Herbs and spices are the basis of Southeast Asian cooking, so it is a good idea to stock up your pantry with the different herbs and spices that are called into use all the time. Many of these ingredients can be easily found in your local Chinatowns and, often, even in local supermarkets.
This is just a basic list, and if you cannot find a particular herb for a recipe, do not worry. Just substitute it with whatever you have at hand and it will usually turn out great. By combining the different herbs and spices, meats and seafood can be transformed into an astounding culinary experience.
This is an absolute must-have item in a South-east Asian kitchen where vegetables are commonly stir-fried with chopped garlic. Bases and sauces for curries, too, often call for some amount of this versatile vegetable. Make sure your garlic is stored in an airy place.
There are 2 basic types of ginger – old ginger and young ginger. Young ginger looks fresh and a little pinkish at the joints. Old ginger has a rough and dirtier-looking skin, often looking like it needs a shower badly from the dirt and soil all over it.
Young ginger is often used in basic stir-fries, while the old ginger, with its more powerful taste, is added to heavy-duty dishes like stews. Gingers are also used in the preparation of curry bases and sauces.
In the picture of the ginger, the ginger on the left is the old one and the one on the right is the young ginger.
Onions can be sharp and tangy, yet sweet and mild. If you tear while peeling onions, soak them in tap water for about an hour before peeling. This will release the gases from the onions and peeling them will be a breeze. Onions are another important component of curry bases.
Chilies are pretty much a staple in many Southeast Asian cuisines. They contibute a spicy taste and lend a beautiful red color to the dish. Unfortunately, with mass production techniques, some fresh chilies have lost their spiciness. If this is the case, use some spicy chili powder to compensate.
These little onions are stronger and more pungent in taste compared to their larger cousins. These are very popular in Southeast Asian dishes.
You can make an excellent garnishing by slicing shallots thinly and frying them in hot oil till they turn crispy. Fried shallots are often used to enhance Southeast Asian dishes, especially fried rice, noodles and soups.
This herb has become very popular in the west in recent years. Peel off the outer layers of the lemon grass until you see the creamy bulb. If you are going to use this for a marinade by grinding or blending it up, use only the lower 2 inches (for a smaller stalk) or 3 inches (for a larger stalk). Remember to cut off the hard bit right at the bottom. This is usually just thrown away.
If you are going to use it whole in your cooking, for example in curries or soups, then you can use more of the lemon grass’ stalk. Take up to 5 inches of the stalk and bruise it with the back of a heavy knife. This helps to release its beautiful aroma.
This is one of Southeast Asia’s most colorful herbs. It gives out a vibrant orange color when cooked in dishes and is a great substitute for saffron.
Turmeric powder is easier to store compared with the fresh variety. When handling turmeric, be careful that it does not stain your countertop or your clothes.
8. Wild Ginger Flower Buds or Torch Ginger (Bunga Kantan)
The pink petals from this herb are used in Southeast Asian curries, stews and salads. If you have an excess of these herbs after cooking, just put them in plastic food bags and store them in the freezer. They usually keep for up to 3 months if they are properly sealed and frozen.
9. Kaffir Lime Leaves
These leaves release a wonderful citrus aroma when used in cooking. They may also be eaten raw, with the leaves thinly sliced. If you are using it in salads, first remove the hard middle stalk of the leaf.
10. Calamansi Lime
These small green limes give food an extra appetizing taste. It's juice is usually added to prawn paste chilly dip (sambal belachan) and curry noodles to bring out their taste. It is great in salads and makes an excellent refreshing lime drink.