Rice might be the carb that most people associate with Asian cuisine, but noodles play an equally important role in the culinary culture. Made from rice flour, wheat,buckwheat, mung beans, sweet potatoes, eggs, tofu or a combination of ingredients, noodles show up on almost every part of the menu. Most are available in bulk form or various package sizes from purveyors of Asian ingredients. Cellophane noodles also go by the names of bean threads and glass noodles...
The Asian pantry
Rice might be the carb that most people associate with Asian cuisine, but noodles play an equally important role in the culinary culture. Made from rice flour, wheat, buckwheat, mung beans, sweet potatoes, eggs, tofu or a combination of ingredients, noodles show up on almost every part of the menu. Most are available in bulk form or various package sizes from purveyors of Asian ingredients.
Cellophane noodles also go by the names of bean threads and glass noodles. These thin strands are made from the starch of mung beans. They’re sold dried and are usually soaked before using in dumplings, spring rolls and soups.
Rice noodles are long noodles made from rice flour, salt and water. They are available both fresh and dried in varying widths. Often referred to as rice sticks or rice vermicelli, they are the foundation for dishes like pad Thai, me grob and certain curries.
Wheat noodles are known in Chinese as “mein” and in Japanese as “udon.” The long strands are made from wheat flour, are light in color and are usually sold fresh in several different widths. Dried wheat noodles include Japanese somen and vermicelli.
Egg noodles, primarily available dried and semi-fresh, are a blend of wheat flour and eggs. The category includes Japanese ramen and thin Shanghai noodles. These are often deep-fried as a bed or garnish for vegetables or meat, or used in soups and noodle bowls.
Buckwheat noodles or soba are usually made from a combination of buckwheat and wheat. Their nutty brown color, coarser texture and toasty flavor are gaining these noodles favor for their perceived whole-grain nutritional attributes. Powdered green tea is added to make cha soba noodles, and yams are incorporated for yamaimo soba. All are available both dried and fresh-frozen, can be served hot or cold and are typically used in soups, salads, noodle bowls and as a bed for stir-fries and braises.
Indispensable as an ingredient in Asian cooking, soy sauce is an all-purpose seasoning used to deepen flavor and color. It’s frequently used in marinades, basting and dipping sauces, stir-fries, braises and noodle and rice dishes. Traditional soy sauce is brewed from soybeans, wheat, water and salt, with higher-quality versions aged anywhere from six months to a year; the longer the aging period, the better the flavor.
Domestically produced soy sauce comes in several variations, including lower-sodium and organic. Tamari is soy sauce brewed exclusively from soybeans with no wheat included. Slightly thicker and mellower in flavor than the standard soy sauce, its pure flavor shines through in condiments or dipping sauces. Tamari is preferred by customers who are allergic to wheat or fussy about the purity of products.
Imported soy sauces from Asia include Chinese light soy (a product with greater fluidity) and Chinese dark soy sauce, also known as thick soy sauce. The latter contains molasses, making it less salty, sweeter and thicker than regular soy sauce. A specialty of Indonesia is sweet soy sauce or kecap manis, a syrupy-textured product sweetened with palm sugar. And mushroom soy sauce—flavored with the essence of straw mushrooms—is a favorite in Cambodian, Vietnamese and Thai cooking.
Soy sauce is sold in packets, bottles, cans, aseptic boxes and pails ranging from single servings to 5 gallons.
Spices & seasonings
The Asian spice cabinet is extensive, particularly if you try to cover the culinary heritage of each part of the continent. But stocking a manageable collection of basics can go a long way toward creating a good variety of Asian dishes in your kitchen.
Steve Logan, a research chef with the McCormick spice company, suggests these core ground spices: ginger, mustard, coriander, turmeric and cumin. Chinese five spice powder (equal parts cinnamon, cloves, fennel seed, star anise and Szechuan peppercorns) is another key ingredient.
Logan sees a continuing trend toward bolder, more intense Asian flavors and regional specialties, with restaurants requesting more spice blends (Thai seasoning, garam masala, five spice powder and the like) to keep in step with this trend. Hot spices, such as Szechuan and black peppercorns, pepper flakes and dried Chinese red chilies are also in demand.
With authentic Japanese a rising trend, wasabi is another seasoning to watch. At most sushi bars and Japanese restaurants in the United States, the sinus-clearing, pale green paste that’s marketed as “wasabi” is really a mixture of horseradish, mustard and green food coloring. Real wasabi is made from the wasabi japonica plant—a cousin of the horseradish root with a more complex flavor that combines pungent heat with a smooth, sweet finish. For centuries, wasabi has been farmed commercially and available only in Asia, but recently, crops have been grown in a few mountainous regions of the United States. Genuine wasabi is now available to American foodservice buyers as a dried powder (to reconstitute with water) and a frozen paste. The fresh root is rarer but may be sold through a specialty purveyor.
Vinegars & oils
American vinegars (red wine, white or cider) are not destined for the Asian kitchen—only rice vinegar imparts authenticity. Made from fermented rice, salt and water, rice vinegar is used for sushi rice, as a stir-fry ingredient, as a pickling medium for ginger or vegetables and in countless sauces and marinades.
White rice vinegar is available in plain and seasoned versions (with added salt and sugar). Bolder black vinegar is fermented from glutinous rice.
Mirin, also referred to as rice wine, is often confused with vinegar but is a sweet wine made from glutinous rice.
Oil is key to proper stir-frying and deep-frying—high-heat techniques common to all Asian cultures. Canola oil is a good all-purpose choice, but is best for cooking over medium heat; peanut oil has a higher smoking point. Do not use oils that have pronounced flavors, such as extra-virgin olive oil or walnut oil.
Other Asian oils are used as flavoring agents. The most widely used is dark sesame oil, a golden-brown liquid pressed from roasted sesame seeds that’s prevalent in Korean, Chinese and Japanese dishes. A small drizzle is all that’s needed. For extra heat, purchase hot sesame oil or chili oil.
Dark Asian or Oriental sesame oil cannot be used interchangeably with cold-pressed sesame oil—the latter is a cooking medium, like canola or olive oil. Seasoning oils are available in bottles of various sizes; purchase in quantities that can be used within three months to avoid rancidity.
Sauces & other condiments
Every Asian cuisine has its specialty sauces, many of which are now produced domestically. These sauces are used as both cooking ingredients and condiments, and can be made from fish, fruit, soybeans, chilies, sesame seeds, herbs or combinations of these ingredients. Many are formulated to balance the five flavor notes of Asian cuisine: salty, sweet, bitter, sour and spicy. The most popular bottled and jarred sauces and pastes include hoisin (soy beans, vinegar, sugar and garlic), plum sauce or duck sauce (pureed plums or apricots with hints of ginger, miso and/or chili), black bean sauce, chili sauce or paste, green curry paste, red curry paste, oyster sauce and fish sauce.
Fish sauce, an integral ingredient in Southeast Asian cooking, is imported for the restaurant trade from either Thailand (as nam pla), Vietnam (as nuoc mam) or the Philippines (as patis). Its pungent flavor and funky aroma make it too strong to use on its own, so fish sauce is usually mixed with water, lime juice, sugar and sometimes chilies to add a distinctive flavor note.
Fish sauce became a mainstay in Southeast Asia and the Philippines as a way to preserve fish supplies. Anchovies are usually the main ingredient. They’re layered with salt in wooden barrels and fermented for six months to a year or longer—a method that has been in place for centuries. The resulting liquid is siphoned off, filtered and bottled or poured back into the barrel to ferment some more. The first extraction is the most intense and expensive and rarely available in the United States. The second and third pressings are more widely available in bottles of various sizes.
Fresh herbs & flavoring agents
Ginger, garlic and scallions are the holy trinity in Asian cooking, but the selection of fresh seasonings goes way beyond these must-haves. All should be purchased in quantities that can be used within a couple of days.
Thai basil, sometimes referred to as holy basil, is worlds apart from the more common Italian basil. The narrow green leaves with a hint of purple boast a lemony, licorice flavor. Fresh Thai basil is used in curries and stir-fries and is often paired up with fresh cilantro and mint in salads, spring rolls and seasoning pastes.
Thai chilies, the most commonly used in Southeast Asian cuisine, are usually smaller and hotter than other chili varieties. Called “bird’s eye chilies,” each pepper packs the heat of three serrano chilies. Thai chilies are green when picked and red when fully ripened.
Lemongrass comes in long, thin stalks and has a tangy, citrusy flavor. The tougher, outer leaves are usually discarded, and the lower white “bulb” sliced to add to soups, stir-fries, braises and custards. It’s also available frozen.
Kaffir lime leaves lend a flowery flavor and aroma to soups, salads and curries. The season for fresh kaffir limes is short, but the leaves are available year round, both fresh and frozen.
Galangal also goes by the name “lesser ginger” and resembles that ingredient. However, the root is denser and the flavor more pungent with a camphor-like aroma. Galangal may be purchased fresh or frozen and is prevalent in Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian cooking.
Made from milk that’s been extracted from soybeans and curdled with nigari (a natural coagulant), bean curd is generally marketed under the name tofu. The Japanese are perhaps the biggest fans of the product, and some high-end Japanese restaurants in the United States now make their own tofu in the back of the house.
Silken tofu is strained through silk to produce a very soft, smooth, custard-like curd. The Japanese eat it as is, often topped with soy sauce and minced scallions. Or it can easily be blended or pureed to use as a thickener for soups or beverages.
Soft, medium-firm and firm tofu are the other three varieties. The softer type works best in soups and noodle dishes, while the firmer ones are good for stir-fries, grilled items, rice dishes and casseroles.
Tofu is sold in water-filled tubs, aseptic packages and vacuum packs in several sizes. It should be rinsed before using and any leftovers must be covered with fresh water and refrigerated. Change the water daily to maintain freshness.
Bean curd is also made into other products like tofu skins (dried sheets of bean curd for dumplings), tofu sticks (dried for sushi, casseroles and braises), fried tofu, marinated tofu, fermented tofu.
Menu ideas straight from the Asian kitchen
The challenge: Create three Asian menu staples—a dumpling, a soup and a noodle dish—choosing from a market basket of six ingredients, plus personally selected extras from the pantry and walk-in
The players: Three chefs from three different Asian concepts—a fast-casual chain, a mid-priced independent and an upscale fine-dining restaurant
The ingredients: Soy sauce, ginger, scallions, sesame oil, chili peppers and lemongrass
Dan Barash, executive chef
Mama Fu’s Asian House
23-unit fast-casual pan-Asian concept run by Atlanta-based Raving Brands. The menu features a mix of Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and Korean dishes, many wok-cooked fresh to order.
Average check: $10
Spiced Duck Dumplings
Chinese five-spice roasted duck and charred scallion shui mai (steamed dumplings) with lemongrass-soy butter
Sesame-Infused Lemongrass Soup
Sesame-seared tofu in a chili-spiked lemongrass soup with a soy-ginger reduction
Ginger Shrimp Noodle Bowl
Chili-spiced udon noodles with ginger-soy glazed seared shrimp, lemongrass braised bok choy and sesame oil drizzle
“I think these items fit nicely into our menu because they utilize many popular Asian ingredients and robust flavors,” says Barash. “Mama Fu’s is Asian fusion and many of my prep techniques incorporate a French style of cooking.”
Chuong Nghiem, chef/owner
Apple Restaurant & Bom Bar
Pan-Asian eatery in New York City that incorporates the cooking styles of Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and China. The Bom Bar offers a lounge menu featuring a selection of Asian tapas and appetizers.
Average check: $30
A filling of ground pork blended with scallions, onions, cilantro, sesame oil, soy sauce, fish sauce and sugar that’s wrapped in dumpling skins and fried in hot peanut oil
Chilean Sea Bass Soup
A chicken-broth based soup flavored with lemongrass, chili peppers, fish sauce, tamarind puree, lime juice, sugar; scallions, bell peppers, tomato, pineapple, straw mushrooms and bean sprouts add texture
Cold Soba Noodles
Buckwheat noodles (soba) cooked and chilled in ice water, then sauced with a mixture of sesame oil, soy sauce, ginger and sugar; shredded scallions garnish the dish
“At Apple, I have tried to combine Asian modern with the classic and rustic with the cosmopolitan,” says Nghiem. “I grew up in several Asian countries, and this is reflected in my cooking.”
Gene Kato, executive chef/partner
High-end Chicago restaurant described as “modern Japanese with European elegance.” Dishes focus on ingredients found in Japan and Southeast Asia, balancing the characteristic sweet, salty and sour flavors. Average check: $70
King Crab Dumpling
Stuffed with nasu, kani, scallions and mitsuba and served with a chili pepper ponzu (equal parts dark soy sauce and lemon or lime juice)
Atsu Tsu (Hot! Hot! Soup)
Lemongrass chili broth served with crackling rice and shrimp dumpling
Shrimp and Scallop Soba
Soba noodles are made from pureed shrimp and scallops and served with a Thai dipping sauce made with Thai basil, soy sauce, ginger, fish sauce, and yuzu juice
“Ingredients that are grown together or come from the same part of the world go well together in cooking,” says Kato. “I don’t agree with fusion cuisine, butI like to present Japanese food in a European style.”