I spent five years living and working in China. My first grocery shopping experience was incredibly overwhelming. On top of being assaulted by new sights and smells, especially near the non-refrigerated meat and fish counters, I was confronted by row after row of sauces, condiments, and packaged goods that I had never seen before (and I couldn’t read Chinese characters). I had cooked Asian food and was familiar with some ingredients and was willing to buy and try and have a cooking adventure but first I needed to navigate the store and find the basics- it took several shopping trips to find the salt. But as my first year rolled by and as I traveled around Southeast Asia (and took cooking classes along the way), I learned several stir-fry sauces- in particular those of Chinese, Thai, or Laos origin – used similar ingredients -hoisin, oyster sauce, sesame oil, soy sauce, fish sauce, and Shao Xing wine. I came to rely on these master ingredients for many of my stir-fry needs and with them made some wonderful dishes – Thai Chicken and Cashews, Pad Kra Pow, Pad Thai, Chicken and Garlic Sauce, Kung Pao Chicken, and Asian Spicy Noodles, for instance. With these key ingredients I could make so many quick, easy, and flavorful meals in under 30 minutes.
Back home I still rely on Asian markets for my stir-fry needs. I visit the market once or twice a year and replenish my key ingredients, then I store them in my fridge for when I need a quick weeknight meal. I also shop at Asian markets for produce and refrigerated items- bok choy, shiitake mushrooms, fresh bean sprouts, Thai basil, lemongrass, galangal, mint, and eggplant, among others. In the States, Asian markets still assault my senses but in a more muted fashion, plus most products have English on the labels, which makes so much of a difference! Nonetheless, a trip to an Asian market transports me back to China and I love that I can drive a few miles and experience a piece of Asia. I strongly recommend taking a trip to an Asian market, especially if you have children. It’s a great way to experience other cultures without traveling far from home.
Below is a handy guide of some basic items you should pick up at an Asian market. With these items, you can cook numerous dishes from several cultures. These ingredients will become your new best friends come dinner time when you need a quick and easy meal. These basic items will pave the way for an abundance of Asian culinary adventures.
Red Boat Fish Sauce: The Red Boat brand is the best! Fish sauce is a funky one- it’s made with fermented fish so you really want a good brand that uses fresh fish and refines the sauce.
Kadoya Sesame Oil: There are lots of brands of sesame oil but this is one of the best. It has a wonderful flavor. Refrigerate it after opening and it will last a long time.
Plum Gold Chinkiang/Zhenjiang Black Vinegar: Black vinegar is a beautiful thing. You can drink a good black vinegar plain, though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. This brand is smooth and sweet and lovely. There’s another brand that I used and loved in China but I can’t find it in the States. This brand is stellar, the gold standard of black vinegar. Much like balsamic vinegar, you can find black vinegar that has been aged for years.
Lee Kum Kee Hoisin: This is the only Hoisin I’ve used so not sure if it’s the best, but I can always find this brand at an Asian market and it tastes perfectly fine.
Lee Kum Kee Panda Oyster Sauce: This brand makes more premium kinds and there are others out there but this oyster sauce is perfectly suitable for your stir fry needs.
Note: I neglected soy sauce because it’s available at regular markets. However, you can find more varieties and larger quantities for a cheaper price at Asian markets – stock up when you go! Jasmine rice (or any kind!) is also much cheaper and in greater quantities at an Asian market than what you can find in the supermarket.
SOME MORE GREAT ITEMS:
So, now that you find yourself in an Asian market, it wouldn’t hurt to pick up some additional items. This secondary list includes items that I don’t use as frequently, except for the Shao Xing wine, but I’ll explain below.
Shao Xing Wine: So this should really be on the essential list but my local Asian market doesn’t sell liquor and I have a more difficult time finding it in the States. If you don’t have this problem at your Asian market, then by all means, buy it because you will use it frequently. If not, dry sherry is a suitable substitute (make sure it’s dry sherry, not sweet).
Dark Soy Sauce: Dark soy sauce is thicker and sweeter than the original. It adds a bit more dimension to a stir-fry.
Pickled Red Chiles: This jar of fiery chilies might look intimidating but they’re not as spicy as they appear. I like to use them in dipping sauces for dumplings. In China, I bought them in increasingly larger jars because I used them so often. Mix them with black vinegar and some sesame oil to make a dipping sauce for dumplings.
Lao Gan Mao Black Bean Sauce: This jar with the “ma” on it is hugely popular and well-loved. It’s great as a condiment for soups and stir fries but it can also be used to make quick pan-fried noodles and such.
Broad Bean Paste or Chili Bean Sauce: “Douban Jiang” has a unique taste and has no substitutes. The Lee Kum Kee brand is more accessible and easier to find in Asian markets but the Pixian brand is more popular if you can find it.
Finally, here’s a list of items that I use frequently. These items you can find at supermarkets in the States.
Sriracha: I have a mild obsession with Sriracha and put it on EVERYTHING. In fact, I couldn’t find it in stores in China so carted some over in my suitcase. I’m not the only one who loves this stuff and it’s now readily available at most markets.
Thai Kitchen Curry Paste: This brand is readily available in supermarkets. I use the red and green paste frequently and have come to love the roasted chili paste that I use in a few of my favorite recipes, such as Thai Red Curry Tofu/Chicken.
Nakano Seasoned Rice Vinegar: This is my favorite brand. It has a mild and sweet taste. It can be eaten directly from the bottle sprinkled on salads. Though seasoned means it has added sugar in it and it won’t be as tangy as unseasoned rice vinegar, it’s so nicely balanced that I add it to recipes and adjust for sugar elsewhere.
What can you make with all the fun stuff? Need some recipes and inspiration? Check it out:
A picture preview of others not yet posted:
Chicken with Garlic Sauce
Eggroll Stir Fry
Thai Fried Chicken and Basil
Thai Curry Ramen
Hot and Sour Soup
Vietnamese Salad with Pork
Sweet and Sour Tofu
Asian Cakes with Shoyu Gravy
And more to come!
Do you need a fun gift idea? Fill a basket with some of the above ingredients and some recipes.
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