Asian Pantry Basics

Pantry staples: rice vinegar, chili garlic sauce, Sriracha, toasted sesame oil, fish sauce

We probably cook ‘Asian’ food at least two or three times a week and, over time have amassed a pretty well-stocked pantry of ingredients to pull from. Often with very little time and effort, you can make a delicious, healthy dinner that is miles better than take-out. If you’re not familiar with them, it can seem intimidating but you really don’t need a lot of ingredients to make amazing dishes.

Most of these ingredients should be available in a moderately large grocery store, but it’s worth it to look for an Asian Market in your neighborhood. They often have much better prices and a wonderful variety of fresh produce, as well. Of course if you can’t find them locally, there’s always the internet. Note: the links below are meant as a reference to the ingredient and brand. We didn’t search for the best prices so you might want to look around before you buy an ingredient.

Below we list ‘essentials’, meaning the ingredients we use all the time, over and over. We also list ‘extras’; ingredients we love, but use less often. If there’s a brand we particularly like, we’ll include a link to it though you’ll likely find your own favorites.

Asian Pantry Essentials:
  • Light and dark soy sauce (or Tamari for gluten free): We use it not just for Asian dishes, but in meat marinades and salad dressings as well.  Light soy sauce is amber in color, thinner and saltier. The more common dark soy sauce has more body. It is thicker and less salty.
  • Toasted sesame oil: Has a deep, nutty flavor that is used for seasoning, not cooking. Make sure it’s dark brown and said ‘toasted’. Try it in this Quick Pickled Cucumber Salad.
  • Rice vinegar (unseasoned): A mild vinegar great for vinaigrettes, quick pickles, dipping sauces. ‘Seasoned’ rice vinegar has added sugar and salt so I like to stick to unseasoned.
  • Miso (white, Shiro): Also known as “sweet” miso. It’s milder and lower in salt than darker varieties. It’s great in soups, dressings, marinades and light sauces. It can even be used in place of dairy in some recipes. We especially love it on salmon and eggplant.
  • Hoisin Sauce: A sweet and savory paste. Think of it as Asian barbecue sauce, it’s a great glaze for meat, an addition to stir fries, or as dipping sauce. Hoisin usually includes soy, red chillies and garlic.
  • Mirin: A sweet rice wine used in marinades and sauces. Common in Japanese dishes.
  • Sriracha: Spicy, fiery hot sauce. Made with chili peppers, vinegar, salt, sugar and garlic.
  • Chili garlic sauce: like Sriracha, but fresher tasting, with a little hint of garlic.
  • Fish sauce: This funky, salty sauce is essential in East and Southeast Asian cuisine, but is a great way to add depth to many different kinds of dishes. When choosing a fish sauce, look for one that has only 2 ingredients, anchovies and sea salt. Our favorite these days is Red Boat.
  • Oyster sauce: doesn’t taste fishy at all, more salty/sweet. Great in stir fries and fried rice.
  • Sesame seeds (white and black): Add great crunch and flavor. Keep in the fridge, along with the oil. If they’re not already toasted, toast them in a pan before using.
  • Rice and noodles: Use your favorites. We use Brown Basmati and Thai jasmine rice most often. For noodles, we use rice for stir frying, soba and udon for soups.
White and black sesame seeds.
Fresh Ingredients:
  • Garlic – of course
  • Fresh ginger – Adds a sharp, slightly spicy taste. Delicious in sauces, marinades, stir fries.
  • Cilantro – Some people hate it but for those who don’t, it’s essential.
  • Limes – Adds a fresh tartness to many dishes, especially essential in Thai and Vietnamese dishes.
  • Kimchi – Korean spicy fermented pickled cabbage. Absolutely delicious and an essential accompaniment to Korean dishes like Bulgogi.
  • Lemongrass – The tender center stalk have a lemony bite that’s delicious in curries, stir fries and even cocktails.
  • Chili – There are dozens of varieties that vary greatly in heat so choose the type according to your recipe.
Fresh essentials: lime, ginger, garlic and cilantro
Asian Pantry Extras:
  • Gochujang: It’s a thick, red, spicy chili paste common in many Korean dishes. Heat levels vary so look at the label for an indication.
  • Chinese Rice Wine (Shaoxing wine): Has a similar flavor as sherry (which I often substitute if I don’t have any rice wine on hand). Delicious in sauces and marinades.
  • Black Bean Garlic Sauce: Delicious dark and salty, this sauce is a great addition to shrimp, pork and chicken dishes. Also delicious with clams.
  • Black rice vinegar: Deeper in color and flavor than regular rice vinegar, a bit smoky-tasting. Often used in Chinese stir fries, dipping sauces, and as a condiment.
  • Sweet Chili Sauce (Mae Ploy): More sweet than spicy, great as a dipping sauce on it’s own or for adding sweetness to a dressing or marinade.
  • Roasted Seaweed Sheets: These aren’t the kind used for sushi. They are salty and crispy. Serve them on the side with rice.
  • Thai Red Curry Paste: Spicy and complex. It often mixed with coconut milk in curries and soups. Note: Some brands are made with shrimp or fish sauce, but vegan brands are available.
Vegan and/or Gluten Free Options:

Tamari: A Japanese form of soy sauce that uses no wheat (some brands still use a little so make sure the label says gluten or wheat free).

Gluten Free Miso : Miso sometimes contains grains, though not always. Miso from grains like barley (mugi ortsubu in Japanese), wheat (tsubu), or rye (hadakamugi) are not gluten free. Miso from rice (kome or genmai), buckwheat (sobamugi), and millet (kibi) are gluten-free. Check the label to be sure. This brand, Hikari Organic White Miso Paste is gluten free.

Vegan & Gluten Free Thai Red Curry Paste: Some brands are made with shrimp or fish sauce, but vegan brands are available. Thai Kitchen brand is vegan, dairy and gluten free.

8 thoughts on “Asian Pantry Basics”

  1. Just found your website, I love the look of some of the recipes. Just curious, how does fish sauce and oyster sauce differ from the delicious eel sauce that’s drizzled on top of my favorite sushi rolls?

    • Thanks, Eric!

      In very basic terms, ‘fish sauce’ is a very salty, thin liquid that is added as a salt element to dishes. It’s intense so usually used sparingly, but it’s absolutely delicious.

      ‘Oyster sauce’ is a thick, slightly sweet sauce that is used in a lot of Chinese dishes. It’s not very fishy but has a slight oyster-y flavor. I love it in fried rice.

      ‘Eel sauce’ is a mixture of soy, sweet wine(mirin), sugar and other ingredients. The sugar is what gets so brown and delicious when it’s broiled on top of eel. Yum.

  2. I am so excited to learn that I already have all of the basics in my pantry and fridge! I never knew (until now) that sesame oil should be stored in the fridge – thank you for that. I keep fresh garlic and ginger on hand at all times. Though I must say, the ginger root in the photo here is a thousand times more plump and juicy-looking than any I have bought! I think I will try to grow my own from a store-bought rhizome.

    Keeping basics on hand is one thing. Now I want to broaden my horizons in terms of putting these essentials to work in recipes. Thanks for a fantastic article!

  3. Hi! This was super helpful to me since I’m (finally) moving on my own and have no clue how to make any other food than cook rice and some simple Japanese dishes, so now I can get the basics for scrolling down recipes (and not worry what some “fancy-sounding” ingredients are and where to get them). Thank you! 🙂


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