18 East Asian Pantry Staple Ingredients & Their Uses
Ready to stock up on some East Asian pantry staples? We’ve got your back. Whether these are your favorite dishes or you’re looking to cook them for the first time, there are a few staple ingredients you’ll need when inspiration strikes.
If you’re worried about getting all these items, don't be! Umamicart has you covered with all the items you’ll need to create flavorful meals.
What Are Some Main Pantry Staples in Asian Cuisine?
While we could go and on about all the amazing items to keep, these are top staples that will work for a plethora of dishes. Explore these East Asian ingredients and learn how you can add them to your pantry.
1. Chili Oil
For those who like a little more spice in their lives, chili oil will do wonders for your taste buds. It is made by infusing a base oil with a variety of chili peppers and red chili flakes. This spicy oil will pack a punch!
Use it in small amounts as a finishing oil to add heat to a savory meal. Sticky beef ribs would be delicious with a dollop of chili oil drizzled on top.
A slight variation to this would be a chili paste. Sriracha and gojuchang are wonderful additions to meals. Sriracha is a Thai-style chili sauce, and gojuchang is a Korean variety. They are similar in flavors and levels of spice but do have subtle differences.
Sriracha relies more on garlic and vinegar, so there is a subtle tang behind the heat. Whereas gojuchang has more of a sweet backbone. Use these as sauces after plating to turn up the heat before serving.
2. MisoMiso is a Japanese seasoning made from soybeans fermented with salt and spices. It has a mild flavor and is the backbone of many Japanese dishes — you can expect to find miso as one of the main ingredients of noodle dishes. Adding miso will make the perfect additive to any broth and amplify the depth of flavor.
Kimchi is a topping or condiment made from pickled and salted vegetables. The flavor profile is primarily tangy, tart, and sour. One of the great things about kimchi is its versatility.
You can eat it as a side dish on its own or add it to any of your favorite rice bowls, noodles, or soups.
4. Sesame Oil
Sesame oil is a staple item for many Asian sauces. It provides a subtle nutty and sweet quality that helps mold flavors together. This oil comes in two varieties: sesame oil and toasted sesame oil.
Traditional sesame oil is light, but the aromatic flavor is amplified with a darker color.
Sesame oil works well as a base for sauces to go over noodles or added to dressing and seasoning. The nutty flavors of toasted sesame oil work really well in vinaigrettes or peanut sauces.
5. Rice Vinegar
Rice vinegar has a mildly sweet and tangy flavor profile and a thin consistency. It is used for quick-pickling vegetables and is added to dressings or marinades. It conveys subtle and mild flavors that help cut through heavier dishes.
One of the more popular dishes that rice vinegar is used for is Thai cucumber salads. The cucumbers have crunch, and the vinegar adds bite. You can also try pickling onion slivers and using them for toppings for meat dishes or sauteed veggies.
6. Shaoxing Wine
Shaoxing wine is a variety of rice wine that is primarily used for cooking as opposed to drinking. If you are in China, you may be able to find versions that are made for consumption, but most of the versions in supermarkets are for sauces.
Flavors you can expect from Shaoxing wine are mild, sweet spices, and tangy.
7. Light Soy Sauce
Light soy sauce is essentially a traditional soy sauce. It is a thin sauce with a salty flavor.
Did you know that soy sauces will vary based on the region they are from? While light soy sauce has the salty factor in common, other flavors will come about depending on where you source your sauce.
Use it in a marinade for meats, add it to dressings for umami, or drizzle on fresh white rice.
8. Dark Soy Sauce
Dark soy sauce has a dark caramel color and is thicker in consistency than light soy sauce. It has an intense soy flavor. This style contains molasses, so it has sweeter notes than the lighter style will offer.
Dark soy sauce adds richness to dishes where that depth may be lacking. It works well in sauces for fish or veggie dishes.
9. Hoisin Sauce
Hoisin is considered an Asian-style BBQ sauce made from spices, ground soybeans, and sweet potatoes. It has a sweet, tangy, and thick consistency. It works wonders for glazing, marinating, dipping sauce, and stir fry.
One of the most popular uses of hoisin sauce is as the dip for Peking Duck and Moo Shu Pork. Next time you make ribs, mix hoisin sauce into your BBQ sauce for an added depth of flavor and spice that will knock your socks off.
10. Dried Mushrooms
This is an easy pantry item to keep when you need a savory balance to your dishes. It can be used in a pinch if you don’t have fresh mushrooms on hand but need something to balance out the salty notes in your dish.
Dried mushrooms work well for soup broths and noodles, so don’t be afraid to throw them in for extra texture.
There are plenty of noodles that are used in Asian cuisines, but keeping a variety of options is best. Egg noodles and rice noodles are the two most popular types, so keep these on hand when you’re in the mood for a quick and delicious meal.
12. Bean Paste
There are two types of bean paste that should be kept: red and black bean paste. You’ll use red bean pastes for sweeter dishes and black bean pastes for deep, delicious layers of flavor that pair perfectly well with rice or noodles. In Japan, red bean paste is used often in fillings for desserts. Consider adding red bean paste to a pastry or a really tangy sauce to balance out the flavors.
Black bean paste is primarily used to flavor hot or spicy dishes. For recipes that have a need for heat, black bean paste will be used to amplify those flavors. Black bean paste would be a great addition to sautes with veggies or spicy shellfish dishes.
Sugar is one of the most used and popular pantry items, no matter where you’re from. In East Asian cooking, sugar is a staple item for many dishes like braised pork. You can add it to soy sauces or vinegars for balance.
Sugar will also be a base ingredient for many marinades for meats as it helps to break down the fats and keep the protein tender.
This is another staple item that is used across all cuisine platforms. It’s a thickening agent for sauces. The best part about cornstarch? It’s naturally gluten-free, so you don’t have to worry about allergies or reactions.
Sauces that call for cornstarch aren’t naturally thick, so adding cornstarch will help remedy this. Many sauces used for dipping purposes need a thicker consistency, which makes cornstarch the perfect solution.
Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is a traditional additive in Chinese cooking. It is used to enhance the natural flavors found in the food and increase their potency.
Over the years, MSG has caused a lot of controversy in the food world. For a long time, many believed that using MSG in cooking was unsafe or caused a lot of health issues. However, this isn’t the case.
Some people may have a sensitivity to MSG, which causes reactions. Those who are sensitive to MSG can expect discomfort after consumption. Those without that sensitivity will not have any adverse side effects from eating MSG.
Chinese five-spice is a combination of star anise, cinnamon, fennel, and cloves. The fifth ingredient varies based on the maker. Typically the fifth spice is Szechuan peppers, but it can also be white pepper or ginger. The flavors will be dominated by licorice from the star anise, but will have a warming effect from the cinnamon and cloves.
Add five-spice to ribs or any meat you prefer and cook on the grill. It is the ingredient that gives Char Siew or Chinese BBQ pork its distinct flavor.
17. Oyster Sauce
Oyster sauce is the base for most umami flavors in Asian cuisine. It is used to create that perfect blend of sweet, savory, and salty that is just universally pleasing to your taste buds.
You can use oyster sauce for any dish you prefer and even use them in marinades, dipping sauce, sautees. The sky's the limit for oyster sauce. If you’re vegan, we’ve got you covered.
Mushroom sauce is a perfect substitute to oyster sauce and vegan. It’s just as savory and thick and can be used in the same manner.
18. White Pepper
White pepper is actually more common in East Asian cooking than black pepper. It has a mild, delicate flavor compared to the robustness of black pepper. This allows for a steady balance between salt and pepper while allowing all the flavors in the food to shine.
What Is Umami Flavor?
Umami flavor is the ultimate savory quality. It is a rich heartiness in meals that provides overall satisfaction to your dish. It is one of the five basic flavor profiles but encapsulates all the delicious flavors of your food.
How Can I Create Umami?
Umami flavors are present in a lot of foods naturally. It is the flavor profile of hearty foods like mushrooms, meats, and shellfish. But you can also get umami qualities out of other foods like full flavored cheeses and mixtures of vegetables.
You need to create a balance of the other flavor profiles to reach umami in foods. You’ll want to balance salt, sweet, tang and bitter to get that pure joy out of your food that umami describes. It’s not hard to do, but we highly recommend tasting as you go to ensure that your flavors come together.
The Bottom Line
These might be Asian ingredients, but they are perfect to use for any dish. Fusion foods are fun and inventive and provide new experiences for all of us, so don’t be afraid to experiment!
If you’re looking for a place to get all your favorite East Asian staple ingredients, check out Umamicart!
Here you’ll find all your favorite staple items and get them delivered right to your door!