Look, we know the power of the Internet. On it you can find almost anything, from pictures of dogs on surfboards to multilayered analyses of whether or not Thomas Pynchon predicted parallel universes decades before the Hadron supercollider gave scientists reason to think they might exist. But the pull of Gravity’s Rainbow aside, what we wanted to do here was give you a simple visual and factual orientation to what we cooked with as we made our book, so you know what you’re looking for as you paw through the aisles of a foreign supermarket and/or the murky depths of third-party seller pages on Amazon.com.
We divided our pantry into basic, intermediate, and champion levels because (a) it would have been really hard to get everything in one shot and (b) these levels reflect the necessity of the ingredients.
1. Dried baby shrimp
Dried shrimp can be bought in little packages from Asian supermarkets or loose, by weight, in the kinds of Chinatown stores that sell dried things and ginseng. In 101 Easy Asian Recipes we call for them twice, as a flavoring for the dipping sauce in Hiyashi Somen and pounded into the dressing of the Green Papaya Salad.
A giant yellow daikon radish pickle that’s a popular kimbap ingredient, and a common companion to all manner of Japanese and Korean meals. It’s sweet, slightly sour, and strangely addictive. We use takuan in Spicy Mushroom Ragu, though you could swap in canned Sichuan pickled radish for it there, if you can find the Chinese one.
3. Dried lotus leaves
Like corn husks, these are inedible and lend a distinctive and inimitable aroma to foods wrapped and steamed in them. They’re also gigantic, hard to store, and hard to find, so we understand if you make the lap mei fan (Sticky Rice Wrapped in Lotus Leaves) without them.
4. Dried red chilies
You can use what I call “pizza flakes” for 100 percent of the dried spicy needs in this book and everything will come out delicious. But thin-skinned Chinese dried chilies do have their own charms, and it’s worth keeping a quart of them around for spicing up your Kung Pao Shrimp or your Braised Chicken Wings.
5. Dried wood ear mushrooms
Meaty, umami-rich dried mushrooms that, if the pictures on the box I bought them in are right, grow on the sides of trees in some unspoiled misty mountain corner of China. They are of limited use, sure, but they’re low-cost and a big return on investment. Use them and your Hot and Sour Soup achieves greatness.
Maltose is a kind of sugar. You need to warm it up to work with it, and it’s sticky as superglue the whole time. But it adds a funky, toasty sweetness that has a familiar Chinatown flavor, and it has the ability to brown foods to a comic-book color. Not essential and somewhat of a pain in the ass to handle, but recommended for the intrepid. Honey is a reasonable substitution.
Furikake is a Japanese condiment that is a blend of dried seaweed and different seasonings. Sesame seeds, dehydrated fish, puffed rice—the sky seems to be the limit. We recommend keeping a jar in the house at all times because rice + a runny egg + furikake = delicious dinner. The equation works even without an egg.
8. Shichimi togarashi
A Japanese hot pepper-black pepper mix. More for seasoning finished dishes than for use in cooking; delicious.
Intensely flavored, pickled tiny plums from Japan. A little bit goes a long way.
10. Preserved black beans
Real talk: Preserved black beans stink like a dead animal left out on hot asphalt. Another truth: They add an incredibly delicious umami note when used in even tiny amounts. Keep them in a tightly sealed container in a cabinet you don’t open that often, but keep them. And explore their savory wonderfulness in recipes like the Black Bean Sauce for a steamed whole fish. Rinse before using.