Your essential Asian pantry staples

By TASTE, 6 July 2016

Asian food is all about the four key flavours: salt, sweet, spice (heat) and sour. Here’s how to strike the balance and master the basics.

Sure, you're not going to sweat over home-made dim sum, but how about a fragrant green chicken curry? Or a pot of blistering Indian lamb? And when last did you make a stir-fry you were proud of? We break down the elements of excellent Asian cooking. Let's get experimental!

How to strike the right flavour balance in Asian cooking

1 In a spicy dish, start with the hottest ingredients such as crushed chillies, then add salty ingredients like soya and fish sauce, followed by sour lime juice or rice vinegar. Then taste the dish to see which hits you first – the salt or the acid – and add more of the other until you are happy with the balance. Lastly, slowly add the sweet ingredients, such as sugar and coconut, to intensify the sauce.

2 Salt enhances sweetness and suppresses bitterness, so if a dish is too salty, add sugar or lime or lemon juice. Add more salt if you want to increase sweetness. This can work in Western cooking too – think salted caramel.

3 Very hot chilli needs more salt and sour to balance the heat, “what Thais call a rounded taste,” says David Thompson of Nahm in London and Bangkok. Peanuts are also used to balance spice in Asian cooking.

4 Shrimp paste adds salt and umami, a different “funkier” layer, especially in Thai curries. If you don’t have shrimp paste you can use fish sauce.

5 Sweet sauces work well with grilled chicken or pork.

6 Lime and chilli are a good match for fried fish and seafood.

7 Finally, be aware of taste saturation: the more you sample a dish, the more you become accustomed to the taste, so regularly cleanse your palate with glugs of water.

Sour Asian pantry staples

Vinegar, tamarind, citrus and pickles are the lip-puckering components that balance spice and sweetness in a dish, which is why the sourness of a squeeze of lime or a dollop of yoghurt is the perfect way to balance a Thai or Indian curry.
View your sour ingredients list here

Salty Asian pantry staples

When cooking Asian, step away from that box of Maldon. Intensely salty ingredients such as fish sauce, miso, shrimp paste and soya sauce are used as seasoning and to add depth of flavour.
View your salty ingredients list here

Sweet Asian pantry staples

Coconut sugar, plum sauce and sweet rice wine (mirin) are often used to balance sal and citrus flavours in Asian cooking, which is why, once you start eating that bowl of sweet-and-sour pork, it's difficult to stop...
View your sweet ingredients list here

Spicy Asian pantry staples

Finally, fire up that flavour profile with pungent ingredients such as pepper, wasabi and chilli.
View your spicy ingredients list here


Article by TASTE

The TASTE team is a happy bunch of keen cooks and writers, always on the look out for the next food trend or the next piece of cake.
View all articles
Load more