced garlic in my fridge and garlic powder. I don’t buy garlic salt anymore; garlic powder is easier to control salt levels. Sure, fresh garlic is always preferred, but if you’re making something quickly, feel free to use a substitute. I add minced garlic just as a recipe calls, but tend to use garlic powder towards the end of the cooking as it can get lost in the dish if added too early.
- Cilantro: I love topping most of my Southeast Asian, Indian, and Korean recipes with cilantro. Cilantro adds freshness to the slow-cooked dishes. If I have leftover cilantro, I’ll add to a Hispanic dish or make an easy cilantro pesto to add to pasta for a quick lunch.
- Green onion: I top probably 90% of my Asian recipes with sliced green onion. They go well with so many cuisines, and they’re great over eggs and in dips. They’re always on my grocery list.
- Mushrooms: Although shiitakes are pretty easy to find now, I still usually just buy brown mushrooms and use that for all my recipes, Asian or not. I also always keep dried shiitake mushrooms in my pantry for when I run out of fresh mushrooms or want to make a stock. You can sometimes find dried shiitake mushrooms at health food stores, but they are way cheaper at Asian grocery stores.
- Cornstarch: You could also use flour, arrowroot, or potato starch. Many of the recipes I make default incorporate a sauce or gravy. When my sauce is too thin, I make a slurry (cool water and cornstarch) to thicken the sauce. But be careful, I’ve gone overboard before and the whole dish had this weird, play-doo mouthfeel.
- Brown sugar: I like using brown sugar rather than regular sugar because the molasses adds a nice depth, but regular sugar will work just fine. It helps balance the acidity in sauces and awakens the spices I use. I add a couple teaspoons of brown sugar to a majority of my Asian recipes. You’ll see requests for palm sugar, coconut sugar, and turbinado sugar in some recipes; brown sugar is a good sub for it.
- Ketchup: A quick way to add both acidity and sweetness. I don’t tend to pick recipes that have this as an ingredient, but I do know I can add a tablespoon of ketchup if my sauce is lacking in flavor. Use as a backup, but avoid it as a main ingredient.
- Peanut Butter: Peanut butter, water, soy sauce, and something spicy is all you need to make a super quick peanut sauce. Ok, I always add fish sauce to this as well. But the point is you will have the ingredients in your pantry to make a delicious sauce to pair with noodle, chicken, or tofu.
- Cashews and peanuts: Most other nuts would work too, so don’t think you need to go buy a big container of peanuts just to sprinkle some on top of your pad thai. The point is to have something that adds crunch to softer dishes. Cashews and peanuts have more authentic flavors, but walnuts and pepitas (pumpkin seeds) also make it in my dishes. Or even crunchy vegetables, like celery, radishes, and thinly sliced carrots or cabbage.
- Broth: vegetable, chicken, and beef. Don’t worry too much if a dish calls for chicken broth, but you only have beef. The point is always have some kind of broth on hand. I add broth to rice and to most my sauces to add more flavor. And of course you’ll need broth for most soups. Yes, you can make your own and you will feel very cool when you do, but canned, carton, or my preference bouillon paste all will work. I like bouillon paste or cubes because they are concentrated and take up less space.
If you only have a couple of these items, don’t worry, that’s where everyone starts. Head over to the Asian section of the grocery store next time and grab one or two items from this list. The Internet makes it easy to find ways to cook with these ingredients. The best part is almost all these will hold up well in your fridge or pantry, so no buyer’s remorse that something will spoil before you’ve used it all.
Are there items you love that I didn’t mention? Any tricks you use when cooking Asian dishes? Comment below and let us all know!