Do you drive by the Asian market in your town, scared to wander in, fearing you’ll feel completely out of place? Don’t be! Amongst a sea of unidentifiable foods and foreign packaging, the Asian grocery store is loaded with gems. If you know what to look for, it’s the perfect place for specialty ingredients and bargains. While there are many amazing things you can pick up from these shops, here’s a snapshot of my favorite items.
1. Soy Sauce
Obvious, right? However, not all soy sauces are the same. There are a variety of different soy sauces out there that serve different purposes and have different flavor profiles. The generic stuff at your local grocery store isn’t even on the same level as what you can find at the Asian market.
What we see most commonly in the US is actually light soy sauce. Some of it is maybe even so light, that it doesn’t really pack much flavor. But dark soy sauce is much different. It packs a rich punch, adding way more flavor than the light stuff. Pan-Fry Sweet Soy Sauce is perfect with steamed fish and green onions (or so says the bottle), and Golden Mountain Seasoning Sauce is the go-to for Thai cooking, which is also a little bit sweeter than it’s Chinese and Japanese counterparts. I also like to keep a high quality soy sauce around for drizzling on finished dishes. The Lee Kum Kee pictured in the front of the pack above is a great finishing sauce that falls in the “light” category, but is still rich and flavorful.
And the best part is, all of these soy sauces are extremely affordable, some even ridiculously cheap, at the Asian market.
Young jackfruit is all the rage right now in the plant based world. This Thai fruit has a texture that somehow does an impeccable job as a substitute for pulled pork. Sounds crazy, right? Well let me tell you, I gave it a shot, and it’s pretty damn close. I wouldn’t say it’s a dead ringer, but it’s shockingly close to the real thing. Throw the jackfruit chunks into a pot with some BBQ sauce and your favorite pulled pork ingredients, let it simmer for 30 minutes, and shred it up just like pork. Then, be prepared to get your mind blown!
3. Gochujang Sauce
Get used to seeing gochujang because this is becoming the new “it” condiment. A sweet fermented hot pepper paste used in Korean cuisine, gochujang is kind of like a thicker, fermented sriracha, with less heat and a richer flavor. It’s beginning to pop up on menu’s all over the place, and if you ask me, it’s here to stay. It’s amazing.
Not sure what to do with gochujang? Check out my Winter Veggie Bibimbap recipe for some inspiration
Further proof that fermented foods are the best, miso is savory Japanese paste made from fermented rice, barley, and soy beans. Commonly used to add an umami kick to broths and soups, I like to use the creamy texture of miso to make salad dressings and sauces, or even as a replacement for mayonnaise. Multiple different types are available, but the white miso paste featured above has the most mellow flavor, making it easy to work with, as it adds great flavor without being overbearing.
Not sure what to do with miso? Check out my Black Rice Ramen with Miso Beer Brothrecipe for some inspiration
5. Fish Sauce
Made from fermented anchovies and packing a robust and powerful scent, fish sauce might seem like an intimidating ingredient at first, but is something a lot of chefs will tell you is a pantry staple. A small quantity goes a long way, adding a dose of umami flavor to basically anything and everything. I use it to add a little oomph to sauces, marinades, burgers, and stir fry’s, or as a replacement for anchovies. I don’t know a whole lot about the different types of fish sauce, but I’ve been told by a very credible source than the 3 Crabs brand pictured above is a solid selection, in addition to the Red Boat brand. Keep some in your pantry and toss it into everything, but my personal recommendation – refrain from smelling it!
Not sure what to do with miso? Check out my Italian Avo Verde Sauce recipe for some inspiration.
Yes, you can probably find coconut milk at your regular grocery store. However, at my local Safeway, a can of coconut milk runs for $3, while the same brand is only $.69 a can at the Asian market. You can’t beat that!
Likewise, this is also a great option for certain spices. You can pay $10 for a tiny glass jar of turmeric at the grocery store, or head over to the Asian market for a bag of turmeric with the same amount for about a third of the price. Sure, the bag is not quite as convenient as a nice glass bottle, but use it to refill your jar, and you’re all set. It may not be worth a trip to the Asian market just to save a few bucks on a few items, but if you’re already going (maybe for the items listed above), stock up and keep that bank account tight. That’s called being a responsible adult right there!
7. Weird Stuff
Yes, your local Asian market is also great for a group of items I like to call “weird stuff.” Of course these items are probably not weird if you know how to use them, but for many of us, there are lots of items at the Asian grocery store that might seem a little foreign (pun intended). From tiny dried fishes and shrimp pastes to entire isles of different noodles and fermented sauces, it’s really fun just to walk around and check everything out (even if you have no idea what you’re looking at). I’ve been told by a chef friend that shrimp paste is the key to her kimchee recipe, and I’ll bet there are a lot of interesting items that can really step up your home chef game.
So get outside of your comfort zone, and pick up something weird! You might just find your next secret ingredient.