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What is essential for an Asian pantry?

I'm putting together a gift basket for my boyfriend's mom and her husband. The mom enjoys cooking and they like Asian food, but they tend to make mostly Italian/Canadian/European food at home. So, I thought it'd be nice to put together a basket full of Asian pantry items that they might not have easy access to in their small town, to give to them along with an Asian cookbook for Christmas.

I'd like to focus on Chinese, Thai, and Indian cuisines, as those are the ones they like best. For those of you who cook foods from these cuisines often, what do you consider essential pantry items to have on hand? (Of the 3, I'm most well-versed in Chinese, know a tiny bit about Thai, and am clueless when it comes to Indian.)

I'm looking for things like sauces, pastes, etc. that can be kept in the pantry to be easily combined with fresh vegetables and meats. They have basics like rice and soy sauce, and getting ginger, garlic, bean sprouts etc. is no problem.

So far, I have:

Sesame Oil
Chili Oil
Chili Garlic Paste
Fish Sauce
Sweet Chili Sauce
Rice Vinegar

Rice Stick noodles (pad thai style)

I am also considering:
Oyster Sauce
Pad Thai sauce (I don't think they'd want to mess w/ tamarind paste, etc)
Hoisin Sauce

I'm sure I'm missing lots, esp. in the Indian department. Any suggestions? The husband is trying to keep a low-sodium diet (which I know is not the easiest when it comes to Asian food), hence my emphasis on spicy flavours, but some salt is ok. Also, if you have a cookbook you love that covers these 3 cuisines, please let me know!

Thanks in advance!

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  1. Others to consider... things I use commonly, that a good cookbook will call for frequently, and that might be tricky to obtain:

    A good bottle of Shaoxing
    Fermented Black Beans
    Lap Cheong
    Sichuan Peppercorns
    Dark Soy Sauce
    Dried Chinese Mushrooms
    Chinkiang Vinegar

    Coconut milk has to be easy no matter where they are, right?
    Palm Sugar
    Canned Curry Pastes
    Shrimp Paste

    1 Reply
    1. re: Dmnkly

      To add to what Dmnkly has mentioned, Light Soy Sauce as well. Light soy sauce is for flavor, dark soy sauce is for color. Also, the finer Shaoxing has no added salt. Perhaps some Oyster Sauce as well.

    2. If I were you, I would not try to tackle the specifically Indian ingredients. South Asia has an incredibly varied and complex food culture, and if you don't know it well you're going to have a hard time figuring out what is essential.

      On the other hand, you could find an Indian grocery at a quiet time of day and ask the proprietor for advice.

      1 Reply
      1. re: jlafler

        Very good point...if you really want to cook Indian, it will depend on which region. And if you want to cook multi-regional, you have to have a whole lot of different things.

        1. In addition to other suggestions and to sichuan peppercorns, you might want to include some spices like star anise, cinnamon bark, five-spice powder, mustard seed, fenugreek, turmeric, cardamom pods, both black and green, coriander seed, cumin seed, a variety of dried chilies, and maybe a variety of dried mushrooms.

          1 Reply
          1. re: janniecooks

            Most Indian cooks have a small, round stainless steel container with a lot of little bowls inside. They keep the most common spices that they use in the little bowls. I think this would be a really cute presentation, and it's very likely you could find this container at your local Indian grocery store. Spices you could put in are cayenne pepper, cumin (ground and whole), mustard seeds, turmeric, etc.

          2. I would definitely include the hoisin and oyster sauces. I find that the stuff in the grocery stores is dreadful. Also are you including recipes for them? You might consider including several recipes and the ingredients used in them. I am very partial to black vinegar so I would also suggest that. If you are going to an Asian grocery why don't you throw in some exotic fresh ingredients like water chestnuts, thai basil, lemongrass etc. Sounds like a nice gift.

              1. What about finding a couple of their favorite recipes for each cuisine and what is needed for them? The list of "Asian" basics is extensive and they could go bad before they've had a chance to use them plus it could be overwhelming. But, if they had all the ingredients to make, say pad thai, it would be easy for them, with the recipe/cookbook. Indian, especially, you could spend a fortune on spices that might go unused. There are at least a dozen type of noodles alone that you could get.

                1. Those are among the top 5 cuisines I cook on a regular basis. What I find I turn to most often overlaps:

                  Light soy
                  Dark soy
                  Black vinegar
                  Rice vinegar
                  Sesame oil
                  Oyster sauce
                  Hoisin sauce
                  Fermented black bean
                  Dry red chilies
                  Szechuan peppercorns
                  Star anise
                  Wheat noodles

                  Thai (in addition to the above)
                  Maesri curry pastes (red, green, panang and tom yum)
                  Rice flour
                  Coconut milk
                  Rice noodles

                  Indian (in addition to the above)
                  Cinnamon sticks
                  Whole cloves
                  Ground cumin
                  Whole cumin
                  Whole cardamom
                  Garam masala
                  Tikka paste
                  Ginger garlic paste
                  Gram flour
                  Rose water

                  That's more than a beginner kit; that's a stocked larder. But with that you can make almost anything within each cuisine. Items that are missing should be available fresh at the market or can be substituted. As recommended above, giving an Indian spice rack as a gift might be a terrific presentation as well (though I find the traditional Western-style spice rack more useful than my father's ramshackle way of storing his various spices and masalas).

                  1. Low Sodium soy sauce.
                    Rice Flake noodles
                    fried prepackaged tofu, and reg tofu. Usually MUCH cheaper than reg grocery store
                    My favorite canned Curry so far is Maesri Red. I like their green too, but red has best flavor IMO
                    Stock up on Coconut milk if it's a good price, and if the market is far away.
                    Mushroom soy sauce
                    Basmati rice
                    good sushi rice
                    2nd 3rd or 4th on the shaoxing
                    Unseasoned Rice Vinegar
                    If you can find it, a jar of "holy basil sauce"
                    kefir lime leaf!!!!!!
                    wasabi powder if you like it
                    ichmi togarashi (hot red pepper and seasoning mix - great for sushi. tiny little three inch jar)

                    buy a few diff brands of Garam Masala (they should be dirt cheap.
                    Shan Spice Mixes. (try the chicken Handi, and Chana Masala*)
                    Jarred Coriander or Cilantro Chutney (bright green paste!!!)
                    Asefotedia (I use the powder)
                    Black Mustard Seeds
                    Methi (fenugreek)
                    Cardomom pods
                    red chili pods
                    fresh curry leaf!!!!!!!
                    Lime pickle
                    chili pickle
                    mango pickle
                    try some frozen samosa. I have not really found a good brand, but ya never know.
                    If it's an indian grocery store, they might have a few samosa, or vadi or other apps for you to try. TRY THEM!
                    Frozen paratha. I like paratha MUCH more than naan. Again, the grocer might sell fresh paratha/naan. TRY IT!
                    a block of paneer!
                    ground red chile
                    I LOVE stocking-restocking at the ethnic markets. It rejuvenates my interest in cooking new things.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: gordeaux

                      that's going to be one heavy gift basket. ;)

                    2. Thank you all for your excellent and helpful suggestions. Seems like Shiaoxing and black vinegar are musts! Curry pastes are another great idea, that way they won't have to dive head-first into the individual spices (although I think I will get them a few anyway... things like cumin, star anise, mustard seed, etc. have applications that aren't necessarily Asian, so they'd be useful. Plus those little bowls sound like they'd look great in a basket).

                      I'm still looking for a cookbook I like, but I think I'll also take the suggestion of including a few favourite recipes using the included ingredients, just to get them started.

                      RE: MSG... I thought about Maggi Sauce! But it seems like cheating... I was never allowed to use much of the stuff as a kid, though I loved how it tasted.

                      Good call on the lemongrass and thai basil too.... not too "exotic", but still possibly hard to get. The town has 2 big grocery stores, but I don't think I've ever seen lemongrass or thai basil there. They do have things like coconut milk and hoisin, though I think you're right to say that the brands won't be as good.

                      JungMann & Gordeaux, those are amazing lists! Lots of good basics in there too...I can only hope that my pantry is as well-stocked someday!

                      Thank you all again, and please feel free to keep the ideas coming. I'll report back in a week or so... hopefully they like the gift! :)

                      1. There is this old cook book floating around by Charmaine Solomon, The Complete Asian Cookbook. It has these lists for each country, plus recipes. I think that would be a nice gift, too.

                        For basic North Indian cooking (lets say Indo-Pakistani Uttar Pradesh/Punjab type), this very basic list is the bear bones that I use everyday, easily available at any North Indian grocer
                        I would get:

                        A baggy of whole garam masalas (there is already everything in there unground)
                        A box of nice quality garam masala powder such as Shan brand Zafarani Garam Masala (people say its blend is U.P./Dehli style garam masala, I quite like it---it is from Pakistan)
                        A baggy of whole cumin seeds
                        A baggy of whole Kashmiri dried red chilies
                        A container of Kashmiri red chilie powder
                        A container of ground cumin
                        A container of ground coriander
                        A container of turmeric
                        A tin of Amul brand ghee
                        A small sized bad of Tilda brand or some other nice brand Basmati rice
                        And maybe a pretty metal mortar and pestle for crushing fresh ingredients that will be required later.
                        I think the food tastes better if the garlic, ginger, green chilies, cilantro, and onions, and tomatoes are all fresh, but there are jars and bags of pastes for this stuff, too.

                        Good luck.

                        1. I didn't see it listed by anyone else, so I'll mention that a few popular items call for dried cloud ear or maybe wood ear, which is a different dried fungus item from the very important dried shitake/black Chinese mushroom. It is often in hot and sour soup and also a well know pork stir fry with "garlic" sauce. Oh, and sometimes white pepper is called for instead of black. Myself, I can taste the difference between the two.

                          1. The above lists are quite comprehensive. After scanning, I'm not sure if the following were included: pickled ginger, plum sauce, hot mustard, water chestnuts, dried shrimp, dried lily buds, black and white sesame seeds, canned bamboo shoots, galangal, palm sugar, tamarind paste, tapioca/cassave flour.

                            1. How about Tamari sauce, it's so goooood!

                              1. curious cat, what did you end up including.....and....do you need a "TARP" bailout? (oops, just realized you're in canada. the "TARP" bailout program is one in which the usa is giving $$$ away to anyone who asks <apparently!!> so, get in line. i had to throw out some spoiled food. i'm sure my TARP check is on the way!)

                                ps, lemongrass and thai basil are easy to grow in the summer.

                                and i'm with lucky fatima on the charmaine solomon book. http://www.alibris.com/booksearch?qwo... everyone should have a copy!

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: alkapal

                                  Whew, sorry for the late update! I decided to mainly focus on Chinese and Thai, as Indian was a bit too much for me to jump into with such little knowledge.

                                  I ended up getting:
                                  - Dark Soy Sauce
                                  - Black Vinegar
                                  - Sesame Oil
                                  - Xiaoshing
                                  - Oyster Sauce (no MSG!)
                                  - Hoisin Sauce
                                  - Chili Oil
                                  - Schezuan Peppercorns
                                  - Star Anise
                                  - Dried Chinese Mushrooms
                                  - White Pepper
                                  - Fish Sauce
                                  - Rice Vinegar
                                  - Sweet Chili Sauce
                                  - Chili & Garlic paste
                                  - Shrimp paste
                                  - Coriander
                                  - Ground Cumin
                                  - Coconut Milk
                                  - Keffir Lime Leaves
                                  - Thai Basil
                                  - Rice stick noodles & egg noodles
                                  - Gourmantra's Tandoori Chicken kit (a small Ontario company: http://www.gourmantra.com/
                                  )- Pad Thai Sauce
                                  - Various Thai/Malay instant curries (by Asian Home Gourmet... a total cheat, I know, but something to get their feet wet, so to speak)

                                  As I'd left myself so little time, I was limited to the cookbooks I could find at Chapters (Canada's answer to Barnes & Noble). I ended up buying "The Asian Kitchen: Fabulous Recipes from Every Corner of Asia" by Kong Ling (http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/books/A...).

                                  The book not only includes the 'major' cuisines you'd expect, but also less popular ones like Burmese, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese cooking. From what I could tell, the recipes looked authentic and tasty. The recipes are divided by country, and there was a helpful glossary/index of ingredients, along with a bit of writing about the culture of food & the main flavours of each country. Not so rich in terms of having many big glossy photos, but I think there's certainly enough to be enticing. In fact, I'm thinking of picking up a copy of myself.

                                  I put everything together on a big bamboo tray, and cello'd it up. It was *heavy*! But, the gift went over really really well. We tried out one of the curry packets while I was there, and my boyfriend's mom has reportedly made some Thai chicken soup with the basil, lime leaves, and coconut milk a couple days after we left. She seemed really into the cookbook too, so hopefully she's had a chance to try out some of the recipes.

                                  A BIG thank you to you all again for your input, this thread has been helpful beyond imagination. If the boyfriend and I end up getting married and his mom says complimentary things about me during the wedding, I'll do a quiet little toast to you Chowhounders! =


                                  (PS: No TARPS up here (not yet, anyway) but the Ontario gov't recently announced that anyone buying property as a primary residence can get a 'free' $10,000 loan (interest free) for the down payment if they qualify as a low-income household in the area of purchase. It doesn't appear *too* hard to qualify... the threshold in Toronto for example is $75,800! Now if only I made more than my graduate student salary... )

                                  1. re: CuriousCat

                                    curiuos cat, what a fabulous gift basket! you hit ALL the great basics -- plus, plus! i'd have been over the moon with such thoughtfulness -- and generosity.

                                    hope it works out -- in every way! ;-). ps, we chowhounds won't eat (too) much at your wedding reception....<unless it is me, near a tower of shrimp cocktail!>

                                2. My thought you should concentrate on one. Get a nice ornate vessel for a dressing or a bowl for made a sauce. get the sauces to make that dish and maybe to make something similar. Maybe a couple of nice Asian bowls to serve them in and print out your recipe for that dish on a card. And on the back side list what you included and different uses. Even a small little Asian cookbook would be fun to add. A small pack of spices just from the grocery store or asian market tucketed in a small silk wrapped baggie and tied to the basket. Buy a basket with a similar theme. I would not try to do all three. Toooooo Much for me.

                                    1. A jar of black bean garlic sauce; Lee Kum Kee is a reliable brand for this and a lot of other Asian ingredients that can be more easily found in grocery stores. (I know it's too late for the gift basket, but it's never too late for eggplant and tofu with black bean garlic sauce -- I had it in a restaurant and had to go home and try to duplicate it.) Also, lately I am keeping square won ton wrappers handy. I use them for everything from potstickers and ravioli to a substitute for a layer of lasagna noodles when I ran short last Sunday. I have to have toasted sesame oil, and I prefer jasmine or basmati brown rice to white --- nuttier flavor and more nutritious. Lately, I've been buying pre-sliced dried shiitakes. They go right in without soaking and are so much easier to deal with. Shelf-stable Japanese tofu in the little cartons --- I like the one flavored with miso. A jar of Chinese five spice powder is on the shelf, although it is a flavor I tire of easily. And I use furikake, a Japanese mix of dried shaved bonito, seaweed and sesame seeds to sprinkle on rice and everything. I got hooked when I had a half-Japanese roommate who also used bonito flakes and seaweed to make soup. Yum!

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: skamama

                                        good addition. agree on the lkk sauce.

                                        like idea if shelf-stable tofu, too. and the shiitakes.

                                      2. Someone bumped this old thread, but I'll add the list from Basic Asian, part of the Basic series by Silverback Books.

                                        For those who know almost nothing about Asian cuisine:
                                        Aromatic rice, sweet chile sauce, coconut milk, fish sauce, noodles for standard dishes such as Chinese egg noodles, palm sugar, rice vinegar, rice wine, sesame oil, all-purpose soy sauce, spices (coriander, cumin, turmeric, cloves, nutmeg, anise), tea for every day

                                        For those who want to know more, add:
                                        Basmatic rice, black bean sauce, cardamom, red curry paste, instant dashi, dried mushrooms, Japanese pickled ginger, kecap manis, red lentils, mango chutney, mirin, medium-dark miso paste, noodles for special dishes such as cellophane and rice noodles, nori sheets, oyster sauce, sambal, sesame seeds, Sichuan pepper, spring roll pastry, star anise, tamarind paste, Japanese tea, wasabi

                                        For Asian cooking fanatics, add:
                                        Black beans, Asian beer, chickpeas, green curry paste, five-spice powder, garam masala, hoisin sauce, light miso paste, noodles for fanatics such as udon and soba, rice paper, saffron, special soy sauce, sushi rice, compressed tamarind

                                        For completists who must learn absolutely everything, add:
                                        Red bean paste, yellow curry paste, Asian flour such as rice or chickpea, dried seafood, sticky rice, Asian wine

                                        I don't necessarily agree with the ordering, but I generally have a lot of what is on the list in my pantry. The main exceptions are items that are specifically Japanese or Indian.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. Wonderful gift lists!
                                          I'd add
                                          Green tea powder
                                          Spring roll sheets
                                          a bag of dried lycees or 1 can of lycee in syrup
                                          jar of pickled ginger
                                          Asian candies