Weird (and Not-So-Weird) Asian Ingredients

CATEGORIES: Informational Posts, Kate

As you probably know by now, Sara and I both love the fresh flavors of a lot of ethnic foods. And with ethnic foods, there often come a lot of questions and misconceptions. We decided that we, being the go-to girls that we are, would give you a run-down on some things you may find yourself cooking with. Or not cooking with, depending on how much you love fish sauce!

Cilantro. Cilantro is a common herb (especially where Sara and I are involved! Seriously, the cilantro people should pay US!) sold cheaply in bunches and found near the parsley. Now…I’ve found that people either love cilantro or they hate it. And a lot of people who hate it think it tastes like soap. If they don’t think it tastes like soap, they think it tastes like something gross and non-food-like–like shoes or pennies or rubber bands. I’ve heard that people who don’t think it tastes like food are allergic in some degree to cilantro and that it’s genetic; however, this is largely based off information I’ve retrieved from the Internet, which, as it turns out, is also a good place to learn how to identify and treat meningitis at home without a doctor or to find all sorts of sordid government conspiracies. If you really don’t like it, you can often replace it with parsley (or Italian parsley). It won’t be exactly the same, but if it were the same as cilantro, you haters probably wouldn’t want it!

Coconut milk and coconut cream. Coconut milk is simply the result of processing raw coconut and water. It’s slightly sweet (although no sweeteners are added), high in fat (unless you buy “light”), and adds tropical flair to sweet things like desserts, puddings, and pancakes as well as savory things like rice, Thai soups, curries, and noodle dishes.

When you open a can of coconut milk, there will be a thick, nearly-solid layer on top. This is the coconut cream. If a recipe calls for coconut cream, just skim this layer off; if it calls for coconut milk, give the can a good shake before you open it.

Also, these are different from cream of coconut. Cream of coconut is found in the liquor-fixins section of the grocery store. It’s very sweet and used in tropical drinks, alcoholic or not.

Fish Sauce. Fish sauce is the extract of fish with salt and water left to ferment in the sun. And I don’t mean to prejudice anyone here, but I really don’t like it. I’ve had countless people and cookbooks tell me that it doesn’t taste like fish (and I actually like fish, just not fermented ones), but I can always taste brewed fish juices. Especially since I was pregnant with my daughter, I’ve had a super-sniffer and I can smell the fish sauce in dishes at Asian restaurants. It doesn’t bother a lot of people, but I don’t like to cook with it. If you don’t like it or if you’re in a pinch, you can substitute soy sauce because both are brewed, salty sauces similar in color.

Galangal. Galangal is Asian (Thai) ginger; if you can’t find it, you can substitute regular ginger.

Hoisin Sauce. This is found in little jars in the Asian section of your regular grocery store. It’s made from fermented soybeans along with spices, vinegar, sugar, and garlic. It’s sweet and tangy and seems a little weird if you taste it by itself, but it’s fantastic in salad dressings or on pork chops.

Mung Bean Sprouts. You find these a lot in Asian food–you might even remember them from Chow Mein night when you were a kid. They’re long, skinny, semi-translucent, and a little bit crunchy. I love them in salads. You can find them with the other weird Asian produce (like fresh ginger and the funky mushrooms), usually in bags. When you get them home, wash them and keep them in an airtight container to prolong their little lives.

Oyster Sauce. Ditto back to fish sauce. I don’t like oyster sauce, either. In fact, I once threw out an entire recipe of sauce made primarily from oyster sauce because the person I got it from PROMISED me that oyster sauce didn’t taste like oysters. That was a big, fat lie. It’s a thick sauce made from dried oysters, salt, water, cornstarch, and caramel. I’ve often seen it on vegetable dishes at Chinese restaurants. And I stayed far, far away.

Rice Paper. These thin papers are used to wrap things like spring rolls. You moisten them individually in a plate of water for a few seconds so they become bendy and then you fill them and roll them. They’re very delicate and versatile and a perfect wrapper for veggie appetizers.

Rice Vinegar. This tastes a lot like traditional white vinegar, but it’s milder and slightly sweeter.

Sesame Oil. Sesame oil is a very strong-flavored oil made from toasted sesame seeds. You’ll recognize it as soon as you open the bottle and it gives your food that trademark Asian taste. A little goes a long, long way, so no need to get carried away here! Also, because it stretches so far, don’t be totally put off by the price tag (usually $3-$4 for a small bottle) because you will probably only use a teaspoon (if that) or so at a time. But if something calls for sesame oil, don’t leave it out unless you really, truly hate it or if you’re allergic!

Soy Sauce. More fermentation. I think there’s a theme here. Soy sauce is made from soy beans, salt, and water, fermented. I’ve mentioned this before, but I LOVE Aloha Shoyu soy sauce. It’s milder, tastes less salty, and is less ferment-y than your traditional soy sauce. When I lived in Utah, I could find it at the grocery store (Walmart, no less!), but where I live now, I can’t find it so I actually make Sara buy it and send it to me. If I didn’t now have to pay for my baggage to be checked, I’d totally bring an empty bag and load it up with soy sauce when I go to Utah in a few weeks.

Sriracha Chili Sauce. This is my Asian hot sauce of choice. You’ll often find it on tables of Thai or noodle restaurants and while it’s hot, it is vinegary, garlicky, and a little sweet and awesome for adding some heat and a lot of flavor to an otherwise bland dish.

There are lots and lots more interesting Asian ingredients, but these are what you’ll most likely encounter in day-to-day cooking. If you want to try some of these ingredients on for size, check out…

So talk to us–where do you get your favorite Chinese food? What’s your favorite–Thai, Japanese, Chinese, or Indian food? Asian fusion? Have you ever eaten something truly weird at an Asian restaurant (or in an Asian country)? Something you hated? Freaky Friday-like moment after you opened your fortune cookies? Who hates cilantro? Who likes sushi? Does Chinese food really taste better the next day?


  1. Ok I have to jump in here on a couple of things. First of all, in defense of oyster sauce. It is one of those things that if I smell it or taste it plain, I want to barf. BUT: my Chinese roommate always uses it and it does have a purpose! The trick is using the right amount. Somehow you can reach a balance where you get the flavor, but not the fishiness. She used to pan fry a bunch of broccoli and then put maybe a teaspoon of oyster sauce in the pan and toss it. It was wonderful! I was actually shocked when I found out it was oyster sauce. Since then, whenever I am making Asian dishes with meat, I throw a good tablespoon in the marinade. You really don’t taste the nasty part of it… weird, I know.

    My second point. Since Seattle is closer to China than Mountain Home, we have more Chinese poeople. This means we have A LOT of Chinese food. This means we have tried many Chinese restaurants and found THE BEST ONE. MANDARIN GARDEN ALL THE WAY!!!! hahahaha…

    Oh and Sara- I almost had hombow and bbq pork sticks last week when I was at Pike Place. I had planned all week for it, then I ended up eating at the Tower Club with dad (which of course, was also wonderful). By the time I got down to the market I was seriously contemplating buying some and taking them home. The only thing that stopped me was the giant bouquet of flowers in my one hand and a cup of gelato in the other! So I agree… if anyone is ever in Seattle and finds themselves wandering around Pike Place Market, go get some hombow!!

  2. The weirdest thing I ate a Chinese restaurant was chicken feet…and I actually did eat some of the skin off one! But never again 🙂 I also had some chrysanthemum tea at that same place.

  3. lol Heidi, I was reading that thinking, where’s she going with this? haha Also, I seriously hear from so many people that they can’t grow cilantro…as mentioned above, I’ve never had much success either.

    So here’s a great tip about the chipotle chilies- because I have the same problem. You only ever need a little bit and then you’re left with a whole can. So I pull out all the peppers, scrape out the seeds and then pop the peppers and the remaining sauce in my little mini-food processor (or you could just mash/slice them up) Then I just place it in teaspoon-fulls in an ice tray and pop it in the freezer. When they’re frozen I put them all in a ziplock and I have these great little pre-measured clumps. They freeze really well, and defrost super fast so when you need some for a recipe you can just grab however much you need.

  4. My mom used to be one of those “cilantro is soapy” people. I’ve since converted her. I’ve tried growing it to cut down on my cilantro tab at the grocery store, but have only had limited success. It’s a staple at our house, as is sriracha. I’ll have to try hoisin sauce – that sounds yummy. I second your opinion on nasty fish sauce. That’s one thing that I struggle with in Thai curries. Love Thai food, but if the fish sauce isn’t balanced just right, it overpowers and ruins the dish. I use soy sauce when I ake it at home.

    I want a good recipe for Massaman Curry. It’s my fave. I’ve come up with close approximations, but since I’m not great at writing things down, I can’t remember how I made it last time.

    My favorite ethnic spice is chipotle chili powder. I’ve used the canned chipotle chilis in adobo sauce, but a little goes a long way and then you’re stuck with the rest of the can to hurry up and use. I was delighted when I discovered the powder, and it’s a staple in my cooking.

  5. Golden Schmolden…whatever!

    You want honey garlic chicken like Golden Crown’s? We’ll have to bust out the deep fryer for that one. And for you, I am totally willing to do that. (And since we have it out, we may as well do a batch of doughnuts and maybe some onion rings, right??) I’m totally up for the challenge!

    I just had a good idea though Kate. We should do that and do a real copy-cat, deep fryer and all, and then a healthy version. Fun huh?

  6. Golden Crown in Mountain Home, ID IS the reigning champion of Chinese food…sorry Isaquah.

    I was going to throw a challenge out to the bestbite gals…do you think you guys could come up with a honey garlic chicken recipe?! That would be sweet…

  7. Oh, I forgot to mention if anyone else is in the Seattle area, there’s a little place in Issaquah called Mandarin Garden. Best Chinese food ever. (Even though my husband swears the best is in *his* hometown) They have THE best garlic chicken you’ve ever tasted. They’re these little garlic-infused deep fried mini-drumsticks served with fresh lemon wedges. My Dad has informed the family that he only wants those served at his funeral. Sadly, the excess consumption of garlic chicken drumsticks might be the *cause* of his funeral….lol, jk. But they’re that good!

  8. Being Polynesian, my experience w/ oyster sauce is this: IF used lightly to flavor the RIGHT dish, you should not be able to taste it at all! I hate hate hate oysters, but an authentic Hawaiian fried rice recipe will call for some oyster sauce for flavor. But don’t hate people until you try it, and if you do take the plunge, I recommend using less than what is called for, just so you don’t end up like Kate and throw your entire dish away!!!

  9. I cannot even believe that their was a time in my life when I didn’t love cilantro, but there was, when I was a kid and my Mom first made a fresh salsa with it. My goodness, I now buy it every few days (because Sara, the horticulturist, can’t seem to grow a decent one at home)! I have also come to really love hoisin sauce in the past few years and thanks to you Kate and your yummy Thai peanut noodles, Sriracha chili sauce too.

    My favorite Asian-y food, and don’t even ask me what region I’m even talking about here- is the little stand in Pike Place Market in Seattle. They’ve been there for as long as I can remember and they sell Hombows, which are these amazing sweet breads with crusty sugar on top and they’re filled with chicken or pork and all sorts of yummy things. I get one almost every time I go home!

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