Orient Yourself to the Flavor Secrets of the Far East
How could so many remarkable creations be developed from two simple Asian staples – rice and noodles? The region’s fine chefs have long harnessed the flavor wallop of fermenting everything from fish to soybeans. They long ago unlocked the secrets of the region’s special spices and herbs – and how to use them to enhance their cookery. Here are some of the most time-honored and indispensable flavor enhancers from the Far East, and some trends.
This all-purpose flavor tonic fermented from soybeans has been used throughout Asia for centuries. It is the perfect dip for sushi/sashimi, egg rolls, spring rolls, etc., and, it’s the go-to enhancement for stir fries, rice dishes and noodle bowls. It is perhaps one of Asia’s most important contributions to the worldwide pantry.
Fermented from anchovies (or an alternative fish), salt and water, fish sauce has an intense salty flavor. It is used across the region as a seasoning and an ingredient. Fish sauce is often used in Korean kimchi and has many other applications where strong flavor is desired.
Chinese Five-Spice Powder
This mix, usually of star anise, cloves, cinnamon, pepper and fennel seeds is used as an all-purpose seasoning in many Asian dishes.
A root vegetable also known as Japanese horseradish, wasabi is believed to have health benefits. It is used as a condiment in most sushi/sashimi restaurants. Its pleasing green color and creamy texture make it appear benign, but too much of this good thing will definitely jolt the senses. It is often paired with soy sauce and fresh ginger to cut the heat.
Highly valued throughout Asia, young fresh root ginger is an aromatic addition to many dishes, and is often served shaved alongside sushi/sashimi. Dried root ginger is used as a pickling spice. Ginger is believed to have medicinal benefits.
While some chili varieties are indigenous to Asia, many made the journey from the Americas. Varieties are chosen by how much heat and flavor are wanted. Chilis are used as an ingredient and made into oil, paste and powder for different applications. In Korean cooking, for example, the making of Bibimbap, one of the country’s signature dishes, requires either Kochujang (chili pepper paste) and/or Kochukaru (chili pepper powder).
Although it closely resembles spring onions, lemongrass is actually a bulbous herb in the grass family that imparts intense lemon flavor. The lower bulb portion is used as an ingredient in many Asian dishes. The stem portion is used to flavor soups and sauces, but is removed before serving. Lemongrass enhances the flavor of chicken, fish, seafood and beef.
A Few Additional Asian Secrets Gone Mainstream
- Star Anise – star-shaped fruit of Asian evergreen tea. Infuses licorice flavor.
- Turmeric – related to ginger, but without the heat. Adds musky flavor and rich color.
- Plum Sauce – sweet and sour dipper for dim sum, made from plum juice, sugar, salt and vinegar.
- Hoisin Sauce – dark, thick sauce with sweet and salty taste used to glaze foods and for dipping.
- Rice Vinegar – used to balance flavors.
- Dashi – this broth, made from kombu (Japanese seaweed) and dried bonito fish flakes, is the basis for miso and other soups.
- Matcha – tea used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. Its finely ground powder is used as a flavoring and dye for soba noodles, in green tea ice cream, Japanese confections and more.