Available fresh in spring and autumn in Australia, bamboo shoots are truly wonderful – there really is no comparison between fresh and tinned and I find that if you get them fresh and peel them back to the shoot, slice them finely and blanch them three times in boiling salt water, you rid them completely of the bitter flavour. Their texture and mild straw-like flavour is incomparable to that from a tin. However as it is not always possible to have fresh, then tinned is acceptable, as it adds a nice texture to stir fries, soups and braises. Just to be sure to wash them very well.
Bean paste and bean sauces
Bean paste is a seasoning made from fermented soy beans. It is also possible to buy prepared bean paste sauces. Made with salted yellow or black beans, these sauces impart body, as well as flavour, to stir-fries and stews. Hoisin sauce, for example, has a sweet garlic flavour that’s deep and mysterious. Generally used in stir-fries and as a dipping sauce for Peking or Szechuan Duck, it also makes a great sauce for oysters when mixed with sesame oil, sugar and soy sauce. My favourite variety is from Korea and is seasoned with chilli.
This is quite often called ‘false cinnamon’ or ‘Chinese cinnamon’ and many people actually just call it cinnamon. But the true cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka and Indonesia and this is the bark from the Laurel tree or Indian bay leaf tree. It is one of the main ingredients in Chinese red braising.
The fresh chillies used in this book are mostly the long red variety and the small, wild green chillies of Thailand, which are also known as ‘bird’s eye chillies’ or ‘heavenly rat droppings’. These chilli varieties have a wonderful immediate heat and citrus lime flavour. The dried chillies used are the red, papery ones sold in large bags in Asian food stores. Just remember, the more you crush chillies for a dressing – and the longer you leave it to stand – the hotter the dressing will become.
Chilli oil is made by steeping crushed flakes of dried red chillies in oil. It is usually red and sharp with heat, and is available from Asian food stores. Great to add to dressings and used in stir-fries to add fire.
Coconut cream and coconut milk
To make fresh coconut milk, chip away at the hard outer coconut shell with a cleaver and break the white flesh into smaller pieces for easier handling. Grate with a coconut grater (available in Chinatown), add about 2 cups of hot water and steep for 20 to 30 minutes. Strain through muslin or cheesecloth, squeezing hard to extract all the liquid. This is called the first pressing; the fat or cream that rises to the top is known as coconut cream. More hot water can be added to obtain second and third pressings, which can be used for poaching or curries.
Tinned coconut milk will never be as good as fresh coconut milk, but makes a reasonable substitute. To bring the stronger, more pervasive flavour of tinned coconut milk back into line with the fresh ingredient, dilute it with water. Open the tin (without shaking it beforehand!), scoop the firm top layer out into a bowl and then fill the tin back up to the top with water before pouring its contents into the bowl as well. Like dairy cream, coconut cream contains a large percentage of saturated fat. At high temperatures, it will split or separate into solids and oil, giving off a heavy coconut perfume.
These tiny dried shrimp should always have a nice pink to red colour and be quite soft. Do not buy brownish or rock-hard dried shrimp – they have been too long on the shelf and will have lost their flavour. Dried shrimp should be soaked in warm water for about 20 minutes and drained well before use. They are good in stir-fries and are also used to make chilli and sambal pastes. To caramelise dried shrimp, soak and drain well, then toss in a wok with a little palm sugar until brown and toffee-like. These are delicious sprinkled over salads.
Fermented black beans
These little beans are fermented and preserved in salt. They come in packets that often recommend rinsing before use. I actually find black beans more interesting and edgy as a flavour if not rinsed, but used directly in braises and stir-fries.
Fermented red bean curd
This pungent flavouring agent is made from bean curd cubes that have been fermented until they have a very gamey aroma.
This is the juice run-off from salted anchovies or squid. The best sauces come from Thailand and Vietnam and the best sauces are very highly prized and used for dipping sauces while the stronger sauces are used for cooking. Three Crab brand is one of the best, while Squid brand is a good all-rounder for cooking.
Five-spice powder is usually made from a mixture of cloves, cinnamon, star anise, fennel seeds and Szechuan peppercorns.
This is made from soya beans with a sweet, garlicky flavour. The texture is usually quite firm and jam-like and it is generally used in stir- fries or as a condiment with Peking or Szechuan duck.
Mirin is sake (Japanese rice wine) boiled with sugar. It is readily available from Asian and Japanese food stores, but sweet sherry can be used as a substitute.
Ideal in stir-fries and as an all-purpose seasoning, this sauce works well with seafood and meat as well as vegetables. Look for varieties labelled as ‘oyster sauce’ and not ‘oyster-flavoured sauce’.
A staple of South East Asia palm sugar has a wonderful dark, deep flavour reminiscent of golden syrup and there is no substitute in curries. It also makes a wonderful caramel and works very well in deserts
I serve jasmine rice with all my Asian dishes – even noodles! The best way to cook rice is in an electric rice cooker, so if you cook a lot of Asian food the investment is worthwhile. Do not salt rice: the sauces are salty enough and the rice, as a vehicle for the sauces, should have a natural, neutral flavour.
Rice wine vinegar
The one we use the most is Japanese vinegar, as it is generally much softer in acid than normal wine vinegars from Europe.
Sesame oil is one of the great flavours of China. Nutty and fragrant, it gives a lift to any dish when a few drops are added at the end of cooking. It can also be successfully used to make dressings.
Sesame seed paste
Chinese sesame seed paste is made from roasted sesame seeds and is a lot richer and darker than the Middle Eastern variety, tahini.
Shao xing Chinese wine is made from glutinous rice fermented with water. It has a delightful dark straw colour and a unique flavour. Shao xing is widely available in Asian food stores and some supermarkets, but dry sherry is a popular and adequate substitute.
There are three types of shrimp paste. They are belachen from Malaysia, fermented shrimp paste from Thailand and shrimp paste from China. Belachen is used in Malay and Indonesian cooking and is central to Nyonya cooking. The dark belachen blocks are usually sliced, grilled and crumbled before adding to dishes. Thai shrimp paste is much softer and more fragrant and adds pungent flavour to curries and soups. Chinese shrimp paste is pale and runnier and is used as dipping sauces and flavourings in stir fries and steamed dishes. Do not substitute one for the other as their flavours are very different. To make shrimp paste fragrant, wrap it in foil and grill for a few moments; if you want to be truly authentic, wrap it in a banana leaf.
Soy sauce is the fermented juice of soy beans and a staple of Chinese and Japanese cooking. Light soy, labelled ‘Superior Soy’, is used in most cooking and is saltier than dark soy. Dark soy, labelled ‘Soy Superior Sauce’, is used mostly for braising. It is much stronger and maltier, with a thick pouring consistency. Japanese soy is dark in colour, with an intense but clean flavour. Kecap manis is a rich soy sauce used in Indonesia and Malaysia; it is sweetened with palm sugar, and flavoured with star anise and garlic.
Buy spices whole and briefly toast them over a medium heat in a heavy-based pan to enhance their flavour and make them fragrant. If required, grind them in a spice or coffee grinder or crush in a mortar with a pestle. Their flavour and fragrance deteriorates over time so it is important to buy them fresh, in small quantities, and use them as soon as you can.
This eight-pointed seed pod is one of the most important components of five-spice powder, and a must for many Chinese braised dishes.
These are not peppercorns at all but little berries from a Chinese shrub. It gives your mouth a wonderful numbing sensation and is quite warming. When roasted with salt and made into ‘Szechuan salt & pepper’ it really gives roasted foods an incredible lift. It can also be sprinkled on wok-fried crisp dishes.
To make Szechuan salt and pepper, combine three parts sea salt and two parts Szechuan peppercorns. Roast over medium heat in a frypan or wok until the mixture starts to brown, remove from heat and, when cool, grind to a powder.
The tamarind tree bears fat, brown, sticky pods, from which tart juices are extracted and used as a souring agent in South-East Asian cooking. You will find tamarind pulp plastic-wrapped in bricks in concentrated form: break off a piece and soak in warm water for 20 minutes, before pushing through a sieve to collect the liquid. Tamarind is also available in prepacked liquid form.
The dried peel should be soaked in water before use and any pith that remains scraped off to remove bitterness. It is available in Asian food stores, but you can also dry strips of fresh zest from tangerines and mandarins in a low oven for a similar result.
Turmeric is a relative of ginger. It’s a rhizome with a wonderful deep orange centre. Once peeled (use gloves to prevent staining hands) it gives flavour and colour to many curries. It has a wonderful earthiness that almost reminds me sometimes of truffles. If possible it should only ever be used fresh.
The vinegar I use the most is Japanese rice wine vinegar, as it has a softer taste than most Western wine vinegars. Where a more complex flavour is required, I use Chinese black vinegar (or Chin Kiang), which has a rich taste reminiscent of balsamic vinegar, although it is less sweet. Chinese red vinegar gives a more subtle flavour, and coconut vinegar, made by fermenting coconut in water, is more delicate again.
These are becoming available fresh more and more in Australia and once you’ve eaten a fresh one it’s very difficult to go back to tinned. You simply have to peel the outside skin off and rinse under cold water and they’re ready to use. If you’re keeping them peeled overnight it’s best to keep them in a little bit of water with salt otherwise they ferment very quickly. They add a wonderful crunchy, starchy flavour and texture to stir-fries, soups and salads.
Yellow rock sugar
This is a crystallised mixture of sugar and honey, essential for red braised dishes. It is available from Asian food stores. Crush the larger crystals in a mortar with a pestle before use.