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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:

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

    Thai:
    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.