The vast majority of ingredients for these recipes can be found in any well-stocked supermarket. Stores now carry an extensive selection of ethnic condiments and an ever-expanding supply of fresh fruits and vegetables, both familiar and exotic. (See mail-order and Web sources.)
Some basic ingredients, with suggestions for substitutions, are listed here. Feel free to improvise if necessary. Most of the bottled ingredients will keep for a year, some indefinitely, stored in a cool, dry place.
CHICKEN BROTH I used to rely on reduced-sodium canned chicken broth, but these days I find the most flavorful is free-range or organic chicken broth in aseptic cartons. Unopened, they will keep for months (check the “sell by” date) in a cool, dry place.
CHILE PASTE I prefer the Vietnamese brands in jars, since the canned Chinese varieties tend to be salty. Chile paste will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator but tends to lose its bite over time.
substitution: Use a slightly smaller amount than called for of crushed dried red chile peppers or dried chile flakes.
CHINESE RICE VINEGAR Rice vinegars tend to be lighter and sweeter than wine and fruit vinegars. Asian cooks generally use two types of rice vinegar: clear and black. If possible, use Japanese clear vinegar, which is generally of better quality than the Chinese brands. The black vinegar I recommend is the Chinkiang brand, imported from China.
substitution: Cider vinegar has a slightly different flavor but can be used in place of clear vinegar. Reduce the quantity by one-third. For black vinegar, substitute a slightly smaller amount of Worcestershire sauce.
COCONUT MILK Coconut milk is made by soaking freshly grated coconut in water and then squeezing out the liquid. Regular coconut milk tends to separate, with the cream rising to the top, so shake before using. Buy unsweetened coconut milk. Thai brands are usually reliable. I often substitute light coconut milk for regular. It will keep in the refrigerator for one week.
DRIED CHILE PEPPERS Dried chile peppers are available in a range of sizes in some supermarkets and in all Asian markets. Usually, the smaller the pepper, the more intense the heat. Store tightly wrapped in plastic bags.
substitution: Use a smaller amount of dried chile flakes.
DRIED CHINESE BLACK MUSHROOMS Dried black shiitake mushrooms are available in a variety of grades, with prices to match. The best and most expensive are those with the thickest caps. I usually use a medium grade with large, thick caps. Dried mushrooms will keep indefinitely tightly wrapped in plastic bags in the freezer. They may attract moths when stored in a pantry.
substitution: Dried Italian porcini mushrooms have a very different flavor, but they make an adequate substitute. Fresh shiitake mushrooms have a much milder taste than the dried version, and are not really an appropriate alternative.
FISH SAUCE An essential flavoring in Vietnamese and Thai cooking, where it is known as nuoc mam and nam pla, respectively. Choose a pale-colored Thai version such as the Squid brand. It will keep indefinitely on a shelf.
substitution: In some recipes, soy sauce may be substituted, but the flavor is not the same.
FIVE-SPICE POWDER This fragrant spice mixture varies with the manufacturer. The usual seasonings are star anise, powdered licorice root, cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorns, cloves, and fennel.
substitution: You can make your own five-spice powder by combining ¼ teaspoon each ground aniseed, ground coriander, ground cinnamon, and ground ginger, and ⅛ tea spoon freshly ground black pepper. In some recipes, allspice is an acceptable substitute.
HOISIN SAUCE Ground bean sauces, such as hoisin, are found in various forms all over China. They come in cans and jars and will keep indefinitely stored in the refrigerator.
substitution: In many dishes, hoisin and sweet bean sauce (available in a can) can be used interchangeably.
LEMONGRASS Lemongrass is a root used primarily as a flavoring in Southeast Asian cooking. Remove the dry outer leaves, and use as directed. You can freeze what’s left to preserve it.
substitution: Dried lemongrass that has been reconstituted in hot water can be used in some recipes. Otherwise, two or three strips of thin lemon peel, blanched to remove bitterness, is an acceptable alternative.
OILS These days I find myself using olive oil for almost all my cooking, except for Indian dishes, in which I use peanut oil or ghee. I like the flavor and health-giving properties of olive oil. (It helps to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and prevent heart disease.) I usually use virgin olive oil for frying and extra-virgin olive oil for dressings, pasta, and cold dishes.
Armando Manni is the founder and owner of Manni Oils, a very small company in Tuscany that makes what he calls a “live” oil, since it has a higher antioxidant and polyphenolic level than any other oil. Manni has some helpful tips about buying high-quality olive oil, which is best used sparingly in dressings, on pasta, and so on.
• Buy only oil bottled in very dark glass. Light increases the oxidation process and shortens the life of the “vital” components ponents of the oil.
• It’s preferable to buy oil with the harvest year on the label.
• Buy only oils with a “best before” date notice. Ideally, oil should be consumed soon after opening.
• Smell your oil. Don’t forget that olive oil is a fruit juice. If you are not able to detect any kind of aroma, chances are your oil is no longer live and no longer fresh.
OYSTER SAUCE Lustrous and rich, oyster sauce is a concentrated mixture made from fermented oysters, salt, and assorted seasonings. It is an especially appropriate seasoning for seafood and many vegetable dishes. Stored in the refrigerator, it will keep indefinitely.
RICE WINE OR SAKE Rice wine or yellow wine is the all-purpose Chinese wine that is used in cooking or consumed as a beverage. “Cooking” rice wine, which contains salt, is now widely available. For both cooking and drinking, I recommend Shaohsing, which can be purchased at Asian markets, or sake, which is commonly available where wine and spirits are sold.
substitution: A very good-quality dry sherry, Scotch, a dry white wine, or vermouth is appropriate.
SOY SAUCE Soy sauce is available in three grades: light, or low-sodium; medium, or all-purpose; and heavy, or dark. Light is generally reserved for cold sauces and dressings; medium is used for all types of cooking; and heavy is reserved for barbecuing or roasting. Japanese soy sauce, found in most supermarkets, is appropriate for all dishes.
TAMARIND Tamarind is available in different forms, but the most common is the dried pulp, which gives curries and other dishes a tart, sour flavor. Store dried tamarind pulp wrapped tightly in plastic in the refrigerator and it will keep for many months.
substitution: Although the flavor is not exactly the same, in some recipes several tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice may be substituted.
TOASTED SESAME OIL Asian sesame oil is made from roasted sesame seeds, and it is not interchangeable with the pressed sesame oil found in health food stores. Chinese and Japanese brands are preferable.
other basic items to have on hand (besides the obvious)
CANNED GOODS A can or two of whole, peeled plum tomatoes.
GRAINS A good selection of grains: I usually have both brown and white basmati (or jasmine) rice and some rice mixes, quick-cooking couscous, and quinoa on hand.
OLIVES Good-quality black olives.
PASTA Dried or fresh/frozen pasta (linguine or spaghettini) and a selection of Asian noodles such as soba (or buckwheat) noodles and Chinese or Thai rice stick noodles, sometimes labeled as rice vermicelli.
PEPPER Whole black peppercorns (so that I can grind my own pepper).
SALT Sea salt.
SPICES A good selection of herbs and spices: See “Dr. Jim Duke’s Herbal Farmacy” and “Key to Primary Indian Spices” for some suggestions.
VINEGAR Balsamic vinegar and red wine vinegar: I like to buy a fairly good, high-quality balsamic vinegar, and the same goes for red wine vinegar.
tips on storing herbs and spices
REFRIGERATE FRESH HERBS; they are best used the day they are bought, but you can store them upright with stems or roots in water in the fridge for several days. Or chop fresh herbs into a paste, adding a very small amount of olive oil, and store in a tightly sealed container in the freezer, where it will keep up to 6 months.
BURY GINGER (and galangal and other root herbs) in a pot of sand, and they will keep on your counter indefinitely.
WRAP SEASONINGS like curry leaves, fresh chile peppers, and lemongrass tightly in plastic wrap and store them in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
CHOP LEMONGRASS and store in the freezer. It will keep up to 6 months.
STORE WHOLE AND GROUND SPICES in airtight containers in a cool, dry cupboard or pantry away from heat, light, and moisture, which will lessen their quality. Whole spices will keep for 6 months or longer. Ground spices usually lose their pungency after 6 to 8 months. If unsure, smell the spice. Label spices with the date of purchase when you buy them.
Once opened, pastes, sauces, and other perishable items should be transferred to tightly sealed containers and stored in the refrigerator.
a word about organic and free-range
I highly recommend organic meats, fruits, and vegetables. They usually cost more, but they taste better. Organic farmers use natural methods for replenishing the nutrients in the soil. Better soil quality allows micronutrients to enrich fruits and vegetables, enhancing their flavor and nutritional value. Since farmers tend to leave fruits and vegetables longer on the vine to ripen naturally, their flavor is greatly increased. Recent preliminary evidence suggests that the levels of certain nutrients, especially vitamin C, some minerals, and some polyphenols (naturally occurring antioxidants that may help bolster the immune system) are higher in organically grown crops.
I also usually recommend buying free-range meats (ideally fed on grass), since they are raised free from hormones, antibiotics, and artificial growth enhancers. Because the animals also usually grow at their own rate, the flavor matures and increases.
a note about seafood
We have been bombarded recently with advisories against certain types of seafood, and it’s become very confusing. Some warnings have to do with unhealthy levels of toxins, others with scarcity and over-fishing. Seafood advisories vary depending on the source, and most authorities, including the FDA and EPA, advise pregnant or nursing women and young children to avoid shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel due to unhealthy levels of methylmercury. Cautious consumers may want to include canned and fresh tuna in that category. Conditions change and there are a number of Web sites you can consult, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium (www.mbayaq.org), SeaWeb (www.seaweb.org), and www.thefishlist.org. For a very accessible and practical guide I recommend “The Essential Eating Well Seafood Guide” (www.eatingwell.com).