What are the best Asian condiments and ingredients for the home pantry?
July 28, 2020 6:22 PM   Subscribe

Which brands and types of Asian pantry ingredients are best for a home cook who does a small amount of non-fancy, not even necessarily authentic, Asian home cooking?

Some Chinese, some Japanese, some Thai, some Vietnamese. (Not much Korean, not thinking of Indian right now.) I do stir fries, noodle dishes, dipping sauces for dumplings, Thai curries, marinades.

Which is the best/your favorite type/brand of soy sauce for regular use? Do I need multiple types? (Is light soy sauce the same as low sodium?) Which is the best fish sauce? Thai curry paste? Chili garlic sauce? Coconut milk? Miso paste? Etc?

Are there things you’re brand loyal to? Are there brands of staples that everyone just “knows” are better or are crap? Are there descriptions to pay particular attention to?

I am in a large West Coast US city. We have good Asian supermarkets and my regular supermarket has a good selection of Asian brands. I’m not looking for the equivalent of buying a fancy special $35 bottle of estate produced olive oil, more like being brand loyal to Diamond Crystal kosher salt or De Cecco pasta.
posted by vunder to Food & Drink (30 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I cook for someone with Celiac disease, so Asian foods are a go-to for me.

I use low-sodium tamari (San-J), which is wheat-free. It has a richer taste and a thicker consistency than soy, and makes a great replacement for sauces and dipping for sushi and noodles. There are other tamaris out there, some fermented and fancy, but San-J seems to give really good results.

I use Three Crabs fish sauce for Thai cooking. Generally, the rule of thumb seems to be that the nastier a fish sauce smells on its own, the more flavor it adds to a dish. Three Crabs is salty and pungent enough for me. YMMV.

I use Thai Kitchen for curry pastes and roasted red chili paste. The roasted red chili paste adds some sweet smokiness to red curries. This isn't an Asian brand, but the flavors work really well, IME.

I've used Aroy-D and Choakok brands of coconut milk. I think I prefer Aroy-D — a bit sweeter and richer than Choakok. These seem to be harder to get outside of an Asian grocer, but not impossible.

If you do Thai cooking, look for lemongrass, Thai basil, holy basil, and kaffir lime leaves. These add a great deal of flavor to curries. If you live in the more tropical part of the West Coast, you can plant lemongrass in a small pot at the beginning of spring and the freshness really helps add a good citrus note to curries made later in the summer.

Asian grocers carry all kinds of brands and they are good places to go for cheap supplies. Might be worth getting small batches of things to try out, maybe a couple brands to compare against each other to see which you like better.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 6:51 PM on July 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: "kaffir" is a racial slur (legally actionable as a slur in South Africa), so "makrut lime" is preferred by many.

If you plan to do Sichuan-adjacent foods, doubanjiang is indispensable, like, right up there with Sichuan peppercorns. I like Soeos brand (reasonable price vs flavor) if you can find it (vacuum packs, rather than jars).

Concur with San-J tamari.

"Asian Taste" Chinkiang vinegar (yellow label and bottle top), "Nanyang" Shaoxing cooking wine (red and gold label), and I usually just default to Marukan rice vinegar because it's everywhere.
posted by aramaic at 7:20 PM on July 28, 2020 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I’ve always used other brands, but on a recent podcast Samin Nosrat swore by Red Boat fish sauce. She’s not known for her East Asian cooking, but I trust her to have a chef’s sense of taste and know whose advice to follow.
posted by mumkin at 7:25 PM on July 28, 2020

Best answer: I'm not brand loyal for most of those things but I really really like the Lee Kum Kee sweet soy sauce. It's fairly expensive (at least around here) compared to other soy sauces, and I'm cheap, but I still always have a bottle or two around.
posted by randomnity at 7:26 PM on July 28, 2020

Best answer: [Red Boat is very nice, and recommended, but it's tending toward the "fancy olive oil" end of things? Let me put it this way: I have both it and Thai Kitchen because they have different uses. If you find you want to use Red Boat every day then look at Yamaroku soy sauce, omg it is amazing and worth it for anything that's going to be soy-forward.]
posted by aramaic at 7:35 PM on July 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

good useful shelf stable items where brand doesn't matter much imo:

-dried mushrooms (wood ear, shiitake, etc)
-kombu/nori seaweed
-dried sliced kelp
-dried bean curd (rolls, knots, etc)
-pork sung
-soy bean paste (plain)
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:40 PM on July 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp
Shoyu sauce
Chinese black vinegar
posted by oceanjesse at 8:43 PM on July 28, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Aedan miso, especially her country miso, is the best I've ever tasted. Quite easy to get shipped depending on which west coast city you're in.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:45 PM on July 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Great question! I'll be watching other people's answers.
--I also like Thai Kitchen red curry paste
--My favorite miso for everday sauces, etc is Cold Mountain light yellow miso
--We eat a lot of furikake and my favorite is made by Urashima with Nori, sesame seeds and bonito
--My favorite mirin is Morita
--Huy Fong Sambal Oeleck
posted by biscuits at 8:47 PM on July 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

I made Serious Eats' XO sauce and boy does it elevate basically anything I put it on, from Cup Noodles ramen to burst cherry tomato pasta to chicken wings to roasted veggies. It's kind of a pain to make but it keeps forever in the fridge and is much, much cheaper than buying it from Amazon or in your local market.

The combination of this and Lao Gan Ma chili crisp in your pantry means you can augment a whole lot of basic dishes quickly and easily. Highly recommend stocking both.
posted by kdar at 8:56 PM on July 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

posted by athirstforsalt at 10:14 PM on July 28, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Serious Eats did a series on pantry staples:
How to stock a Chinese pantry
How to stock a Japanese pantry
How to stock a Thai pantry
How to stock a Korean pantry
posted by mogget at 10:21 PM on July 28, 2020 [15 favorites]

Here are the condiments I use regularly: sesame oil, hoisin sauce, tamari, sweet chili sauce, rice wine vinegar that I put chive tops in to infuse it, dried mushrooms, miso and Patak's Jelfrezi sauce is yummy as a prepared curry.
posted by DixieBaby at 10:36 PM on July 28, 2020

Homemade Ginger Scallion sauce is delicious on chicken, eggs, noodles, rice...
posted by nouvelle-personne at 11:19 PM on July 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

Sesame oil YES - it elevates stir fries, sticky chinese style sauces, we buy it in bulk.

We also cook a lot of japanese food, and would be lost without pickled ginger and nori sprinkles
posted by greenish at 2:20 AM on July 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Korean isn't really on your list, but kimchi is just so versatile as an ingredient, stays forever for exactly when you want it. If your put off by the smell, the taste, especially when cooked is just so different than what you would expect. Gochujang can be added to juuuust about anything you want a little spice with. I suggest adding a bit to tomato based dishes Iike spaghetti for example. But dipping sauces, marinades, are useful.
Kimchi fried rice is great to learn how to cook, dead simple and so so so good.

I prefer tamari soy. I only use Chinese soy with fried rice and use kikkoman for things when I'm using a bunch for like a marinade .

For Miso, I prefer darker miso, so generally stick to aka (red) miso.
posted by AlexiaSky at 3:16 AM on July 29, 2020

Best answer: Because no one else has mentioned it, I love Mae Ploy for my curry pastes.

Woks of Life explains Chinese ingredients quite well too
posted by astapasta24 at 4:23 AM on July 29, 2020 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a HUGE fan of Maesri Thai curry pastes, in all colors. Combine that with some Aroy-D coconut milk, fish sauce, and whatever, and you're instantly in decent Thai restaurant territory.
posted by nosila at 5:42 AM on July 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding the Mae Ploy curry paste. SO much better than Thai Kitchens.
posted by rebeccabeagle at 6:20 AM on July 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm the child of Chinese immigrants who ran Americanized Chinese restaurants, but cooked more traditionally at home, so I this is where I have opinions. In my own cooking I trend towards the traditional, and at times a little on the fancy end.

For most Chinese sauces, Lee Kum Kee is fine. Their Panda Brand is the lower end cheaper stuff. I try not to buy it unless I can't find the regular one. The Premium Oyster Sauce is really nice and worth the markup. Soy sauce is one place I diverge. Lee Kum Kee is fine, but Pearl River Bridge Superior Light or Golden Label Superior is what I use for light soy sauce. When you think "regular soy sauce" that's light. We usually reserve dark for certain marinades and more complex sauces. San-J Tamari tastes a lot like Pearl River Bridge light soy and you can often find it in western grocery stores. It's gluten free if that is a concern.

Fish sauces vary as much as the concept of mustard. So sometimes, you want a Vietnamese Ngoc Mam style. Other times, you want a Thai one made of crabs, or maybe a dark Chinese one. You can get by with substitutions, but I keep a Vietnamese one and a dark Chinese one on hand at all times. I don't have strong brand preferences here.

Coconut milks also vary a lot. Part of it is how thick they are, but also how sweet. I always taste the dish to determine if a little more sugar is needed because the coconut milk wasn't terribly sweet (looking at you organic Thai Kitchen from Costco.) I tend to buy that Costco case or a case of Aroy-D from the Asian market.
posted by advicepig at 6:41 AM on July 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Previous posters have already touched on a lot of what I want to say, so a couple of random add-ons as a Thai/Chinese home cook:

- I also prefer Aroy-D coconut milk. If you have the option, I'd go for the UHT ones (i.e. the ones that come in an aseptic box that looks like a juice box) over the canned ones. I find both the flavor and texture better, and if you are "cracking" the coconut milk in the traditional manner for a Thai curry I also find the UHT coconut milk cracks better. It also tends to come in smaller containers (I like the 250ml ones), which is handy when you don't always want to open a 400ml can of coconut milk.

- Lemongrass, makrut lime leaves, galangal, and fresh Thai chilies all freeze extremely well, assuming you take some basic steps to avoid freezer burn by wrapping them before stashing them; the only thing I'd add is to cut galangal slices first and freeze the slices in one layer (or wrapped) separately before storage, because galangal is impossible to slice when frozen AND the slices will stick like crazy to each other if you freeze them next to each other.

- For oyster sauce, check the ingredient list -- you want a bottle where oyster/oyster extract is the first ingredient. A lot of cheaper oyster sauce is basically just a sugar sauce with a minimal amount of oyster extract. I buy a Thai brand (Mae Krua) where this is so, but Lee Kum Kee is usually easier to find -- I'd go with their "premium oyster sauce" as the oyster is more prominent.

- I cook a lot of Thai food so I keep two kinds of fish sauce around. I agree that Red Boat is like the fancy olive oil, but in Thai dishes where you are not cooking the fish sauce, like in many salads and dips, it is really spectacular. Otherwise I use Squid (which is about 3x/4x cheaper than Red Boat) and I find it perfect for everyday cooking. If you only want to keep one, which is very reasonable, Squid is my go-to.

- I also like Maesri curry pastes. For premade curry pastes that come in jars I personally do not like buying large containers, because then you have the problem of storing the leftovers.

- Despite what I just said above, if you do have leftover curry paste it does freeze as well.

- For soy sauce, I keep three around: a Thai light, a Chinese light, and a Thai black/dark soy sauce. I use the Chinese soy sauce for Chinese/Japanese/Korean dishes and the Thai light soy sauce for Thai dishes, and the black/dark soy sauce for any black/dark soy sauce called for anywhere. This works for me, as someone who probably cooks like 65% Thai, 25% Chinese, 10% "other Asian" at home.

If this seems like overkill I'd at least go for 1 light and 1 dark, because I think that the difference between light and dark is bigger than the difference between respective "light" soy sauces across cuisines.
posted by andrewesque at 6:52 AM on July 29, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Note that several of the Maesri curry products also come in a premixed version. Instead of the little can of curry paste, you buy a can (about 14oz or so) that contains the curry and coconut milk already mixed together.

Those are super, super convenient: brown your meat, veggies, onions in a saucepan, splorp the premixed curry on them, stew them together a bit, and you're done. Results can be pretty good for something that's close to an "instant" product.
posted by gimonca at 7:23 AM on July 29, 2020

Make your own Spicy Chili Crisp using Sohla's recipe. Make a really big jar, Lao Gan Ma's is way too small for how much of this stuff we go through.
posted by Freyja at 8:09 AM on July 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Indonesian-style krupuk rice crackers are fun to have around, the ones that you fry and they foop up and swell. They seem to be pretty long-lasting in a tightly sealed container.
posted by gimonca at 9:18 AM on July 29, 2020

Best answer: I'm personally fond of the ABC line of sweet and slightly hot smooth chili sauces ("Manis Pedas" for example), that could be just a matter of taste. This is from Indonesia again.
posted by gimonca at 9:30 AM on July 29, 2020

I cook for someone with Celiac disease

I'd also recommend picking up some sweet rice or glutinous rice Flour (Koda Farms is a pretty common brand). It is often used to make mochi and its many variations but I have swapped it for the small amounts of wheat flour that get used to thicken sauces, gravies and the like. I've also successfully used it to make roux (for gumbo and for Japanese Curry Rice). It is a pretty versatile ingredient and I always panic a little when I'm out.
posted by Ashwagandha at 11:56 AM on July 29, 2020

Best answer: Looks like others have already mentioned some of the ones I was going to suggest (Pearl River Soy Sauce, Lee Kum Kee Premium Oyster Sauce, and Huy Fong Sambal), so lemme just shout out Lan Chi Chili Paste with Garlic, a staple in Cantonese/HK households.
posted by mhum at 1:26 PM on July 29, 2020

Best answer: I got a lot of use out of this reddit post by Chinese Cooking Demystified when I started learning some basic Chinese cooking.
posted by wakannai at 3:20 AM on July 30, 2020

No one has talked much about noodles themselves yet --- I certainly have tons of dried noodles in my pantry, and of course fresh are the way to go for most things if you can. But as far as long-term storage goes, frozen noodles are a great option, especially for thicker wheat-based noodles like udon.

For Japanese food specifically, add wakame and hijiki seaweed in addition to nori and kombu. And furikake.

Sorry I don't have any recommendations on particular brands, but everyone else already said my stuff :)
posted by slenderloris at 4:18 PM on July 30, 2020

Best answer: Japanese: Kewpie brand Roasted Sesame dressing. You can use it as a salad dressing or dipping sauce for meats. If you're new to it, it can get addicting.

Indonesian: Seconding ABC brand "kecap manis" to dip prawn crackers in.

Filipino: Mang Tomas sauce is kind of like a gravy for meat, like roasted pork or chicken. Best served with hot steamed white rice. Banana Ketchup (Jufran brand). Try it with fried chicken or hotdogs or fried egg. UFC brand sweet chili sauce for dipping spring rolls or fried wonton.

Chinese: Shao Hsing (Hua Tiao Chiew) cooking wine. We have Hei Bao brand but I don't know if that's the primo brand, it just so happens to be what we have in the pantry right now.
posted by pimli at 4:50 AM on August 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

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