Ingredient Information and Buying Guide

This page includes information on what some specialty ingredients are, things to look for when buying these ingredients, and sometimes storage information. In general, specialty markets that specialize in the particular ethnic cooking that uses that ingredient are a good place to look for them. Some ingredients may also be found in gourmet stores, and sometimes regular American grocery stores stock ethnic ingredients that are commonly used in the US.

For information on where to buy some of these ingredients in the Bay Area see my "Bay Area Sources for Ingredients" page.

Chinese

Sichuan peppercorn: A spice that numbs the tongue; also has a citrusy aroma. There are two colors: green and red.

Red sichuan peppercorns are often found at Chinese markets. Some specialty spice stores may also stock this. The red ones have an intensely floral and peppery fragrance but very little of the “numbing” effect.

Green sichuan peppercorns are difficult to find in the US. I bought mine online from posharpstore.com; delivery does add on to the cost, but so far this is one of the few places that I've seen this ingredient available. Green sichuan peppercorns are not well known in the US; many recipe writers don't distinguish between the two colors because they don't know that the green ones exist. The green ones have a more powerful “numbing” sensation on your tongue (called “ma” in Chinese).

The red and green ones are usually used together in Sichuan cuisine to achieve balance (ladyandpups.com).

Hawaiian

Alaea Sea Salt: sea salt mixed with alaea (baked Hawaiian red clay) (wiki).

Alaea sea salt is traditionally used in some Hawaiian foods such as kalua pork, but you can substitute any nearly type of the salt. Substitute an equal weight of salt (not an equal volume) since types of salt differ in how salty they are by volume due to the salt crystal shape and grain size (see here). For example, for 3-2/3 pounds of meat you could replace 1 Tbsp + 1 tsp (26 g) medium-grained Alaea Hawaiian salt with 2 Tbsp 1 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt since it also weighs 26 grams.

'Inamona: roasted, ground and sometimes salted kukai nut. Often used in traditional poke, though not all pokes include this ingredient.

This video on "How to Make Inamona" says that prepared 'inamona can be stored for a long time in the freezer. The video also shows that preparing 'Inamona is a long process takes several months since it needs to be dried and roasted, so you probably want to buy this ingredient pre-pared. It can be difficult to find; look in Hawaiian markets. "Sam Choy's Little Hawaiian Poke Cookbook" says that it can be replaced with roasted and ground cashew nuts (I haven't tried this). Since it has a mild flavor and a poke doesn't have to include this to be called a poke, I think this ingredient can also be left out of poke.


Ogo: seaweed

Store in a covered dark area for up to five days. Don't store imersed in fresh water (it reduces shelf life and nutritional benefits). Only rinse or prepare just before use. See specialtyproduce.com for more information.

Markets that stock Hawaiian products sometimes have some in the frozen section; if you are really luckily they might have some fresh ogo imported from Hawaii. Carlsbad Aquafarms has begun growing this in California, though I haven't been able to buy any from them yet (apparently available at the Santa Monica farmer's market).

Japanese

Nori: Dried seaweed pressed into thin sheets.

Nori comes in several levels of crispiness. Some items are particularly suited to certain crispiness levels. For example, less crispy nori is generally stronger and is best for onigiri (rice balls) and futo-maki (thick sushi rolls). Handrolls are best when they are made from the most crispy and tender nori. The crispiness and recommended usages is often (but not always) indicated on the package, especially if the package is from Japan. Choose the nori whose crispiness indicator closely matches what you want to make. If there is no text which indicates crispiness, choose a package which has a picture closest to what you want to make, since the packages usually depict what it is best suited for.

For the Japanese, even the location that the seaweed is from is important. For handroll nori, one of the places that Hiroko Shimbo recommends is Ariake Bay in Japan, which is the type shown below.

Hiroko Shimbo recommends buying small packages of nori with only 10 sheets rather than the bulk packages, since the nori loses its crispness once the package is opened, even if you keep it tightly sealed.

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Konbu (kelp):

Kidaka konbu is a reasonably prices all-purpose kelp. Packages that are labeled "dashi konbu" are usually Kidaka; this is the thinnest variety. Ma is particularly rich (it is especially liked in Osaka and Kyoto). Rausu is gives a meaty flavor to broth and very really broad. Rishiri is used to make clear stocks. See here for more information on the types of kelp.

Rice (for sushi):

The single most important thing for making sushi rice is to use a short grain Japanese style rice and to make sure you cook it correctly. Japanese rice is generally one of two varieties: sasanishiki or koshihikari. Koshihikari has many subtypes, including hitomebore, akitakomachi, hae-nuki, hi-no-hikari, kirara, tama-nishiki, kagayaki, and tamaki-mai; often koshihikari will be identified by only its subtype. Preferably buy a rice grown in Japan or California. I generally use either a akitakomachi grown in Japan or "Tamaki Gold" brand koshihikari rice grown in California. So far I've been happy with these three brands:


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Rice Vinegar:

"Jun-komezu", which means pure rice vinegar, is recommended for use in making sushi. It should have a golden color, and should be made only from rice and possibly water. Do not use ordinary komezu for sushi rice, since it is made from a combination of rice and other grains (i.e. it is a mixture of rice and grain vinegar); jun-komezu has a richer flavor and aroma. It is okay to use grain vinegar for rinsing and curing fish, and moistening the chef's hands. Also don't buy sushizu, which is a ready made sushi dressing that has vinegar, sugar, and salt; you can easily mix your own, and mixing your own allows you to use the amount of sugar and salt you like.

Mirin:

Buy hon-mirin (“real” mirin, 本味醂). It should have an alcohol content of 8% to 14%. For more information see here and here.

Salmon, raw: Often eaten as sushi.

Always make sure that you buy sushi fish that has been properly handled for sushi (e.g. fish that has been instantly killed with little stress, hygienically gutted, bled, and immediately cooled or frozen) if you want to eat it raw. Fresh does not mean that it is safe for sushi because it could have been hours after it was taken from the water before it was cooled. Sushi as we know it--that is with raw fish--didn't start in Japan until after WWII, when there were refrigerators and freezers which were able to safely preserve and transport raw fish. Many Japanese markets have sushi fish cut for sashimi; they are usually packaged in little Styrofoam trays with a liner underneath to absorb moisture and are kept in a separate refrigerator case from the fish meant to be cooked. Most American seafood markets don't carry sushi fish and even if they do the texture is often tougher and difficult to chew; ask the fishmonger if the fish you are buying is safe to eat raw and go to a seafood market that you trust because if it hasn't been handled correctly (i.e. not kept cold or frozen) than it isn't sushi quality anymore. It is especially important that salmon has been correctly handled for sushi since salmon (especially wild salmon) is often infested with fresh water parasites that will sicken humans (farmed salmon has a lower chance of parasites). Sushi salmon always under goes a special deep freezing stage in order to kill parasites (your home freezer is not cold enough). Do not eat raw salmon that hasn't been deep frozen for use as sushi, so do ask your salmon is safe to eat raw. (For more information see this wikipedia article on raw fish).

Soy Sauce (shoyu):

In "The Sushi Experience", Hiroko Shimbo suggests using shoyu from Japan, not the US because the Japanese ones have a better flavor. She says that glass bottles preserve soy sauce better than plastic. Look for soy sauce that has no alcohol or sweeteners. Look for the word marudaizu on the soy sauce package--it means whole soybeans (some soy sauce is made from defatted soy beans, left over from soybean oil production). Yuuki means organic.

Koikuchi means ordinary (regular) shoyu. Usukuchi is light colored soy sauce. Usukuchi is used when cooking light colored foods which would be stained by regular shoyu; it is often used in Kyoto cusine. Usukuchi is saltier than regular soy sauce--generally 18-19% of its volume is salt, whereas koicuhi is usually around 16%.

See here for more information about types of Japanese soy sauces.

Tonkatsu Sauce and Okonomiyaki sauce:

Bulldog brand is the most commonly used tonkatsu Sauce.

Otafuku company and bull dog make the best okonomiyaki sauce. Even though it is a slightly different consistency, Bulldog brand tonkatsu sauce can be used as a replacement for okonomiyaki sauce.

Thai


Fish Sauce: Good quality fish sauce won't taste "fishy". Golden Boy Brand is one of Kasma Loha-unchit's recommended brands. (Kasma Loha-unchit's recommended brands are listed on her website. SheSimmers.com's recommendations are here). Healthy Boy fish sauce is less salty than other brands, so most likely you'll need more fish sauce if you use this brand (season it to taste).


Holy Basil (sometimes called "hot basil" in Thai markets): It has a very different flavor from regular basil. It is spicy and not sweet (Kasma has more information here). There are both green and purple versions of holy basil. Its leaves are slightly hairy and it has serrated edges. You're more likely to find it at Southeast Asian grocery stores or Southeast Asian farmer's market booths. It should keep for a week if you wrap it in a paper towel to absorb moisture and store it in a closed container or closed plastic bag. Do not wash the leaves; Kasma says that plants with hairy leaves from tropical places tend to wilt if they get wet.



Kaffir Lime:


Nam prik pao (น้ำพริกเผา): a type of Thai roasted chili relish, (see here and here for more information on nam prik pao, and here for general information about how Thai relishes are eaten) for a long time.

It can be confusing to buy this ingredient, since it  is usually marked ambiguously in English--it is often labeled simply as "chili paste in soya bean oil", so this is hard to distinguish since are many types of chili pastes. Look for the Thai word for nam prik pao on the jar,  น้ำพริกเผา (see SheSimmers.com's post about nam prik pao). Also you may be able to identify this 1) using the picture on the jar (it may show raw vegetables, which are often eaten with this) 2) the ingredients should include red chili and dried shrimp 3) the directions may say it can be used for fried rice and as a "bread spread" (one common use of nam prik pao is eating it on toast, though there are many other uses).

The consistency is very jam like--I've heard it described as roasted chili jam and this makes sense once you taste it. It has a sweet savory umami flavor, much like plum sauce does in Chinese cooking. The sour comes from the tamarind in the nam prik pao. Kasma has some buying suggestions here (choose one with no msg, if possible). You can also make your own from scratch (see here and here).

Sometimes nam prik pao is covered in soy bean oil. If so, discard the soy bean oil at the top of the jar; the soy bean oil covering isn't necessary to preserve it and soy bean oil is a lower quality oil.

Nam prik pao is addictive (at least to me). The shrimp paste gives it a lot of umami.

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Thai basil



Thai sticky rice

Thai sticky rice is regularly eaten plain along side main dishes in northern Thailand and used all over Thailand in desserts (e.g. Coconut Sticky Rice with Mango). When eaten with a meal, some bites of this rice are often grabbed with the fingers and combined with a small piece of a non-saucy main dish (e.g. larb), fresh crisp side vegetables (cucumber, lettuce, etc), or chili relish--though you can use utensils if you want. It should be eaten with dishes that are solid and not very saucy; it shouldn't be used to soak up sauces (so for example, it does not go with curry). Kasma Loha-unchit has more information on this type of rice here.

This type of rice is called sticky rice, glutenous rice, or sweet rice. There are numerous cultivars of glutinous rice (including japonica, indica, and tropical japonica strains, see wikipedia) and the other types of sticky rice cannot be used as a replacement (e.g. Chinese glutenous / sweet rice is something different) so in order to ensure that you are buying the correct type of rice, make sure your sticky rice was grown in Thailand or Laos. If your package has Thai on it, you can also look for the Thai for word for this type of sticky rice, ข้าวเหนียว (SheSimmers.com has more information on sticky rice and lists how sticky rice is spelled in a few different languages). Currently, I use the Three Ladies brand (pictured to the right) because it is easy to find in my area; Kasma Loha-unchit also recommends this brand (see her recommendations for brands). Unlike non-glutinous rice which is slightly translucent when raw and opaque when cooked, milled glutinous rice is white and fully opaque when raw and slightly translucent when cooked. Purple glutinous rice is also available; it is unmilled and its bran has a purple or black color; it is a different strain than white glutinous rice so it is not simply unmilled white glutinous rice.

Thai sticky rice uses a different cooking technique than other types of rices; it is soaked and then steamed without allowing any water to touch it. See here for the recipe.

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