In this first part of our series on ethnic markets, we tell you how to make the most of the exotic produce, which isn’t commonly available at your usual stores. Whether you are traveling to another country, or simply visiting your local cultural corner representing that nation, it can be a fun and interesting experience, with loads to learn about new ingredients—from how to choose the best varieties, and how to use them in your cooking.

Give in to your sense of adventure, carry a reusable shopping bag, and embark on a culinary journey into Asian food.

The Starches

Asia has long been known to use a large variety of ingredients in startlingly delicious combinations that are nutritionally superior. To start with, acquaint yourself with the staples such as rice and noodles, of which there are many kinds.

The Sauces

  • Fish sauce: It is extremely salty, fishy in taste and brown in color. Made from fermented fish such as anchovies or shellfish, it adds rich flavor to savory dishes and is remarkable in marinades, since it is strong enough to penetrate meat. Use small amounts of it so it doesn’t overwhelm the dish, and remember to reduce the salt in whatever dish you’re making.
  • Oyster sauce: This is traditionally made from reducing the water that oysters have been boiled in, but modern versions use oyster extract, salt, sugar, starch and caramel coloring. Thick and syrupy in texture, it clings well to food and is great for stir fries. Just remember to add it at the end, after your other ingredients are cooked, or it will burn.
  • Tamari: This is a great option for gluten-free cooking compared to most other varieties of soy sauce, which contain wheat. Since it is 100 percent soy, it is saltier and bolder in flavor, so a little goes a long way. Add it to cooking liquid, broths, vegetables, meats and marinades. It can even be added to rice or noodles, or used as a dipping sauce.
  • Sambal: A type of chili sauce, it is made from ground red chilis and contains vinegar, salt, lime juice and sometimes, garlic. Ideal if you’re looking for a serious spice kick, sambal adds heat to any dish without an intrusive flavor. Use with caution, as it can be really hot.
  • Hoisin: Also called Chinese barbecue sauce, this dark brown ingredient is made of sugar, fermented soy, vinegar, garlic, salt, chili and various spices, with wheat or potato starch giving it a thick, sticky texture. Intense and cloyingly sweet, it is great for cooking meat rather than starches or veg, because its high sugar content lends meat the perfect glaze. Be careful when cooking, as burning it will make it turn bitter. It also tastes good as a condiment or dipping sauce.

Vinegar & Wine

  • White rice vinegar: Although Asian cooking uses many different kinds of vinegars such as black, red, seasoned, Chinese and Japanese, the most common and multipurpose variety is unseasoned white rice vinegar. Less acidic and slightly sweeter than Western distilled vinegars, it has a subtle flavor that makes it perfect for raw vegetables, in a dipping sauce, or as a pickling liquid. Just don’t buy seasoned rice vinegar, which has sugar and other unwanted additives.
  • Mirin: This is a super-sweet, low-alcohol rice wine used widely in Japanese cuisine. Unlike the popular sake, it adds flavor to dishes without adding alcohol, plus it’s sweeter than other wines or vinegars. Great with fish dishes since it masks the smell, mirin can be used as a sugar element in glazes and marinades.

The Pastes:

  • Chinese fermented black beans: Do not confuse this with the black bean sauce, normally used in Chinese cooking. These tiny soybeans are pungent and intensely salty, lending a ton of deep flavor to dishes like vegetable stir-fries, and all dishes that contain mushrooms and tofu. Remember to refrigerate once you open a packet of this paste.
  • Japanese white miso: This paste is salty yet slightly sweet, and is made from fermented soybeans. Available in many colors, go for the mild, white miso, which is called shiro, for its subtle flavor. Put it in soups, sauces, spreads, dressings, and gravies, even make your salad dressings and pestos creamier with it.
  • Thai curry paste: Although the traditional recipe for a Thai curry calls for fresh ground chiles, lemongrass, galangal, and other ingredients, this paste will save you time, money and effort while still making your curry taste fantastic. You get a fiery green and a subtler yellow paste, but both can be used to make coconut curries. They also taste great when added to stir-fried noodles or soups.

Armed with these basics, you can gently introduce Asian elements into your cooking and once you’re comfortable with them, go ahead and explore them in more detail.

Head to our Food section for healthy recipes and the latest food trends.
Find quick and easy Nutrition tips here.

Read More:
Chi-Tox: Eating According To Traditional Chinese Medicine
Sushi Saga: Why Your Favorite Healthy Food Can Actually Be Unhealthy

Simona is a journalist who has worked with several leading publications in India over the last 17 years, writing on lifestyle topics and the arts, besides interviewing celebrities. She made the switch to public relations and headed the division as PR Manager at ITC Hotels’ flagship property, the ITC Grand Chola, but has since returned to her first love, journalism. Now she writes on food, which she is sincerely passionate about and wellness, which she finds fascinating and full of surprises. When she isn’t writing, she is busy playing the role of co-founder and communications director of The Bicycle Project, a six-year-old charity initiative that empowers tribal children in rural areas, while addressing the issue of urban waste.