If you’ve never been to an Asian grocery store before, it may seem overwhelming at first. However, if you know what to look for, Asian markets are a great way to find pantry staples that will allow you to cook a lot of different Asian cuisines at home! Asian markets are a great place to shop because you simply can’t find many of the products in other grocery stores, not to mention that the prices tend to be better than what you would find at a chain grocery store. If you’re thinking, “There is an Asian market near me, but I would have no idea what to buy,” then these tips are for you! And if you don’t have an Asian market nearby, don’t worry, because you can also shop an Asian market online from the comfort of your home!
Great things to shop for first are rice and noodles.
Asian markets have a much wider selection of these products than other markets, and depending on what you plan to cook, you may need a specific type. If you plan to make sushi for example, opt for a short grain rice. If you want to make an Indian dish, a long grain rice like Basmati rice is a good choice and for most other Asian dishes, a medium grain rice like Jasmine rice is a safe choice. As for noodles, different dishes typically call for a specific type of noodle. Japanese dishes tend to specify this in the name: for example, ramen uses ramen noodles and yakisoba uses soba noodles. If you have a favorite noodle dish, stock up on that type of noodle so you will always have it on hand! At an Asian market or Japanese grocery store, you can also buy fresh noodles in the refrigerated section, although be aware that they expire much quicker than dry noodles.
Now that you have a base for your dishes, it’s time to consider sauces!
First and foremost, soy sauce is a key component of many Asian dishes, so it is a good idea to have a quality soy sauce on hand. Light soy sauce is most commonly used and it is saltier and thinner than dark soy sauce, but some recipes do call for dark soy sauce because of its thicker consistency and bolder flavor. Another important sauce in Asian cooking is oyster sauce or fish sauce. These sauces have a salty and umami flavor that adds depth to a lot of dishes, and they are used primarily in things like stir-frys, curries, and glazes for vegetables or meat. Other sauces to pick up include chili sauce for any spicy dishes or gochujang, which is a fermented red chili paste that adds sweet, savory, and spicy flavors to Korean dishes. Gochujang can be found in square containers or small bottles, and is a deep red color, typically featuring images of chili peppers on the packaging. Another great sauce is hoisin sauce, which is sweet and salty, and used primarily in Chinese cooking as a glaze or stir-fry sauce. Hoisin sauce is a dark, almost black color and sold in either smaller jars or large jugs.
There are a few more ingredients that you’ll find yourself reaching for often once they are in your pantry. Mirin is a Japanese rice wine that adds a lot of depth to glazes, marinades, and stir-frys. Sesame oil has a distinct nutty flavor and also adds a lot of depth to various sauces. Mirin and sesame oil can both be combined with a few other ingredients to make a delicious homemade teriyaki sauce, and you can find both in the same section of Asian markets in similar tall bottles, but mirin is a pale, almost clear color while sesame oil is a rich brown color. Rice vinegar is similar to mirin, but less sweet and adds a sour flavor to dishes, and comes in handy when cooking a lot of different Asian meals. Another great ingredient to pick up is Shaoxing wine, which is a Chinese rice wine that is a key element of many Chinese dishes, including most stir-fry sauces as well as many soups, like wonton soup for example. Curry paste and miso paste are also good items to have on hand, as they can be used in curries, soups, and sauces.
Once you have these staples in your pantry, you’ll be able to cook a lot of different Asian dishes! Even if you’re not quite sure what you want to cook yet, stocking up on these basic ingredients will give you the option to experiment with various Asian flavors in your home cooking. These products have long shelf lives, so take a trip to your local Asian market or visit an online Asian market, and expand your pantry!