This comes from our first cookbook, 101 Easy Asian Recipes, out now. Order our exclusive cookbook bundle, which includes a copy of the book and a one-year subscription to the magazine. Check out the Beginner’s Asian Pantry here.
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 this 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. White pepper
White pepper is the same thing—plant, berry, etc.—as black pepper, just processed in a different manner. The flavor is different—less pungent, spicy, aromatic—and more dusty and mysterious.
2. Sichuan peppercorns
Sichuan peppercorns are not spicy; they are numbing. Essential.
Kombu is dried kelp, which grows in great forests off of all the most beautiful and rugged coastlines in the world. Any kombu works in the kitchen; the best is from Hokkaido, in northern Japan. Simmer or steep (but don’t boil) it in a broth to add instant umami.
4. Katsuobushi (bonito flakes)
So you take a bonito fish, you fillet it, you cook the fillets in a crazy umami-rich liquid, you smoke them, then you let them hang and dry until they’re as hard as wood. Shave the results, and you’ve got bonito flakes, an essential Japanese pantry item and kombu’s partner in making dashi, the fundamental Japanese stock.
5. Chinkiang vinegar
Chinkiang vinegar is sharp and deep and a little sweet; it’s the stuff that shows up in the saucer alongside soup dumplings (xiao long bao). It’s also called black vinegar, but read the label for Chinkiang to know you’re getting the right thing (and not the Worcestershire sauce-like product also sold as black vinegar). It should be made with glutinous rice, wheat, salt, sugar, and then whatever magical chemicals the particular manufacturer uses.
6. Chili oil
Chili oil has the ma la flavors of Sichuan cuisine—spicy chili heat and numbing peppercorn power—infused into a dangerously innocuous-looking oil. Taste as you go with this stuff, as potency varies from brand to brand.
7. Spicy chili crisp
Do you need this? Not quite. Do you want this? Most definitely. Crisp fried chilies embedded in oil add a punishing wallop of heat to anything, and the dour-looking lady on the jar is a signifier to other food nerds that you’ve crossed the Sriracha river into the land of freaky-deaky hot sauces that will never be trendy.
Dried seaweed, usually sold in sheets. For the Onigiri and most Japanese dishes, you want unseasoned nori. For Korean dishes and feeding to your kids as a snack, you want Korean seasoned nori. Unseasoned nori benefits from being waved over an open flame to wake it up a little bit before it is eaten.
9. Gochujang and gochugaru
Gochu is Korean for chilies, jang is paste, and garu is flakes. The flavors of Korean dried chilies are distinctive, and gochujang has kind of a spicy, seasoned miso paste-type thing going on. If you like Korean food or plan to make any of it, these are essentials.
10. Chinese five-spice powder
Cinnamon and star anise are the flavors that ride out front of most five-spice blends, with cloves and fennel seed trailing behind and peppercorns (sometimes Sichuan) in the rear, never really detectable.
11. Shrimp chips
Get ’em, love ’em, never leave ’em. You will see handsome boxes of shrimp chips in Asian supermarkets and be tempted to buy them because of their packaging. Do not do this. Buy the already-fried chips, two bags at a time, so you can eat one while walking home from the store. (Okay, okay, it’s not hard at all to fry up the boxed chips; all you need is hot oil. But bagged chips are inarguably easier and just as good.)
12. Curry paste
Curry powder is a by-product of British colonialism that has no real basis in Indian cuisine. Canned or jarred Southeast Asian curry pastes are entirely different; they are food technology doing a good thing, by putting deliciousness within shelf-stable reach. It’s worth having a jar or can of red and green varieties of this stuff in the cupboard at all times because it’s packed with flavor and easy to use.