12 basic ingredients for Chinese or Vietnamese cuisine

Asian grocery stores are a source of inviting aromas and spicy, sweet or sweet and sour flavours. Since not everyone lives near a fine food or Asian grocery store, we offer you some attractive alternatives. Today, many supermarkets have an Asian food section. Feel free to ask your grocer to add products to your store’s selection.

Water chestnuts

Water chestnuts are the bulb of a water plant in China. They add crunchy texture to a stir fry and to the stuffing of Chinese dumplings. They taste a bit like corn. Sold in cans, they are easily found in grocery stores. Once the can is opened, water chestnuts can be stored in water and keep about a week in the fridge if the water is changed regularly.

Lemos grass

Lemon grass provides this little taste of lemon that people love in Vietnamese or Thai dishes.  It is often confused with lemon balm, a lemon herb whose leaves resemble mint leaves. These are the chopped yellow rods that are used to flavour soups and Asian broths, lemon chicken and peanut chicken. If you enjoy Asian cuisine, a pot of lemon grass stored in water is a must in your fridge (it will keep for several months). Lemon grass can be replaced with a bit of lemon zest and fresh grated ginger.

Fresh coriander

This herb is great for those who love the smell of cilantro. Its small green, flat leaves look a bit like flat parsley. Its strong aroma goes well with Tonkin soups, salads, chicken and fish. Put the roots in water, like a bouquet of flowers, in the fridge. It handles freezing well when it is finely chopped, placed in ice cube trays and covered in water. Store frozen cubes in an airtight bag.

Star anise

Star anise is shaped like a star and tastes like anise and black licorice. Ground anise would be a good substitute. Ricardo uses star anise in, among others, his roast duck recipe. This spice is one part of a blend that is very popular in Asian cuisine: five-spice powder.


Asian food enthusiasts know how to recognize the freshness of this rhizome, which has nothing to do with the scent of ground ginger. The root should be peeled before being chopped or grated.  Select firm and plump ones and keep the root in the fridge’s vegetable crisper or in the freezer, either whole or already grated.

Sesame oil

Don’t confuse grilled sesame oil with classic sesame oil. The first is so fragrant that a drop is enough. This oil is often added after cooking in Chinese cuisine. Keep it in the fridge if you don’t use it that often. 

Dried chillies

Peppers give an unforgettable taste to many Asian dishes. Restaurants often indicate how hot each plate is on their menu. Be careful when handling peppers. Avoid touching your face and, if you like, wear gloves. A general rule holds that the smaller the pepper, the hotter it is. Dried peppers, crushed peppers and chilli peppers are good substitutes.

Hoisin sauce

This thick, brown sauce is very sweet. It is composed of soy, sugar, vinegar, garlic and spices. It serves as an accompaniment to roast duck and as a base for the sauce that accompanies Vietnamese pork brochettes.
It will keep for several months in the fridge after it is opened. It could be replaced by a mixture of plum sauce, soy sauce and cayenne pepper.

Soy sauce

This is an essential ingredient for salting Asian dishes. If you are keeping track of your salt intake, select a light soy sauce that contains 30 per cent less salt. You can also opt for the regular version and use it sparingly. Kikkoman brand soy sauce is among the best. Soy sauce lasts several months in the fridge after the bottle has been opened.

Rice vermicelli

Several kinds of noodles are used in Asian cuisine. Rice vermicelli is so thin that it cooks very quickly in salted boiling water, only one to two minutes. Drain and use immediately; otherwise it will stick.

Oyster sauce

This brown sauce is made of oysters, spices and salt but, surprisingly, it does not taste like fish. It is often used in vegetables dishes and in sauces. It will keep for several months in the fridge after it is opened.

Brigitte Coutu