Okay, here we go! My first attempt to provide you some guidance for cooking freestyle — whether that means making a recipe your own, or inventing something new. When I talked about this last time, several people commented that they would like to learn more about cooking ethnic cuisines. We make a lot of stir-fry in our house, because it’s a good way to eat veggies without feeling like you’re eating health food. Also, it’s really tasty. An important part of a good stir-fry (and many other Asian dishes) is the sauce. If you’ve never cooked Asian food, the ingredient list can be a little intimidating — and actually tracking down the ingredients seems impossible! But I am here to tell you, it is not.
(Okay, perhaps if you live in a isolated, not-ethnically-diverse small town, like my hometown in northwest Missouri, it might be difficult. But not impossible. Just add a stop to your next shopping trip to the closest big city.)
Take this shopping list to your nearest Asian market and buy everything on it. (Get the large bottle of soy sauce. You’ll use it.) They will be way, way cheaper than at the mainstream grocery store, and properly stored (several of these need to be refrigerated) they will last almost indefinitely! Most of the “weird” ingredients are repeated in differing proportions in all kinds of Asian dishes. You will probably spend $30 on sauces and be able to make the equivalent of $300+ worth of Chinese/Thai/Japanese take-out with them.
- Soy sauce
- Hoisin sauce (or as we call it with my 3 year old, “Chinese ketchup.” Chinese BBQ sauce is probably more accurate, but it’s all about marketing.)
- Sriracha sauce
- Sambal Oleck (chili paste)
- Fish sauce
- Sesame seed oil
- Mirin (or, as its described on the packaging, “sweet cooking rice seasoning”)
- Rice wine vinegar
Also useful to have on hand: Fresh ginger, fresh garlic, and lime juice
Disclaimer – I am not an expert on Asian cuisine. But here are combos of the above ingredients that I’ve found to roughly approximate the flavors from various Asian restaurants I enjoy. Soy sauce is the main ingredient in all of these, with the other ingredients added in small amounts for flavoring. Shoot for roughly 1/2 c. soy sauce and a dash, splash, or up to a tablespoon of everything else. Go easy on the spicy stuff if you’re not used to it! You can always add some sriracha to the finished dish if you want it spicier. Ditto with hoisin to make it sweeter (or to cut the spiciness if you went a little overboard.)
Japanese (teriyaki): Soy + sesame oil + mirin + garlic + ginger + honey or brown sugar
Thai: Soy + chicken stock (equal amount to soy sauce) + lime sauce + fish sauce + garlic + sriracha. Top finished dish with chopped peanuts or cashews.
Chinese: Soy + rice wine vinegar + garlic + ginger + chili paste for spicy sauce or hoisin sauce for sweet sauce (or go crazy and add both!)
Don’t be scared to taste as you go – soy sauce is really salty, so be prepared to add extra vinegar, sweet, spicy, or citrus to balance it out. I usually mix up a smaller amount of sauce than I think I’ll need, then add a little bit of this or that until I get a sauce that tastes good to me. Don’t be afraid to experiment — this week I made peanut noodles as a side dish, which sounds way fancier than it really is, which was combining peanut butter, soy sauce and garlic and putting it over whole wheat spaghetti noodles and steamed broccoli.
Do you ever make up your own sauces, or are you strict recipe follower or a bottled-sauce devotee?
Welcome to my Cooking School series, which is designed to share what I’ve learned as an experienced home cook with people who want to learn how to cook healthy, homemade food. If you have a topic you’d like me to address, please leave a comment! I try to post a new Cooking School installment on Thursdays.