You’d be hard pressed not to find some Asian ingredients in most people’s pantries and fridges. We’ve come a long way since the days when there was only the red topped Kikkoman soy sauce bottle in the cupboard. These days, almost everyone would have rice and dried noodles as well as a variety of sauces including fish, sweet chilli, sesame oil and spices such as star anise and cumin.
To celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year, here’s a list of some Asian pantry staples that you may not have heard of before. Or may have looked at when touring the local Asian grocer but really have no idea how to use them. They are versatile and can be used in cuisines other than Asian style dishes. All are shelf stable until opened and cost less than a few dollars so are worth seeking out and giving a go.
1. Pickled Mustard Greens
Whilst the packet says ‘mustard greens’, it could in fact be turnip or radish greens or just about any other wild greens. Used widely in Asian cuisine, they are included in soups and hot pots or served as a cold vegetable, similar to kim chi. Though some manufacturers use vinegar in the pickle, the ones I like best are the ones pickled in brine (salty water) and fermented. Rinse to remove some of the salty brine and use as you would other pickled vegetables such as an accompaniment for fatty meats like pork belly or hock or alongside roast duck.
2. Kecap Manis
Mmmm… kecap (ket-chap) manis… A thick, sweet soy sauce with deep caramel undertones. It is a staple in Indonesian cooking. Sure you can use it on rice and in stir fries but it has so many more applications. Marinate chicken thighs or drumsticks before barbecuing, it’s a saucy addition to a turkey burger mixture, or try it drizzled on top an omelette or scrambled eggs. A favourite with Dutch colonialists, they brought it back to the Netherlands where it sits in numerous kitchens. Many Bitterballen or Dutch Meatball recipes include kecap manis in the ingredients so there’s no reason not to add it to your own version. Think of it as an exotic version of BBQ sauce and try it as a rib baste during slow cooking. I like to make an Asian version of roast chook with kecap manis.
3. Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
Ever had a really nice hot-pot with some meaty, chewy mushrooms in amongst the other vegetables? Chances are they were shiitake mushrooms. Boil the kettle, tumble a few into a bowl, fill with hot water and then leave to soak for half an hour or so. The mushrooms are then ready to use in casseroles, soups or in anything else that takes your fancy. They are robust in texture but not in taste so they are perfect to soak up the flavour of herbs and spices in stocks and sauces. These re-hydrated mushrooms go just as well in a tray bake of veges, beans and chicken pieces as they do in a stir fry. Sliced in half, they make a great addition to spaghetti bolognaise or as a hearty addition to a vegetarian lasagne. You can also take a handful of the dried mushrooms and chop into smaller pieces in the food processor. Store in an air tight container and sprinkle into slow cooked meals to hydrate as the dish cooks.
4. Fried Shallots
If you are thinking of making a Vietnamese rice noodle bowl or a Thai beef salad, you’re going to need some fried shallots. These morsels give a slightly sweet and savoury crunch to dishes and are essential in these two cuisines. They are great to have on standby for inclusion in Middle Eastern and European style dishes such soups and slow braises where they provide a satisfying umami hit and depth to fresh onions already included. Sure, you can make your own fried shallots but I find a jar in the pantry just as easy. They do double duty as a garnish and ingredient and they can sit in the cupboard, even after opening, so it’s easy to add a tablespoon to create interest in any dish.
5. Haw Flakes (what did you call me?)
When I was 8 or 9, my brother and I discovered the most wonderful sweet on earth. Haw Flakes. Not only did it have an amusing name, it provided endless hours of entertainment. Made from the fruit of the Chinese hawthorn, the sweet and tart plum flavoured paste is pressed into small round discs. The discs are then stacked into cylinders and packaged. We peeled the discs off the roll one at a time, letting them melt on our tongues. Other times we’d peel the whole roll and place the entire stack into our mouths. But the best thing about Haw Flakes was how cheap they were (and still are). A packet of Haw Flakes was made up of 10 cylinders and cost 30 cents at Ocean Trading Supermarket. We were able to sell these cylinders individually at school for 5 or 10 cents a roll, making a huge profit for ourselves. That’s how it starts…one minute Haw Flake trading, the next, opium dealers. These days they retail for an astronomical 89 cents for 10 rolls so there’s still a profit to be made through my own dealing days are behind me. They taste as good to me today as they did half a lifetime ago. These sweets have no real application other than possibly a fancy garnish on some dessert but they will give you a good laugh and an opportunity to introduce your children to the important world of schoolyard commerce. To me, they are the ultimate of Asian Ingredients. Seek them out!
Do you have a favourite Asian ingredient? Is there something that’s always in your pantry? Will you bee seeking out Haw Flakes?