Asian food is fresh, healthy and full of flavor. With a properly stocked pantry, you are just minutes away from a home cooked Asian meal.
If there is one type of food I crave most consistently it is, hands down, Asian food. From Thai to Vietnamese to Japanese and everything in between, I am always in the mood for that unmistakably spicy, salty, sweet and sour combination.
Full of clean flavors, low calorie ingredients and an emphasis on fresh vegetables, Asian food has played a key role in my weight loss journey. Over the years, I’ve learned that the secret to being able to prepare an Asian meal on a whim is to keep a well stocked pantry.
Walking through the aisles of an Asian market can be overwhelming and intimidating. To make it easy, I’ve compiled a list of the top 10 essential ingredients and tools to get you started. These can all be purchased at most major grocery stores, international markets or online.
1. Soy Sauce or Tamari: When it comes to seasoning Asian foods, soy sauce or tamari is the equivalent to seasoning with kosher salt. While the two ingredients are somewhat interchangeable, tamari is made with little or no wheat so it is often available gluten free. Tamari tends to be less salty as well.
2. Toasted Sesame Oil: This highly potent oil is full of nutty flavor which means you need very little of it to give any dish that classic Chinese flavor. It is also a heart-healthy form of MUFAs (mono-unsaturated fatty acids) which can actually help reduce cholesterol and protect against heart disease.
3. Rice Vinegar: The primary source of acidity in Asian cooking comes from rice vinegar. Virtually calorie free, it works like lemon juice to cut through fat and provide a balanced flavor in stir-fries, soups, marinades and more.
4. Hoisin Sauce: Also known as Chinese barbecue sauce, hoisin is a sweet, sticky and slightly spicy sauce made from soybeans, garlic, sugar and other spices. A key ingredient in my homemade Vietnamese Pho, the soup doesn’t taste complete without a drizzle of hoisin on top to balance out the other flavors.
5. Noodles (i.e. Japanese Soba, Wide Rice, Vermicelli, Udon, etc.): Whether you want to make fresh rolls, a stir-fry or a noodle-based soup, it is always great to keep your pantry stocked with a variety of options. If you’re gluten free, stick to the rice-based noodles. Japanese Soba are made with 100% buckwheat and are a great source of whole grains, protein and fiber.
6. Minced Ginger: My love of ginger is never ending – from smoothies to stir-fries to peach bread, I love adding it for a subtle kick of flavor. Whether you buy it bottled or grate it fresh, ginger is full of aromatics and is another practically calorie-free way to add a ton of flavor to anything from egg rolls to lettuce cups.
7. Chili Sauce (Sriracha or Sambal Oelek): A little heat is the best way to complement the salty, sour and sweet aspects of any Asian dish. I typically use samba oelek (a chili paste) when cooking and serve Sriracha (a hot sauce) at the table for people to season as they wish.
8. Rice Cooker and Rice: A rice cooker is a huge time saver in the kitchen. It takes out all of the guess work and allows you to walk away unlike cooking rice on the stove. When the rice is done, it automatically switches to warm similar to a slow cooker. I’ve had the same Zojirushi Rice Cooker since 7th grade and it still works like a charm, 20+ years later! My favorite type of rice is a medium grain brown rice made by Nishiki. It takes a little longer to cook but it has a nice chewy texture and nutty flavor which I simply do not get from instant brown rice.
9. Roasted Seaweed Sheets: Most popularly used to form sushi rolls, we love serving seaweed sheets with stir-fries to use in place of a fork, almost like a lettuce cup! At just 10 calories a sheet, they are a great way to add a ton of flavor plus a whole host of B vitamins and iron. For even more flavor, quickly toast them on an open flame on your stove top for a few seconds per side. Our toddler LOVES roasted seaweed sheets – he eats them like chips!
10. Fish Sauce: One of my favorite sources of unami, fish sauce is commonly used in Thai and Vietnamese cooking to provide that unmistakable salty flavor that you can’t get from anything else. It is one of those ingredients that turns Asian home cooking into restaurant quality.
To get you started, here are some delicious and easy Asian recipes for you to try:
Your chop sticks are waiting.