Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What to buy at the Asian Market - My top 10 pantry staples

When my mom was visiting a few weeks back, she cooked Vietnamese food for us every night (except maybe one). It was heaven. So, of course, we had to visit our local Asian market several times. When I tweeted about going shopping I was surprised to have several people ask me to report back on my purchases. I've been surrounded by many interesting ingredients all my life and take for granted my familiarity to these pantry staples.

Here are my top 10 "must haves" from the Asian Market. My pantry is NEVER without:

1. Sweet Chili Sauce - This isn't the brand I usually get but is just as good.  This sauce is great for dipping or simply to add to rice.  You can cook with it as well.  Just make sure that what you buy says sweet chili sauce which is very different than plain chili sauce or sweet/sour sauce.

2.  Hoisin, black bean and garlic, and oyster sauce. My favorite is the Hoisin.

These are fantastic to marinade and cook with.  My 9yo loves fresh green beans sauteed in any of these sauces.

3.  Jasmine rice - The most fragrant and delicious rice around. It cooks well and goes with everything.  We always have a 50lb bag in the pantry.  It's cheaper in bulk, too.

4. Chinese 5 spice powder - a mixture of cinnamon, anise seed, cloves, ginger and fennel.  This blend is often found in Asian cooking and is nice to add to many different dishes.

5.  Soy Sauce

6.  Fish sauce - this is more specific to Vietnamese cooking.  It is used in an essential dipping sauce called nước mấm (nook mum).  If you've ever had Vietnamese spring or egg rolls, you've seen this sauce.  Warning:  it smells.  It is fish sauce, after all.  But, the flavor it adds to your food is amazing.  I use it in my fried rice.  DO NOT SPILL.  I'll write a post about how to make nước mấm and tell you about the time I spilled some on the carpet of my apartment (shared with 5 others) in college.

7.  Coconut milk - this is fantastic in curry sauces.

8.  Frozen dumplings - My favorite all time dumpling is what I've always called snow balls.  They are large dumplings in a white thick dough, often with paper you peel from the bottom.  I'll have to get back to you on the specific name.  They are usually filled with bbq pork but can also be filled with regular pork and a quail egg.  I prefer the bbq version.

Pot stickers are fantastic and can be purchased at your regular grocery store.  Just read the ingredients to make sure you know what's in them.

9.  Wasabi pea snack mix - If you are having a party or need something to take to a gathering, these are fantastic.  They can be an addition to your bar right next to the peanuts.  They always seem to be a hit.  Simply serve in a nice finger bowl.  My kids even like eating them as snacks.

10.  Sweet treats - we always snag some Japanese Yan Yan and Poky sticks for the kids.  These are little cookie sticks dipped in strawberry, vanilla, or chocolate frosting.  Kids love them.
Wafer cookies or flute wafers (often found in tins) are really flaky and good.  I love coconut flavor.  They are a great addition to your dessert bar or served with coffee and tea.

What to avoid...anything with MSG.  It will be listed in the ingredients.  If the package doesn't have ingredients, don't buy it.  Most of the packages will have ingredients in English.

As I wrote this post, my list grew quickly.  I'm sure I've left out some items.  Please feel free to shoot me any questions about items you've found.

I'll write a post in the next week or so about cooking tools.  I'm not a huge cook and have regretted not learning much from my mom and grandmother.  I've tried watching and participating but it's a challenge.  They cook by memory and taste.  I'm someone who needs written instruction.  I'd like to master some of my favorite foods and share them with you.   So, stay tuned if you want to learn with me!


  1. My pantry is very similar!! My mother is Chinese; father is Caucasian; and my husband is Vietnamese! I get the best food from my mother's!! We get spoiled though- they cook so much for us, we never get a chance to learn!!

  2. I went last week for the 5 spice powder i need for the kids' favorite chicken wing recipe, then wandered like the tourist i am through the rest of the store. Set me in an Italian grocery and I will come home with bags of must-haves. I need to broaden the horizons. Thanks for the primer. I'm looking forward to more

  3. Sojo, you are very lucky! Now, in my 40s I'm eager to learn what I should have long ago.

    Ann, once you familiarize yourself with certain items, they'll become staples for sure.

  4. Wow, Linda...very interesting. I don't have any of these items in my pantry other than the soy and rice! I do love Jasmine rice! Thanks for sharing these and I can't wait to read and try some of the recipes to come! xoxo Beth

  5. Love it! A lot of these are staples in our house too. One of my favorite things ever is a marinade D does with hoisin sauce and lemongrass. Mmmm, the best grilled pork ever. I'm hungry!


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