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 beginner, 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. Soy Sauce
Our preferred soy sauces are Japanese-made and are labeled usukuchi, which is sometimes called “light” soy sauce. (That lightness is in color; do not confuse it with low-sodium soy sauce.) We tested the recipes here with a range of different store brands, and they should work even with the Kikkoman bottle you swiped off the local take-out place’s to-go counter.
2. Sesame Oil
Don’t be afraid to pay a little more for something nicer than basic, but buy a small bottle—a little bit goes a long way, and sesame oil doesn’t improve with age.
Planter’s cocktail peanuts inarguably get the job done and are so widely available you can probably buy them at the gas station.
Tahini is pureed sesame seeds. Get something from a Middle Eastern grocery, if possible.
Mirin is a sweet, sake-like fermented rice wine product that’s a building block of Japanese cuisine. Real mirin is sweet and alcoholic and hard to find outside of a dedicated Japanese grocery; hon mirin is what you’ll find in most place. It’s some sort of debased industrial version of the real deal, sweetened with corn syrup, and it’s a 100 percent acceptable substitute that makes perfectly delicious food.
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6. Sesame seeds
At Lucky Peach, we have one intern whose only job is to harvest sesame seeds off of the top of a few dozen Big Mac buns every week for the test kitchen. If you don’t have the means to hire a sesame intern, buy yours in small quantities, as nobody, not even Ronald McDonald, likes rancid old seed.
7. Oyster sauce
A funky sauce made from fermented oysters. Keeps forever.
8. Rice vinegar
Essential. Sometimes called rice wine vinegar. Make sure you’re not buying the “seasoned” stuff, which seems to fill the shelves. Rice vinegar is less acidic than white, sherry, and even wine vinegars (at around 4% acidity) so keep that in mind if you’re substituting something else for it.
9. Fish sauce
People often invoke the slurping of the first raw oyster when they talk about how crazy it is that we humans eat such a wide range of flora and fauna. For me, I think of the first crazy bastard who stood over a barrel of anchovies covered in rainwater that had been sitting out in the summer sun for weeks and thought to himself, “Oh yeah, I’m gonna sprinkle that juice all over my dinner tonight!”
But he was a genius and I doff my cap to him. Fancy fish sauce—like Red Boat and Megachef—is worth it if you’re flush, but if that $6 difference in the price of a bottle bothers you, Squid brand has served me reliably for years.
10. Star anise
The prettiest of all the herbs and spices. When you’re shopping for it, look to see that the star-shaped pods are intact.
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11. Sambal Oelek
A spicy, garlicky chili condiment that is good on everything from pizza to eggs.
12. Miso paste
Funky salty fermented soybeans. Buy a tub of the red (aka) miso and a tub of the white (shiro) miso. They keep for months in the refrigerator and can be used interchangeably in a pinch.
13. Shaoxing wine
Most of your musty old Asian-ish cookbooks, the forefathers of this book, will note that you can substitute sherry for Shaoxing wine. This is true—they share a similar oxidized flavor. But one day, in the making of this book, we reached beyond the “cooking” Shaoxing wine and ponied up $15 for the beautiful ceramic bottle that came in a wooden box and we were blown away by how delicious it was. A little poking around taught us that the Shaoxing wine that we’d been buying from the condiment aisle is denatured with salt (so that people won’t drink it, Thunderbird-style, on the corner) and that the real-deal stuff is not only better, but good enough to sip on at the end of the day. So we’d like to say this: If you’re making a Spanish meal and find yourself short on the fino sherry, feel free to substitute premium Shaoxing wine for it. Fancy wine jibber-jabber aside, a $4 bottle of salty Shaoxing will get the job done.
Hondashi is instant dashi powder, and looks and smells a lot like fish sauce. While it is not hard at all to make dashi, there are some times when hondashi saves the day, and some recipes where using it cuts out an extra couple steps and some mess without compromising quality. It’s cheap and keeps forever.
15. Dried shiitakes
Are dried shiitakes. They are called for sparingly in this book but anytime you’re making a broth or stock, you can add one and it will lend it depth and umami. They keep forever, so there’s no reason not to have them on hand.
16. Lap cheong (aka Chinese sausage)
When we call for Chinese sausage we are calling for the basic pork variety, though you can substitute others as you like. The kind made “with wine,” as some of the packages say, has a nice, buzzy, old-man-with-baijiu-breath flavor that I like, and the varieties made with a proportion of liver are sometimes too funky for me. The main thing to know about Chinese sausage is that, like Martin’s Potato Rolls or good jam, it should be in your house at all times.