Have you ever asked yourself these questions?
“How come my dish tastes different than the restaurant’s?”
“How do I cook yummy Asian food if I’m not familiar with spices?”
“What are the paleo alternatives?”
If you’ve ever wondered about these questions. YOU ARE NOT ALONE!
It reminds me of a story………
p.s. I have put together a Free Mini E-Book to share with you. In the end of the story, you’ll be able to teardown the secrets to creating your Umami spice pantry, know exactly what to & what Not to buy, and surprise your friends and families with your new tool and knowledge !
Nate and I visited his uncle, a few hours north of San Francisco, a few months ago, and we decided to take highway 1, along the coast.
Little did we know that the two of us has committed the next 8+ hours to a “suicide mission” to get to Nate’s uncle’s home while with no cell signal for most of the journey. The original plan was to have a nice afternoon visit. In reality, by the time we arrived, there was barely time for a late dinner, which, luckily, Nate’s uncle prepared for us.
The curious side of me was paying attention to Nate’s uncle’s spice pantry while he and Nate caught up on family stories. As I tried to piece together who this mysterious uncle was through the lens of his spice jars, I heard that he used to live in southeast asia, and that he adored Asian cuisine.
It was all-the-more surprising, then, that he asked me the same question I’ve been reading everywhere:
Chih-Yu, What spices do you use at home? If I want to cook good Asian food, what’s the bare minimum of spices and seasonings to have besides…..say soy sauce?
I love his question because I completely understand what’s going through his head – soy sauce? tamari sauce? sesame oil ? hoisin sauce? fish sauce? oyster sauce? xo sauce? asian bbq sauce? mirin? miso paste? which one to go with what? what else???
We learned two things that day: 1) even people with experience with Asian cooking are intimidated by finding Asian ingredients in the West, 2) if you’re trying to get to Ukiah from San Francisco without burning an entire day, stick to the 101.
I’ll tell you my Umami seasonings in the end but first let’s talk about the big question, because it turns out it’s not nearly as difficult as it seems to cook good Asian food in the West.
Let’s look at the most common household spices in our pantry here:
- Dried herbs & spices: thyme, rosemary, marjoram, sage, chili powder, chili flakes, cayenne pepper, oregano, herbes de provence (spice blend).
- Fresh herbs: thyme, rosemary, parsley, tarragon, basil, marjoram, sage, cilantro, chives, dill, oregano, mint.
- Other: lemon, garlic, onion, shallots, ginger, white wine, red wine, vinegar, pesto, coconut flakes, mustard, butter.
Now, let’s check-out most common seasonings & flavoring in asian households:
- Common dried herbs & spices: shiitake mushroom, goji berry, bonito flakes, seaweed kombu (dried kelp), korean hot chili pepper, chinese sichuan pepper corn.
- Fresh herbs: Asian parsley, basil, lemongrass.
- Other: lemon, garlic, onion, shallots, ginger, scallions, coconut milk, asian cooking wine, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar.
- Soy flavorings: fermented organic miso paste, tamari, and soy sauce
- Fish flavorings: fish sauce and shrimp paste.
What have you noticed here?
They look vastly different but kind of similar? Can you find some commonalities between the two?
The problem here is that most people (including me) think there needs to be an investment outfront to buy a set of new seasonings and sauces in order to recreate that authenticity. This is common and I’ve fallen into that trap a few times when I tried to learn other regional cuisines. The truth is, most Asian ingredients are close analogs to ingredients you may already have in your pantry.
See the pictures I put together below. These ingredients share similar characteristics in terms of flavor and taste. Even though they are substitution of the originals, they are CLOSE ENOUGH to earn you two thumbs up. And the best part is this – you can create your own favorites as most of the asian seasonings work very well when in combinations.
Still confused? No worries. In the end of this article, I will give you a free e-book to some of the most common flavoring combinations. For now, the most important thing is this:
You only need a few essential ingredients to recreate that yummy kung bao chicken from your favorite take-out spot, and it will be much healthier if you prepare the ingredients at home. Trust your instincts, read the bottle labels, and if you like, you can always add more seasonings to your pantry later on.
So Now, Let’s Put It To The Test –
Sautéed chard (Chinese style)
- 1 bunch of chard
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 Tbsp peeled and minced ginger
- kosher salt
- cooking oil, sesame oil
- Chinese cooking wine or sake
- heat sesame oil & cooking oil of your choosing in a large pan
- add garlic, ginger, salt, and cook briefly
- add chard and sautéed until the chard is mostly wilted
- add a dash of chinese cooking wine and sautéed for another 30 seconds
- taste the chard and add more salt if needed
The key difference here is sesame oil and ginger. Chinese cooking wine will add a distinct flavor to the vegetable. You can skip the wine if you are following the paleo diet.
Simple chicken salad (Vietnamese style)
- shredded chicken
- minced red onion or shallots
- chopped fresh parsley, scallion
- chopped cherry tomato
- a bed of greens of your liking
- cash of coarse salt, ground pepper or chilli pepper
- mixed the above ingredients together
- Vietnamese salad dressing:
2 Tbsp fish sauce
10 Tbsp water
1 Tbsp lime juice
1 Tsp minced garlic
1 Tsp minced chili or chili pepper flakes
1 ½ Tbsp sugar (or honey/ organic coconut sugar)
The major difference here is fish sauce. Parsley from your nearby grocery store will work as well as asian style parsley. A good bottle of fish sauce will make a big difference and I recommend Red Boat.
Japanese beef yakiniku style
- shaved beef steak or very thinly sliced beef
- sliced yellow onion
- minced ginger and garlic
- dash of coarse salt + black pepper
- coconut oil or fat of choice
- marinate the beef for 20 mins in soy sauce (or tamari sauce/ coconut aminos) + a dash of mirin and sake (or sweet sherry)
- heat cooking oil and add ginger and garlic
- add beef w/ marinate to the pan and sautéed beef until browned
- add dash of coarse salt + black pepper
The key difference here is to marinate the beef w/ soy sauce before cooking. If you are a paleo follower, you can substitute mirin and sake for sweet sherry.
Notice that a few simple twists can turn a dish to a completely different flavor? Red color means the stable seasonings you will want to have in the kitchen if you are looking for that exact same flavor. Green color means you can find the substitutes in your local grocery stores and they are free of gluten, wheat, and good for paleo followers!
Still unsure about some asian ingredients? How do you apply this concept to more dishes? What about paleo friendly version?
I’ve developed a FREE e-book to help you unlock some of the common asian seasoning.
In this free 13-page report, you’ll discover:
- Foundational Asian Cooking Ingredients – What Makes a Dish Taste Authentic, not just Good?
- Asian Paleo Cooking Essentials beyond Coconut Aminos!
- An Infographic Guide to Common Spices for Common Dishes
- And much, much more !
Check out my Start Here page and tell me where I can send this free e-book to you.
I’ve packed a lot of useful tips in this e-book and I really want you to have it.
You are gonna love, love, love it !