Asian-English Food Dictionary: Common Asian Ingredients

Much of the feistiness or subtlety of Asian cooking is dependent on homegrown ingredients that were once unfamiliar in Western kitchens. But no longer. The basics, which are described here, are available in specialty stores and many supermarkets, and are, for the most part, simple to use.

Annatto seeds Reddish-orange seeds from the annatto tree used to impart their color to sauces. Found in Latin American and East Indian markets as well as Chinese markets, Annatto water and annatto paste are convenient forms that are also sold.

Asian chili peppers The chilies most commonly used in the West are mild compared to Asian dried red chilies. Found in Asian markets, they are also sold whole, crushed, and powdered. Whatever the form, they will be fiery. Substitute milder Western chilies if they are unavailable or you prefer less bite.

Bean curd, pressed Sold plain or seasoned and ready to cut into strips for stir-fry.

Chili oil Also known as hot chili oil. These are oils infused with the flavors of hot Asian chilies.

Chinese chives Bunches of yellow or green Chinese chives look like grass but taste more like garlic. “Yellow” chives are actually a type of leek.

Coriander, fresh Also called cilantro, this lacy-leaved herb is used in Southeast Asian cooking. Coriander seeds are often used in curries.

Curry powder A mixture of spices that varies with the brand. Look for the best in specialty stores.

Daikon A Japanese white radish that is over 1 foot long and 2 inches thick. Mild in flavor, it is used in soups and sauces because it absorbs their dominant flavors.

Dashi Japanese stock, made from bonito flakes and seaweed. The instant form is commonly sold in tea-bag-like satchels.

Fish sauce A sauce made from fermented fish that is indispensable to much of Southeast Asian cooking. Called nam pla in Thailand and nuoc mam in Vietnam, its addition to any dish enhances all the flavors in the recipe.

Five-spice powder A blend of spices-star anise, cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns, fennel—used in Chinese cooking.

Galangal Like ginger, galangal is sold both fresh and dried, but the flavor is much different in each of these forms. If unavailable, half as much ginger with a bit of cinnamon can be substituted.

Gyoza skins Round dumpling wrappers from Japan usually thinner than Chinese wonton wrappers.

Hoisin sauce Ground beans, garlic, sugar, vinegar, and sesame oil are combined to make a sweet, spicy sauce popular as a Chinese table condiment and sometimes used in cooking.

Jicama A crispy, white-fleshed, brown-skinned root vegetable with a slightly sweet taste. It can be eaten raw or briefly cooked and can be used as a substitute for water chestnuts.

Lemon grass This is citronella and it tastes like its name. Lemon grass can be bought fresh, dried, or frozen. The zest of 1 lemon can be used as a substitute.

Mirin A sweet rice wine from Japan that is used in cooking and is never drunk. Found not in liquor stores, but in markets with Asian condiments.

Miso An elementary Japanese seasoning, miso is found in both red and white forms. A paste of soybeans and grains, it should be stored in the refrigerator.

Enoke mushrooms Thin, tiny-capped Japanese mushrooms.

Oyster mushrooms Beige-gray mushrooms with a meaty texture that are excellent raw in salads or cooked quickly in stir-fry dishes.

Shiitake mushrooms Meaty, dark brown mushrooms most frequently sold dried, but sometimes fresh. Called shiitake in Japanese cooking or black mushrooms in Chinese cooking. Soaked dried mushrooms in warm water to soften before using.

Tree ears or cloud ears Commonly sold dried, with the smaller black variety preferred. Best used in slices.

Nori A seaweed sold in sheets, roasted or unroasted. Although it most commonly known as a wrapper for rolled sushi, it is also crumbled over noodle and rice dishes.

Asian sesame oil Made from roasted sesame seeds, the oil is dark in color and should not be confused with the clear sesame oil made from unroasted seeds sold in natural-food stores. The Asian oil has a strong flavor and is used as a seasoning rather than for cooking.

Oyster sauce A sweet-salty sauce made from oysters. Used in Chinese cooking, the taste depends on the brand.

Rice flour There are two types of rice flour, sweet and regular. Sweet is used for making sweet food while regular rice flour is used for noodles.

Rice vinegar White rice vinegars are sold seasoned and unseasoned. The seasoned, although delicious on salads, is not to be used if a recipe calls for rice vinegar.

Chinese rice vinegar Also called Chinese black vinegar, this dark vinegar is made from fermented rice. Although sweeter, balsamic vinegar can be substituted with a reduction of other sugars in a recipe.

Rice wine Chinese rice wine, sometimes called Shaoxing wine, is used for drinking and cooking; dry sherry can be substituted. Japanese rice wine, or sake, is used for drinking and cooking. See also mirin.

Sesame paste Asian sesame paste is thick and brown and is made from roasted seeds. Tahini, the Middle Eastern version, is a product of unroasted sesame seeds.

Shrimp, dried Although not appealing on their own, dried shrimp, sometimes pounded or ground, are a flavorful addition to many Southeast Asian dishes.

Shrimp paste Sold fresh or dried, this pungent flavoring is essential to Southeast Asian cuisine.

Tahini Sesame paste made from unroasted sesame seeds. Used in Middle Eastern dishes.

Tamarind Fruit of the tamarind tree, sold in pods, paste, and concentrate. Its sour taste complements Southeast Asian sauces and soups. Available in Asian and some Latin American markets.

Tapioca powder or starch A thickening agent similar to cornstarch.

Turmeric A spice usually found in curries. Now also sold fresh, it is a rhizome like ginger and can be peeled, grated, or sliced.

Wasabi powder A root most commonly available as a dried powder. It is brought back to life with just enough water to make a paste. The resulting pale green, very hot, horseradish-like condiment is commonly served with sushi.

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