15 Asian Groceries These Adoptees Use to Connect with Their Cultures

published May 14, 2022
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Behind the scenes of AAPI heritage shoot.
Credit: Photo: Andrew Bui; Food Stylist: Tyna Hoang; Prop Stylist: Casha Doemland

The way that you stock your pantry, fridge, and freezer likely has a lot to do with the way you grew up and the flavors you gravitate toward. But sometimes the ingredients you grow to love weren’t introduced to you as a kid, and discovering them later in life becomes that much more exciting. That’s what happened for the six Asian American adoptees featured in my AAPI heritage month package — we call ourselves the Adoptee Potluck Club — because we grew up on our white parents’ flavors (or lack thereof) and slowly discovered Asian ingredients and dishes over time. (Bonus: Two wonderful AAPI adoptees who work here at The Kitchn and Apartment Therapy Media recently joined the club, too!)

Below are 15 of the many grocery staples we always have on hand and what we use them for. Some of them make us feel more connected to our cultures, and others are just flavor-enhancing, texturally wonderful, or damn delicious. We hope that you try them out, too, and join our Adoptee Potluck Club from wherever you are in the world.

Credit: Amazon

1. Tempura Sauce

“I season everything at home with this sauce. This is the first sauce I fell in love with and realized that there’s more than just regular soy sauce. I still go back to it because it’s perfectly balanced, well-rounded, and has nuanced layers of flavor. When you add it to things, it’s not too salty. I add it to soup bases and stews and it’s really good with just buttery rice. I’ve been obsessed with it for years and even created a homemade version at Yangban. But this one is still my favorite to use at home.” — Katianna Hong, Korean American adoptee and chef-partner at Yangban Society in Los Angeles

Buy: Kikkoman Tempura Sauce, $14.90 for 3 (10-ounce) bottles

Credit: Amazon

2. Chicken Bouillon Powder

“I first used chicken bouillon for breading Korean fried chicken sandwiches in 2011 when I had a Korean pop-up. The chicken powder was the secret ingredient — I found it in some hacked KFC recipe online and realized it was that hard-to-pin-down fast food flavor I was looking for. That started my obsession with the chicken powder. With the chicken flavor and MSG, it adds a bit of oomph. I love to make instant noodles with boiled wontons or potstickers, and then add just a little water, chicken base, soy sauce, and sesame oil instead of eating a really big, brothy bowl of noodles. It hits the spot.” — Eric Ehler, Korean American adoptee and chef-owner of Outta Sight in San Francisco 

Buy: Totole Granulated Chicken Flavor Soup Base Mix, $9.91 for 1 pound

Credit: Asian Mart

3. Doenjang

“Doenjang is the Korean version of miso, a funky fermented soybean paste that is a wonderful base for soups and stews. But I’ve found myself reaching for it to add a little oomph to everything I make, whether that’s buttery noodles with a bunch of spinach wilted in for health, smothering a roast chicken with a doenjang-accented butter, or sneaking some into Korean-ish brown butter blondies to enhance the natural nuttiness of the dessert. It’s intensely savory and salty, but not overpowering if you use it in small doses. It complements other soy products, like soy sauce, kecap manis (aka sweet dark soy sauce), and tofu, too. There are versions with just soybeans and salt and others with onion, anchovy stock, and other funky fishy deliciousness. For baked goods, I prefer the less funky usually, but sometimes it’s fun to surprise people with that delightful mystery flavor.” — Alyse Whitney, Korean American adoptee and The Kitchn’s guest editor for AAPI heritage month

Buy: CHUNGJUNGONE Doenjang Paste, $5.99 at AsianMart

Credit: Vitacost

4. Chinese Hot Mustard

“Chinese hot mustard was the first pantry staple that I sought out after trying it at a restaurant. I was like, ‘This is mustard, right? It doesn’t taste like the mustard that I’m used to!’ but I liked it more. I realized the typical American yellow mustard wasn’t it. This has a much more nuanced, interesting, deeper flavor. I put it on anything I want a little more spice to. I’ll mix it in as a background flavor, and if it’s too spicy I’ll cut it with some vinegar. It’s mostly used mixed into any kind of bowl.“ — Aaron Nachmann, director, media operations at Apartment Therapy Media

Buy: KA-ME Hot Mustard, $2.84 for 7.25 ounces at Vitacost

Credit: Amazon

5. Lao Gan Ma Chili Crisp

“My love for chili crisp started with ramen — and then I started putting it on everything. After seeing it in the supermarket all the time and in my feed because I started to follow more AAPI creators, I had to try it. I bought the Lao Gan Ma and was scared of the spice level, but found it was way more savory than spicy. I also like Momofuku’s Chili Crunch. I make rice bowls every morning with hot dogs, bok choy, fried eggs, and chili crisp. I really put it on everything … except for Italian food.” — Andrea Kaufman, social media editor, The Kitchn

Buy: Lao Gan Ma Chili Crisp, $17.85 for 3 (7.41-ounce) jars

Credit: Trader Joe's

6. Frozen Soup Dumplings

“I love pre-packaged, prepared freezer items. I just love the convenience of things. I don’t like to cook for myself. I cook for other people and my wife, Bianca, but I have no joy in feeding myself. So when I have to feed myself, I find comfort in convenience. Not gonna lie — I’ve crushed many boxes of soup dumplings from Trader Joe’s, and they’re actually quite delicious. Living in a place where I can’t just get soup dumplings delivered to me like I used to when I was in New York City or walk down the street to many restaurants that serve them, I had to find a way to make them more accessible to me. Trader Joe’s freezer section did just that!” — Kristen Kish, chef-partner at Arlo Grey in Austin and co-host of Netflix’s upcoming Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend

Find in stores: Steamed Pork & Ginger Soup Dumplings, $3.49 at Trader Joe’s

Credit: Weee!

7. Dashi Powder

“I carry around dashi powder in my purse. Yes, the ones you’re supposed to make soup with — but I use it as a seasoning. On anything and everything. It is my favorite thing in the world. When a dish is bland, I throw it on. Fish stock onto salad? Done. White rice? Always. Buttered chicken breast? It was questionable but I still ate it. Pocket dashi should be a new thing.” — Leah Lewis, Chinese American adoptee and actress

Buy: Ajinomoto Hondashi Bonito Soup Stock, $4.99 for 4.23 ounces at Weee!

Credit: Weee!

8. Toasted Sesame Oil

“Toasted sesame oil makes everything better. I drizzle it on kimbap and rice and use it in everyday cooking. I’d like to learn how to make sundubu-jjigae, a spicy soft tofu stew which has sesame oil and gochugaru, Korean chili flakes, as the base seasoning.”— Nancy Pappas, Korean American adoptee and illustrator and designer

Buy: Kadoya Sesame Oil, $5.99 for 11 ounces at Weee!

Credit: Amazon

9. Hi-Chew Candy

“Gummy and chewy are my favorite candy textures. We have a gummy graveyard in the kitchen right now at my restaurant! Green apple is my favorite Hi-Chew flavor because I loved caramel apple suckers as a kid and I loved that awesome artificial flavor. I also love the soda pop ones that taste like Ramune soda … or lychee bubblegum. I am a big gift-giver, so now instead of bringing booze to the kitchen when visiting chefs, I bring a big bag of Asian snacks. It’s been a safer bet on dropping off a present, everyone gets so excited, it doesn’t cost as much, and it doesn’t interfere with anyone’s habits. Plus, the packaging is so fun. Asian snacks are the best gifts — especially mixed Hi-Chews.” —Eric Ehler

Buy: Hi-Chew Green Apple, $16.99 for 10 packs

Credit: Bossen

10. Taro Bubble Tea Powder

“I was drinking taro bubble tea so often that I had to start making my own. Why would I pay $8 for a boba when I can make it every single day for less? I boil some quick-cooking boba pearls and soak them in a mixture of brown coconut sugar and honey for 10 minutes. A little of that syrup goes in the base of the cup with the boba, then green tea and soy milk with the taro powder, and a little more syrup if it needs extra sweetness. It’s so good and surprisingly easy!” — Leah Lewis

Buy: Taro Bubble Tea Powder Mix, $12 at Bossen

Credit: Bachans

11. Bachan’s Japanese BBQ Sauce (Teriyaki Sauce)

“When I have no idea what to cook, I clean out my fridge and freezer and make an anything-goes stir-fry with aromatics, random vegetables dying in the crisper, frozen udon noodles — thawed in hot water instead of having to boil so they are extra springy — and a hefty drizzle of Bachan’s Japanese BBQ Sauce. This teriyaki sauce is thin in the bottle, but clings to noodles and glazes meat in a silky, glossy way. I make shortcut musubi bowls by crisping SPAM in a pan and adding Bachan’s, then mixing sesame oil and furikake into rice and adding the crispy glazed SPAM and a drizzle of Kewpie mayonnaise. The original flavor is my favorite, but yuzu is a close second — especially for seafood like salmon or shrimp.” — Alyse Whitney

Buy: Bachan’s Japanese BBQ Sauce, $8.99 for 17 ounces at World Market

Credit: Yamasa

12. Fish Cakes

“I always buy the thicker fish cake sheets and cut them up myself — not the cheap, papery ones. The little ‘cakes’ that you see vegetables studded inside are also great, and I’ll add some slices to soups, stews or also just sauté them quickly with any vegetables that I have laying around and need to use up. I usually season lightly with some soy sauce, sugar, toasted sesame seeds, sesame oil, and Korean chili flakes. It can be a nice side dish, quick snack, or a meal depending on what you add to the sauté!” — Katianna Hong

Credit: Walmart

13. Shin Ramyun Black Instant Noodles

“I grew up eating Maruchan and Top Ramen, but I have a very strong connection to Shin Ramyun Black from going to Korea. My friend Youngmi Mayer introduced me to it. I brought back 10 or 15 packs, and it was mind-blowing at the time. So spicy and incredible. I loved that I heard about its reputation first, saw it, brought it back, and got to watch people’s first reactions. I wish I could go full-on and drink all the soup, but I have to limit my sodium intake nowadays, so I dilute it but then crack the eggs in, add in the toppings, but cut the seasoning packet in half. Old me definitely full-on cured my tongue with all the salt and spice.” — Eric Ehler

Buy: Shin Ramyun Black Instant Noodles, $6.98 for 4 at Walmart

Credit: Amazon

14. Yondu Vegetable Umami

“This vegan seasoning is not as intense as regular soy so you can put a lot of it on everything. Yondu is interesting because it’s really light in color and a little thicker than normal soy sauce so it coats a little more on tofu. It actually adheres a bit; it’s viscous. It’s great on tofu with scallions and sesame oil! I usually have firm on hand but if I am not feeling well I tend to prefer soft tofu.” — Katianna Hong 

Buy: Yondu Vegetable Umami, $6.99 for 5.1 ounces

Credit: Amazon

15. Sesame-Roasted Seaweed Snacks

“Seaweed was a huge staple of my childhood. When we were in elementary school, we would deal in seaweed. Do you want the best seat at lunch? Do you want to be at the front of the tag line? Whoever has the seaweed snacks wins. People made fun of me for the smell but then they tried it and they wanted some under the table. I have to ration out my seaweed snacks. I like sesame oil best, but perilla or olive oil is also good. I buy the 24-packs and have to hide them — if I don’t catch myself, I could house the entire thing in one night. Seaweed is my ice cream because I’m not into sweets. I love the saltiness and it’s so satisfying to snack on.” — Leah Lewis