Stocking Your Pantry for Asian Cooking

Enjoy shopping at your local Asian market for every ingredient you may need.

Stocking Your Pantry for Asian Cooking - The Lemon Bowl


If there is one type of food I crave most consistently it is, hands down, Asian food. From the 48 plus countries that make up Asia, I love anything from Thai to Vietnamese to Japanese. I am always in the mood for the flavorful combinations.

Fresh Rolls with Shrimp and Honey Lime Slaw - The Lemon Bowl

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 is to keep a well-stocked pantry.

Asian Market

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 international markets or grocery stores.

What ingredients are needed for your Asian pantry?

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 (monounsaturated fatty acids) which can actually help reduce cholesterol and protect against heart disease.

3. Rice VinegarThe primary source of acidity in Asian cooking comes from rice vinegar. Virtually calorie-free, it works like lemon juice to cut through the fat and provide a balanced flavor in stir-fries, soups, marinades and more.

Hoisin Sauce - The Lemon Bowl

4. Hoisin SauceAlso 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 Inspired Pho, the soup doesn’t taste complete without a drizzle of hoisin on top to balance out the other flavors.

Soba Noodles - The Lemon Bowl

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 GingerMy 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.

Sriracha Hot Sauce

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 sambal 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 guesswork 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.

Seaweed Sheets - The Lemon Bowl


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.

Baked Eggrolls with Bacon and Sweet Chili Dipping Sauce - The Lemon Bowl

Your chopsticks are waiting.

25 thoughts on “Stocking Your Pantry for Asian Cooking”

  1. Although I recognize that your list incorporates all Asian cultures, it is difficult to wheedle items down to just ten, you did a fabulous job! Especially since everyone’s cultures and tastes vary. I’m sure every Asian person would add to your list of must haves to their own top ten. I don’t know that I could even keep my essentials list to a dozen! The reason you have a great website and I’m just a home cook perusing for recipe ideas! :)

    With a Japanese/Korean heritage I cannot help but incorporate Asian foods into many of our meals. A couple of items I noticed not on your list (that I cannot live without) is Mirin, a sweet rice wine that is essential in many of my quick side dishes for cooking & dressings. And roasted sesame seeds. I use it not only for garnish, but crushed into some dishes where I want to enhance that great sesame flavor without so much of the oiliness of using more sesame oil to achieve it. A little tip it took years of my complaining to my mother that my dishes just didn’t come out like hers did for her to tell me! Lol

    1. I love miring and roasted sesame seeds!! Two great additions!!! I would love to learn more about Japanese/Korean food. Please share any of your favorite recipes. :) Thank you for chiming in!! You’re right – getting the list down to 10 was pretty impossible but I want people to embrace the ease of Asian cooking vs. feeling overwhelmed by all of the options!! Thank you for understanding. :)

    1. The great thing is that most of these things can be bought in larger quantities and last quite some time. I almost always have them around!

  2. Liz,
    This list is spot on. I like how so many of my favorite Asian stand-by ingredients are shelf stable for whenever the mood strikes or the farm share provides.
    Thanks!

  3. We are lucky to have a nice Asian Market nearby. My friend swears by her rice cooker she received at her bridal shower, and her husband believes Sriracha should go on everything. I don’t cook a lot of Asian food, but these ingredients lend themselves so well for gluten-free cooking that I think I need to try. Thanks for the list!

  4. Great post Liz & all good Aisan food essentials to have on hand! My favorite Asian cuisine is probably Thai, but I love all the others as well. I do very little Asian cooking though {had a Chinese craving last night & picked up some GF PF Changs}, so hopefully your post will inspire me to do more :-)

    1. That is absolutely right Joanne!!! I just had 5 minute wonton soup for lunch once again. Couldn’t do it if my pantry wasn’t stocked but it’s so nice to have a hearty and healthy meal that isn’t processed.

  5. Love this list! I have 5 of the 10 – must go shopping to round out the list and then try every recipe! Found your blog via Pinterest – you have wonderful taste!

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