Explainers

Know your Asian pantry staples

The secret to fast Asian cooking is keeping an arsenal of flavourful ingredients at your fingertips.

Cooking Asian food fast starts with a well-stocked pantry. There are different staples depending on which cuisine you lean towards, but these are our recommendations for ingredients that will help you build a versatile storecupboard. All of these can either be found at large supermarkets, Asian supermarkets or grocers, and should be stored in a cool, dark and dry place. Stock up, and a wide array of dishes await.
1 A few drops of sesame oil is a lovely finish to many dishes. Buy a small bottle – it's quite strong in flavour, and doesn't improve with age.
2 Chinkiang vinegar, a black vinegar, adds punch to a dipping sauce of soy and ginger (a must for dumplings), and adds the sour note in hot and sour soup.
3 Fish sauce, made from fermented fish, is the perfect salty seasoning for dressings, soups and curries. Our brand of choice is Megachef Premium.
4 Five-spice powder can be used as a spice rub for meat such as chicken and duck, or for vegetables such as eggplant. The notes from cinnamon, cloves, Sichuan pepper, fennel seeds and star anise can amp up a beef braise or a stir-fry.
5 Chilli bean paste, called doubanjiang, is made from chillies and broad beans. It has a mild chilli kick and a salty flavour. Use it in mapo tofu.
6 Sesame paste (zhi ma jiang) is similar to unhulled tahini. It's a non-negotiable for dressing smacked cucumbers or bang-bang chicken.
7 Star anise is a spice that has a strong aniseed flavour. It's great added to a soup base or to a fast braise.
8 Rice stick and bean thread noodles can be quickly cooked in a bowl of boiling water and used in salads and stir-fries.
9 Hoisin sauce brings sweetness to stir-fries and braises and is most traditionally used as a dipping sauce for Peking duck pancakes.
10 Japanese mayonnaise is an extra-creamy addition to countless dishes – think katsu sandos, rice bowls, salads and okonomiyaki.
11 Mirin, a sweet fermented-rice wine, is a staple of Japanese cuisine, use it in a tare when grilling yakitori, or for seasoning tempura.
12 Similar to sake, Shoaxing wine is a cooking wine made from rice. A splash will add wonderful depth to many dishes, but it's even better when used as the star in recipes such as drunken chicken.
13 Keep both a light and a dark soy sauce on hand in your pantry. Light soy has a delicate flavour and can be used in dressings or as a seasoning, whereas dark soy is more intense and good for stir-fries
or brushing over grilled meat.
14 Sichuan peppercorns and dried chopped chillies are essential for adding the hot and numbing flavour to Sichuan dishes. They're best roasted in oil or a dry pan before use.
15. If you like extra spice, a chilli condiment will always do the trick. Loa Gan Ma brand has a variety of styles, all of them delicious.
16 Dried shiitake mushrooms take five minutes to reconstitute in hot water and add a lovely fragrant earthiness to broths and raises. They can also be added to hot stock to infuse into the liquid
or used in salads.