What You’re Missing: The Essential Secret Ingredients of 5 Asian Cuisines

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Have you ever tried to recreate a Thai, Indian, or Vietnamese dish from a restaurant and just had it… fall flat? Have you ever wondered how to get a Chinese stir-fry to really sing in the kitchen? Every cuisine has its “secret” ingredients — the ones that turn a dish from a weak imitation to the real deal. These are often the ingredients that are a little harder to find, or less familiar to Western cooks. Here are some thoughts on the secret ingredients of five Asian cuisines.

Here are five cuisines I’ve worked to learn, at least a little, in the last few years, and some of the ingredients that gave my dishes a big boost from bland to interesting.

I’m sure, though, that you have other thoughts and opinions on the “secret” ingredients of each of these cuisines… and more! Do share below!

Chinese (Sichuan)
• What you’re missing: Sichuan pepper & chili oil
Sichuan (Szechuan) pepper is one of the key ingredients in Sichuan cooking. It’s not a true pepper; it’s really like a little dried flower bud, and it gives Sichuan dishes their characteristic ma la flavor — a tingling, numbing spiciness, instead of straight heat. Chili oil is what brings the heat, and it’s also a very standard ingredient in Sichuan cooking.

• What you’re missing: Thai basil & sugar
Balance is key in all cooking, but Thai cooking is built on an especially careful balance between sweet, salty, hot, and sour. A pinch of sugar can smooth out rough edges and bring a dish together. And true Thai basil, with its licorice freshness, when used in copious quantities adds a wild edge of authenticity to noodle dishes.

• What you’re missing: Fish sauce & fermented shrimp paste
Vietnamese cooking also depends on a balance of sweet, sour, and salty, although the end result often tastes more delicate than the robust Thai foods. But the key, I find, to good Vietnamese food, is remembering there is also a funky edge to much of it, which is added by fish sauce and fermented shrimp or fish paste (also very important in Malaysian and Indonesian cooking).

Indian (Southern)
• What you’re missing: Tamarind & fennel seed
South Indian cooking has big flavors, but it doesn’t get those from meat or cream as much of it is vegetarian and vegan. Like in other regions of India, this flavor comes from spices fried in oil, but I find that fennel seed is especially important in South Indian cooking. Its sweetness and aromatic qualities can really fill out a dish. And tamarind is also an authentic ingredient with its sour sharpness — it’s so powerful, you really can’t substitute anything else when it’s called for in soups and sauces.

• What you’re missing: Galangal and lemongrass
Galangal is similar to ginger, but it has a sharper, more citrus-centered taste, and it adds a flair to Indonesian and Malaysian curries. It’s familiar yet exotic, in the way it tastes like ginger yet… not quite the same. Lemongrass is another pungent, aromatic ingredient that has its own quality.

OK, your turn! What do you think are the secret ingredients of Asian cuisines? What takes a Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Malaysian, Pakistani — or any other Asian dish — over the top?

(Image: Faith Durand)