Asian Spices and Seasonings
Asian cuisine cannot all be lumped together into one culinary tradition and it can be very confusing to determine which spices and seasonings are used in each Asian culinary tradition.
Most of us are now familiar with the usual suspects such as hoisin, sesame, teriyaki, curry and more recently sambal, kimchi, various types of chilli sauces, and fish sauces that we keep in our spice cupboards.
Asian spices and seasonings allow us to incorporate the necessary ingredients to create the perfect balance of hot, aromatic, savoury and sweet blends to provide that well balanced Asian dish.
- Asian Spices and Seasonings
- Asian spices and seasonings by regions
- What is Umami?
- Southeast Asian Cuisine
- Japanese Cuisine spices & seasonings
- South Asian Cuisine seasonings & spices
- Korean Cuisine seasonings & spices
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Asian spices and seasonings by regions
If you don’t know anything about culinary traditions of all the Asian regions you can’t appreciate the subtle differences that go into cuisines such as Indian, Malaysian, Thai, Chinese, Japanese and other areas in the area.
You should also be aware of the role that religion and spirituality play within the various Asian and South Asian cuisines. Specific ingredients can be prohibited and various spice or seasoning blends are used for specific ingredients.
What is Umami?
Umami is the fifth taste alongside sour, sweet, bitter, and salty. Japanese scientists discovered this fifth flavour in the early 20th century and called it “umami,” which translates to “savoury”. It is often reached by including monosodium glutamate as an ingredient.
Chinese Cuisine Spices & seasonings
Chinese cuisine includes the increasingly popular Sichuan Cuisine which is influenced greatly by chile peppers, red chilli oil and Sichuan peppercorns. There are 9 fundamental spices and seasonings used in Chinese Cuisines.
Soy sauce is a foundational seasoning in most Chinese and other Asian cuisines. There are various types of soy sauce including dark, light, sweet and concentrated soy sauce.
Oyster sauce is made with oysters so if you are vegetarian or vegan or just don’t like the flavour of oysters you can use a mushroom flavoured oyster sauce. Used in a wide variety of dishes the only way to describe Oyster sauce is that it adds a umami flavour to dishes. It is a thick and somewhat sweet tasting sauce.
Doubanjiang is a must-have for creating Sichuan dishes it is a fermented spicy bean paste.
Shaoxing wine (or cooking wine, rice wine)
Shaoxing wine is a rice wine that is used to add a delicate flavour to the dish.
Generally speaking, Five Spice is a combination of Chinese cinnamon, fennel seed, star anise, and cloves. Depending on who blends the spice or what region it is used the fifth spice could be any of these spices ginger, white pepper, or Sichuan peppercorns. The spice is used for marinating and braising as it is quite a powerful flavour and smell.
Chinkiang vinegar looks like a soy sauce but it is tart and adds a rich flavour to dishes. It is used as a dumpling dipping sauce, in salad dressings and with dishes like cold spicy noodles.
Toasted sesame oil
Sesame oil adds a nutty flavour to the dishes. You can add a few drops to stir-fried dishes or noodle soups, but don’t try to cook with Sesame oil as it has a low burning point. Its flavour is best used after the dish is cooked.
Star anise is one of the central spices in Chinese cooking. It has a strong anise flavour, with a liquorice smell. The dominant flavour in Chinese five-spice powder, star anise is also used to flavour alcoholic drinks such as pastis.
Used in Cantonese cooking this is a spicy and tasty seafood sauce that is sort of like a relish with dried seafood, chillies, garlic oil and onions. It can be added to the ingredients or used as a condiment on the table.
What does Sichuan pepper taste like? This is a tough one it has a citrusy smell with a touch of pine tree and on your tongue, it has a numbing tingling sensation.
Southeast Asian Cuisine
Southeast Asia is composed of eleven countries Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
The common spices and herbs used in daily cooking throughout Southeast Asia – are items lemongrass, bird’s eye chilli peppers, galangal, Thai basil, kaffir lime leaves, torch ginger flower, Vietnamese mint leaves, coriander root, tamarind, pandan leaves, curry leaves and many more.
Typical sauces will include dark and light Soy, Sweet Soy or Kecap Manis, and of course a Fish Sauce.
Kecap manis is an Indonesian sweet soy sauce that has a similar consistency to ketchup. it’s a thick dark molasses-like sauce with palm sugar and soy sauce as its base and with the addition of aromatic spices for flavour. I first tasted it in some of my best friend’s Dutch Indonesian foods like Bambi and Nasi Goreng.
Sweet Soy Sauce
Sweet soy sauce is a sweetened aromatic soy sauce, originating in Indonesia, which has a darker colour, a viscous syrupy consistency and a molasses-like flavour due to the generous addition of palm sugar.
Thai basil has a lighter flavour than Italian basil and it holds up much better in cooking adding a slight spicey sort of liquorice like flavour.
Is a household plant that is used as a natural sweetener. The long leaves are cut crushed and mixed with water to make a paste that is often added to pastries. The leaves can also be used to wrap up marinated meats and veggies to put on the grill.
Don’t be confused yes it looks like ginger but it has a peppery, citrus flavour and is essential in Thai soups and curries.
Tamarind is a pod-like fruit with a rich tangy flavour which can often be bought in blocks or pureed. Mainly used with spicy ingredients to balance the flavour it is superb in fish dishes and a defining ingredient in Assam Laksa or Pad Thai.
Kaffir Lime fruit & Leaves
Kaffir lime has a strong citrus sour taste and the juice tastes like a combination of lime, lemon and mandarin orange. Kaffir lime leaves and juice are signature ingredients in Thai cuisine but like Bay, the leaves are removed before eating. The fruit is also sliced and served as a garnish in Malaysian stir-fries, curries, and squeezed for the fresh juice, mixed into the dish.
Invented during WWII for U.S. soldiers occupying the this is a combination of mashed bananas, vinegar and spices are widely used in Filipino cuisine today.
Also known as nam pla, fish sauce is the heart of Thai cooking. This sauce is made by fermenting fish. It has a pungent aroma and a salty taste that sort of catches in the back of your throat. It is used to brighten up salads, glass noodles and soups.
This sauce is now found in virtually every restaurant across the world but it is originally from Thailand. The American version is not considered authentic as it is considered a watery version of the authentic Thai Sriracha.
Saowanit lives in Si Racha a city on the Thai gulf coast is 71 and the grandchild of the original creator of Sriracha sauce says a proper Sriracha sauce needs to be what Thais call klom klom — the hotness, the sour, the sweet and the garlic all blending together seamlessly, none overpowering the other. The American version, she says, just brings the heat.
Japanese Cuisine spices & seasonings
Japanese cuisine incorporates a large amount of rice and some ingredients that are not as popular in Western cooking such as bamboo shoots, seaweed and lotus root.
In Japanese cuisine, it is a source of umami and a hearty texture. Kombu kelp seaweed is one of the most commonly utilised seaweeds in Japanese cuisine, as it is one of the main ingredients in dashi soup stock.
Miso is a fermented paste that’s made by adding a fermenting ingredient called koji that’s been cultivated from rice, barley, or soybeans.
This Is a seven spice pepper made with red pepper and Japanese sansho pepper, along with dried seaweed, ginger, and sesame.
Tonkatsu sauce is a thick and fruity brown sauce that is used as a condiment on katsu dishes and as a dipping sauce for kushikatsu (deep-fried skewered foods), or as an ingredient to make yakisoba (fried noodles). It is based on Worcestershire sauce using a blend of fruit, tamarind and spices.
Umeboshi is sour pickled Japanese plum paste that is used as a condiment or as a salad dressing ingredient.
Japanese mayonnaise is rather unique as it doesn’t use egg whites only the yolk so it makes for a richer mayo than Western style. It’s also got a very tangy blend of spices with a touch of msg.
Wasabi is the ubiquitous green stuff in the Western world used as a sushi topping. This however is usually horseradish with food colouring. In Japan, the Horseradish root is ground into a fresh paste that is used to season foods.
Beni shoga and gari are both types of pickled ginger used as garnishes and condiments in Japanese cooking. Beni shoga is julienned into matchsticks and bright red colour from being soaked in Plum Vinegar, and gari is thinly sliced lengthwise and is light pink.
Bonito flakes are made by shaving paper-thin pieces off dried Skipjack tuna. They are soaked in water to make an umami-rich dashi broth or used as a topping for a variety of dishes, including okonomiyaki, takoyaki.
Aonori is a finely powdered nori seaweed that is usually eaten with dishes such as yakisoba and okonomiyaki, or takoyaki along with Japanese mayonnaise, bonito fish flakes, and benishoga.
Furikake was created as a food supplement after WWII to add to the nutritional value of food rations. It is a salty condiment that is sprinkled on many foods from porridge to rice. Common ingredients include fried fish, dehydrated egg, shrimp, nori seaweed, ume plum, and shiso herb.
A condiment of yuzu citrus peel and juice ground together with green chillies and salt.
Sansho pepper is a pepper used to season grilled foods like eel and yakitori. It’s made from a small green peppercorn that has a sharp tingly spiciness with a citrusy flavour.
Tamari is produced in the Chubu region of Japan. It is brown and has a salty taste which is prepared by fermenting soybeans. Tamari works best with rice and chicken. It gives food an overall umami flavour and a beautiful brown colour.
South Asian Cuisine seasonings & spices
Includes the countries of India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka; Afghanistan and the Maldives are often considered part of South Asia as well.
Indian cuisine uses far more spice and seasoning ingredients than Western chefs including some exotic spices and seasonings such as Asafetida, saffron and garam masala. Common spices that most people are aware of are cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, fennel, fenugreek and ground coriander. No great Indian cook would use a pre-made curry powder.
It was the British who attempted to simplify the method of combining different types of spices that went into making an Indian dish, their solution was to select the most popularly used spices in Indian cooking and make it into a pre-blended spice mix.
The types of condiments used in Indian cuisine are dominantly chutneys. There are many combinations of spicy and sweet condiments. You can prepare it as smooth and creamy or thick and chunky. There are also several condiments that are yoghurt-based which of course help with soothing the fiery heat of the chillies used in Indian cooking and of course pickles.
The major difference between north Indian and authentic Pakistani food is about the spices, Pakistani food is expected to be spicier than Indian food and recipes are more meat-based including mutton and beef. Beef of course is not allowed for Hindus as the cow is a sacred animal.
Nepali food is predominantly a combination of locally sourced ingredients, exotic flavours and varied cooking styles brought in from India, Tibet, and China. Nepali cuisine is closest to Indian cuisine due to similar cooking styles and the availability of common ingredients.
You have probably heard of or even tasted Nepalese Momo’s which are a dumpling these are usually served with the 3 traditional Nepali momo sauces which are: momo ko achaar, which is a classic; jhol achaar, which is the perfect blend of soupy and sour; and finally, the nontraditional, very spicy sauce of C momo, where ‘C’ stands for chilli.
Momo ko achaar
The main ingredient for these sauces is tomatoes, but each sauce has a magical secret ingredient. Momo ko achaar includes fried soybeans and sesame seeds both ground to a fine paste.
Jhol momo used momo ko achaar as a base and added to that is a fruit only found in Nepal called lapsi. Lapsi is native to the region and is sometimes called a Hog Plum.
If you adore some heat ‘C’ momo is the perfect condiment for your momos. Added to a base of Momo ko achaar are green chillies, chilli powder, chilli sauce, ketchup and soy sauce.
Asafoetida is used in savoury dishes, it does have an unfortunate smell but it is used in India in dals and vegetable dishes. It gives a faint flavour of onions, garlic and eggs and adds a meaty flavour to dishes.
Coriander Seeds and powder
The seed of the Coriander plant but with a distinctly different taste and used in many south Asian dishes. Coriander seed has a fresh lemony flavour unlike the soapiness sometimes attributed to the leaves which of course are also known as cilantro.
You simply can’t have a curry without mustard seed and in particular brown mustard seed. The seeds are simply sautéed in oil to bring out that distinctive flavour and they are used in many more dishes than curry.
Amchur Powder – Mango Powder
This sour and tangy powder is made from dried mangos and is used to add a sour note to recipes.
This is a seed that looks similar to cumin but smells like thyme and the flavour is more anise mixed with oregano.
The basic spice of all Indian cupboards is Garam masala the spices used in the masala spice blend are usually toasted whole before being ground to release the deeper flavours and aromas. The word masala means spices and generally, the blend will include Coriander, Cumin, Black Cardamom, Cloves, Black pepper, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, and Bay Leaf. Each family cook has their own personal Masala blend.
Chutneys are the common condiment throughout South Asia and some favourites are Coriander Chutney, Mango Chutney, Coconut Chutney and Lime Chutney. Originally chutneys were created as a way of preserving fruits and vegetables and over time they became a way to provide balance to an array of dishes or highlight a specific flavour in a dish.
Korean Cuisine seasonings & spices
Korean food can be very spicy and the basic ingredients that are essential to Korean food are of course soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, ginger and the national favourite Kochujang a Korean chilli paste and Kaenjang a soybean paste. Recipes can also include anchovies, fermented soybean paste and kelp.
Gochujang – Hot pepper paste
Gochujang, a fundamental ingredient in Korean cooking, is a thick and spicy-sweet deep red paste made from red chile pepper flakes, glutinous rice (also known as sticky rice), fermented soybeans, and salt. It is currently Jamie Oliver’s favourite condiment.
Gochugaru – Hot pepper flakes
Traditionally made from sun-dried Korean red chilli peppers gochugaru pepper is very hot with a sweet, spicy smoky flavour.
Doenjang – Fermented soybean paste
Similar to miso in its flavour traditional doenjang is made only with soybeans and salt. Miso tends to be quite smooth but doenjang is usually chunkier.
Dashima – Kelp
In Japan, they call it kombu and in Korea, it is known as dashima. This is a very important ingredient for the broth in a Korean recipe and adds that distinctive umami flavour.
As you can see there are a lot of variations in Asian spices and seasonings depending on the region you are visiting. This guide will give you an idea of what you are tasting and also what you can purchase for your own spice pantry.